Digital Surfacing - Is It Time to Take the Leap?

By Julie Bos
By now, you’ve heard about the benefits of digital surfacing — an innovative new way to help your lab reduce inventory, streamline production and boost your bottom line. In fact, many labs praise it as the “wave of the future” and are already jumping on board.

Others, however, have some hesitation — particularly because of the shaky economy and the equipment’s hefty price tag.

Just how can you decide if digital surfacing is right for your lab? Or more specifically, if now is the right time to take the leap?

If you’re confused about digital surfacing, these questions and answers may shed some light on the topic and steer you toward the wisest decision.

What are the benefits of digital processing?

Simply stated, digital surfacing (also known as “freeform” processing and “all-format processing”) gives you the ability to create. Labs are no longer limited to fitting only the styles available from a catalog. They no longer have to stock hundreds of blanks for every lens style offered.

Digital surfacing technology allows labs to produce higher quality lenses with less spoilage and lower labor costs, as well as gain entry into the growing market for more complex surfaces, such as back side progressives, atoric single vision, and other patient-optimized lens designs.

But perhaps the most compelling benefit is the ability to position your lab for the future. In the U.S., digital surfacing is just beginning to grow. As the public becomes more informed about the benefits of personalized lenses, the market demand will begin forcing labs to produce these types of lenses. Plus, as more laboratories understand the long-term benefits of producing digitally surfaced lenses in-house, traditional progressives may soon be replaced with this technology altogether.

Isn’t digital processing equipment expensive?

Yes, the equipment is fairly pricey. Low-end manual generators and polishers start at about $250,000 and automated models can cost as much as a million dollars.

However, the costs are definitely coming down. Today’s machinery is faster and more reliable; processes are more stable; and consumables are much less expensive than they used to be. This all brings the processing cost-per-lens down, which is continuing to attract positive attention.

Although the U.S. market for digitally surfaced lenses is poised for tremendous growth, it’s still relatively small. Adopting new technology and processes often represents a substantial investment, and that investment must make an immediate positive impact on your lab’s bottom line in order to make sense.

For the average wholesale lab, an investment in digital surfacing approaches the scale of adding AR processing. But like AR, this investment represents the opportunity to bring the profits and control of the finished product in-house.

Can a lab use a digital surfacing generator to make traditional lenses? What would be the advantage of doing so?

Yes, today’s digital surfacing machines can make any type of lens. The advantage is going direct to polish without hard laps, which increases prescription accuracy. Curves are rounded to 0.01 diopter increments, rather then to the nearest lap.

The real goal for labs is elimination of hard lap tools and labor — a goal that is realized with digital generators. Instead of needing thousands of heavy aluminum lap tools, you can now use merely three reusable soft tools. It’s cheaper and simpler than ever.

What is the return on investment (ROI) for digital surfacing equipment?

The ROI for this type of investment can vary greatly, depending on the cost of the equipment, volume of lenses processed, amount of new business generated by entry into new markets and market conditions for the premium products offered. Typically, however, optical labs can expect a payback time of 18 to 24 months, although some labs have seen a full ROI in as little as 10 months. [See sidebar.]

Remember, digital surfacing capability pays dividends in several ways: reduced inventories, consumable supply usage, higher wearer satisfaction and loyalty, as well as increased profit margins.

When is the right time to invest?

Many believe that time is now. The technology is already proven — and yet still young — so your lab could have a great opportunity to poise itself for immediate growth.

In fact, some say the availability of digital surfacing technology should cause labs to think twice before purchasing any piece of new, conventional equipment — stating that the older technology is soon to be (if not already) outdated.

Despite these opinions, there are several factors that could guide your purchase decision. You may be ready for digital surfacing today if your lab:

•Needs to improve yields and/or lower labor costs •Wants to automate the surfacing process and create a high-quality lens •Has an immediate need for new capacity or equipment replacement •Already farms out 30 to 40 pairs of newer, more complex lens designs per day

What are the biggest objections to investing in digital surfacing?

Not surprisingly, the number one objection is cost. This is a much larger investment then most labs are used to—and many balk at paying royalties and click fees. However, this argument is easily countered with a thorough explanation of the cost justification, profit margins and associated rewards, including higher quality, lower labor and elimination of hard lap tools.

Others aren’t truly convinced that the technology really works. However, this suspicion is countered by the dozens of labs already using this technology with great success — and their track records of expertly processed lenses every day.

Lastly, some labs are simply afraid. Adopting a new technology is not just about buying a new machine and plugging it in. Adding automation, adopting new processes — even incorporating a new job tray — represents a whole new way of making lenses. It’s a total culture change. That’s why it’s important to partner with a vendor that not only offers machines, but one that also offers training, related solutions and the commitment to help you make a successful transition.

With the market for digitally surfaced lenses so small (less than 3%), does it make sense to invest in freeform generators?

There are plenty of reasons to explore the world of digital processing; but only you can decide if making the switch is right for your lab.

As you weigh all the facts, consider one more: Someone will be turning 50 every seven seconds for the next 15 years — which creates a big need for progressive lenses. This is the one area of the optical industry that is most certain to continue to grow, and digital surfacing already promises to be a major solution.

Just consider previous growth curves (e.g., polycarbonate, AR) and you’ll have some insight to future expectations. If current indications with digital surfacing are correct, the industry stands on the brink of a steady and fairly steep incline.


Let’s Talk ROI – You Do the Math

Are you curious about how quickly you can recoup your capital investment of digital processing equipment in just 18 months? This hypothetical example from Satisloh helps explain the equation:

For approximately $290,000, you can acquire a manual generator and manual polisher from Satisloh. This will enable you to create back-side progressive lenses using digital surfacing.

From a cost-per-lens production standpoint, it costs about the same to produce the lens digitally as it does to buy a premium pair of progressive lenses the way they’re made now. But now you’ve got a pair of lenses you can sell anywhere from $50 and $100 more per pair. So the production cost remains the same yet the selling price goes way up.

Scenario #1:

20 Backside Progressives Per Day, 18-Month ROI

So if you create 20 backside progressives per day, times approximately $75 additional dollars per job, times 260 working days a year — you’ll increase your annual revenue by $390,000 per year. Assuming your lab is achieving a 50 percent gross margin, you’ll receive $195,000 annually — and payback for your initial $290,000 investment in about 18 months.

Scenario #2:

50 Backside Progressives Per Day, 8-Month ROI

Using the same assumptions, if you increase your production to 50 pairs per day, the picture gets even sweeter. In this scenario, you’d create an additional $975,000 in annual revenue, and a net profit of $487,500. That means an 8-month payback and after your initial investment is returned; your lab will be adding an extra $40,000 per month to the bottom line. If you’re interested in examining the exact numbers for your individual workload, we recommend working directly with an equipment manufacturer.


Seeing Real Benefits

One Lab’s Success

For Perfect Optics in Vista, Calif., using digital surfacing equipment just makes good business sense. In fact, this laboratory’s entire business is built around digital surfacing technology.

The lab, established in 2006, uses two automated VFT-Ultra generators and two AutoFlex polishers from Satisloh.

“The reason we chose freeform generators was because we believed this technology was the wave of the future — the very near future. So when we opened our lab, we decided to put in the very best technology available today,” said Adam Winkelman, director of sales and marketing. “We’ve had the systems since the beginning, and even before we were doing freeform lenses, we were using the systems to process other jobs.”

Today, the lab generates 95 percent of its jobs on its VFT-Ultras. From there, freeform lenses proceed to the AutoFlex polisher and standard lenses are polished and fined through the traditional method. About 40 percent of Perfect Optics’ jobs are progressives and of those, about 45 percent are of freeform— meaning that about 18 percent of the lab’s total business is being generated by demands for freeform lenses.

“We’ve learned that if you produce the lenses right and market the technology correctly, it can become the mainstay of your business,” added Winkelman. “People are very interested in the freeform story — so it’s fairly easy to market. Our salespeople basically go in and teach opticians how lenses are traditionally made, so they can better understand advantages of digital processing — and once they get it, it’s a no-brainer. Once they embrace the concept of freeform lenses, it often becomes a staple in their business.”

Perfect Optics also markets to other laboratories — offering to process their freeform lenses until their volume can justify a purchase of their own.

“Most importantly, freeform has been a great way for us to grow our business and differentiate ourselves in the marketplace,” said Winkelman. “We’ve gotten a lot of business that we never would have if it hadn’t been for freeform — so for us, the justification goes far beyond a simple pencil-sell equation. Once you factor in the potential for business growth, it makes perfect business sense.”


Looking Into Freeform Generators

Here’s What’s Available Today

DAC International

DAC International was first to market with a commercially viable digital generating system. This generator produces a surface so smooth, only a slight polish is necessary to bring out the luster of the surface. The system is priced at a point where a small-to-medium-sized lab could afford to do digital surfacing. Plus, with the DAC Specialty Lens Menu and Point-of-Sale Specialty Lens Designer software, labs can produce unique optical solutions, building customer and brand loyalty.

Schneider Optical Machines

At this year’s OLA, Schneider unveiled the Master 08, an improved version of the most productive, reliable digital generator in the industry. The company also introduced the CCP Swift polisher, a manual version of the industry-standard CCP polishing group that has the same mechanics as its automated version but in a low-cost, productive model.

Gerber Coburn

The new DTL200 was launched in February, offering customers the ability to not only produce high-speed, cut-to-polish lenses, but digital lenses all within the same generator. A new addition to the DTL series is the optional high-speed crib-to-oval axis, which allows lenses to be shaped in a non-circular fashion.


VFT-orbit combines the proven core components from the VFT-ultra series with a radical new approach to moving the various axes of lens and tools. Known as Circumvolution Technology, the various work stations for tools, lens loading, and auto-calibration are arranged in an orbital shape around a central rotating lens axis. This arrangement enables the system to increase throughput while maintaining the form accuracy and surface quality that are the hallmarks of the entire VFT series of generators.


OptoTech offers a multitude of different capacity equipment for different sized labs. Its newest generator, the ASM 60, was developed together with a smaller flex tool polisher called Torilab-X1-Plus. This concept was developed to make it easier and less costly for smaller labs to upgrade to a digitally capable, cut-to-polish line. The line uses the same proven pads and process as the larger, higher- capacity machines.


Labtalk June 2020