A few months ago I attended a seminar at SLUGfest, a.k.a the Satisloh Users Group meeting. This bi-annual conference, sponsored by lab equipment supplier Satisloh, gathers together optical lab owners and mangers from across the country for several days of workshops and seminars. One of the opening day sessions featured Jim Carroll, a “futurist” who specializes in spotting, analyzing and predicting business trends.

He predicted U.S. optical labs would soon be facing offshore competition, just as manufacturers in other industries do.

Now, only a few months later, Carroll’s remarks seem prescient. A new company, ProFit Optix, has begun outsourcing U.S. prescriptions to European and Asian labs. Billing itself as a “virtual lab” specializing in digital lenses, ProFit says it can turn around an Rx order in a week and do it for about 40 percent less than its bricks and mortar competitors.

Although outsourcing Rx jobs may seem like a new idea, it’s actually been going on for years. For example, until recently, Seiko has been making all of its “internal progressive” lenses in Japan and Rodenstock and Zeiss makes some digitally surfaced lenses in Germany. The surfaced lenses are then imported into the U.S. and distributed through authorized wholesale labs.

It was only a matter of time before a virtual lab, which has considerably less overhead costs than an actual lab, jumped into the game. If this business model proves successful, other virtual labs will probably follow.

It’s too soon to gauge the impact of virtual labs. Some domestic labs will perceive them as a threat. However, labs that do not want to invest in digital surfacing equipment may actually choose to run their digital lens orders through a virtual lab, just as labs without in-house AR capabilities rely on outside coating labs.

No matter how you look at it, the emergence of new forms of competition at the supplier level are a sign of a healthy industry. Most importantly, it gives eyecare professionals access to a broader range of products and services that can help differentiate them to patients.

—Andrew Karp