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HomemilensesFinding the Niche Australia’s Independent Lens Labs

Finding the Niche Australia’s Independent Lens Labs

The global optical lens market – including microscopy, contact lens, laser processing, and binocular imaging, among other functions – was estimated to be worth a massive US$12,390 million in 2021 and is forecast to reach US$20,380 million by 2028.

Within this market, a small number of Australian lens laboratories have created sustainable businesses by carving out niche segments and focusing on providing customers with expert advice and personalised service.

When you talk to Australian lens lab owners, there’s a common thread that runs through the conversations. They’re all passionate about what they’re doing, fascinated by the challenges that come with designing and engineering niche lenses, and unconcerned about the global players knocking on the doors of their customers’ businesses.

We don’t try to compete with the big guys, we’ve taken a different approach

CR Surfacing (left and above).

“We don’t try to compete with the big guys, we’ve taken a different approach. Our business isn’t based on street wear,” explained Trent McInerney from RX Safety. “Instead we search for the niches and it really works. We’ve been established since 1994 and we have a solid, reliable business specialising in some really interesting optical lenses.”

Similarly, Gelflex, which designs and manufactures contact lenses, has built its business by differentiating itself. “We make very good lenses and we differentiate ourselves by the exceptional service we offer,” said Graham Lehman, Specialty Lens Division Manager at Gelflex.“

We try to do the things others won’t or can’t do. More complex designs – weird stuff – practitioners come to us and we’ll try to design something to help their patients.”

Adam Fletcher, Managing Director at CR Surfacing, said a passionate team and being small enough to maintain a flexible approach to manufacturing has been critical to his company’s success. “For us, it’s all about being small and nimble, with the least amount of overhead, to quickly implement new strategies and adapt to customer needs. My father established the lab in 1976 and in 2006, we made a decision to automate as many processes as we could; these days, we have the latest equipment from the global market, ensuring the highest level of precision with each lens. I believe that having done this, we have reduced human error to the minimum, and freed up time for staff development and training. Many of the staff we have, have been with us for 10, 15 or even 30 years, so they’re constantly adjusting to and learning innovations. They are like family,” he said.

The Gelflex lens lab (above and below).

CR Surfacing “almost exclusively” uses Schneider equipment.

“It’s renowned to be the world’s best. However, as an independent lab we are not contractually obliged to any suppliers so we can source from different companies if we believe their product will deliver a better result. It’s all about being flexible,” Mr Fletcher said.

Opticare is another stalwart of the Australian optical industry. Owned by George Nasser, this company has been around since 1984, a time when independent lens labs had a reasonable share of the market and the global labs were just starting to make their presence felt on Australian shores.

“In the early days, when I was practising as an optometrist in the western suburbs of Sydney, I’d have a lot of unemployed people and single mothers coming in needing glasses. I’d have to examine their eyes then send them, with their prescriptions, to OPSM which, for 23 years had exclusively held the government contract to supply glasses through family community support.”

“It was disheartening to see my patients walk out the door to be looked after by a third party, so I formed my own lab and created a group of 108 independent optometrists to tender for the contract when it next came up.”

Once they’d secured the contract, Mr Nasser focussed on growing his lab by supplying the practices he’d tendered with.

Besides being local and offering premium products, we’re also hitting a chord with our focus on sustainable sourcing, manufacturing, and supply

“The practices cared for the patients, I supplied high quality lenses at a viable cost, and slowly some started to send me their private business as well. That’s how we started,” he explained. “My primary concern was, and remains, to ensure practices’ patients are given the best possible product and service to meet their needs.”

While the majority of Opticare’s work today is the manufacture of premium lenses, Mr Nasser says he has built his customer base by being willing and able to advise, design and produce technically challenging – yet affordable – spectacle lenses that fall outside regular prescription ranges.

He has also invested heavily in technology.

“About seven years ago we invested AU$3 million in German freeform technology to design our freeform progressive lenses, as well as lens analysis technology that enables us to digitally map a patient’s existing lenses so we can create something even better for them. We’ve also fully robotised our processes,” he explained.

Yet despite this investment in state-of-theart technology, he said it remains difficult to convince practices to try his product.

“They just stick with the global brands that have big marketing budgets, and of course we don’t have the marketing clout to go out there and make a bigger noise than them. But we’re growing by providing our customers with personal service, expertise and an excellent product – often a practice will come to us with an unusual problem and by the time we’ve solved the issue they are asking us to fill their regular lens orders as well. As an optometrist and lens designer, I understand patients’ needs and the product – our customers really appreciate that.”

George Nasser, CEO of Opticare.

BUY LOCAL, A GROWING TREND

Although marketing budgets are a challenge for all independent labs, it seems the pandemic has helped generate local awareness and support for their businesses.

In fact, at CR Surfacing, Mr Fletcher says he has noticed significant growth in local demand since the beginning of the pandemic. “I think we’ve all become more used to buying local – whether it’s groceries from the local IGA or Australian made products in a retail store. Whereas pre- COVID, I’d estimate ‘buying Australian’ contributed about 10% to a buying decision, today it seems more like 80%.”

Taking advantage of the ‘buy local’ sentiment, CR Surfacing recently launched a new progressive lens called Australis, which will expand to a range of lens designs specifically developed for the unique lifestyle of Australians. In the second quarter of this year, CR Surfacing will launch Grouse; a photochromic coating that can be applied to any lens, and is designed to conquer the harsh Australian conditions and the extreme levels of UV exposure unique to our country.

The company has also invested in television commercials, running regionally and in metro areas, that promote buying local.

“Besides being local and offering premium products, we’re also hitting a chord with our focus on sustainable sourcing, manufacturing, and supply. We reuse and recycle as much as we can. Lens labs typically use a high volume of water but by implementing water saving strategies, we’re saving half a million litres of water a year. We’re also disposing of waste in an environmentally safe way. Our administration is now completely paperless, and we are moving toward digital advertising as much as possible. Our eco-friendly EVA plastic packaging breaks down quickly once wet, and all Australis lenses are dispatched in a cloth bag that we ask customers to return to us to be washed, pressed and re-used.” Additionally, Mr Fletcher said his company only partners with suppliers that share the same values when it comes to sustainability.

“Our customers appreciate the high quality of our products that are manufactured in Australia, our ethical sourcing, and the implementation of sustainable practices. Overall, we have a great story to tell.”

Optometrists often come to us with unusual requests, or I see an opportunity and decide to create something new

SMALL FISH, BIG POND

Rather than relying on the local market to support its growth, Gelflex has developed a strong global business, manufacturing and distributing disposable contact lenses to customers in over 35 countries, including the United States, Russia, and Indonesia.

The team at RX Safety.

“We’re Australia’s best kept export secret – we have four automated disposable lens production lines with a new one due for delivery in February that will add 45% to our capacity. We are producing millions of daily and monthly disposable contact lenses that head overseas, some of them packaged and labeled with our customers’ brands,” said Mr Lehman.

To cater for growth, the Perth-based company recently invested around AU$750,000 in a new lathe with an auto loading system that will deliver greater efficiencies. With a highly experienced team, this investment will allow Gelflex to continue its global expansion led by new and exciting product innovation. The United States market will be the first focus.

Despite the investment in technology, and it’s burgeoning export business, the majority of Gelflex’s work involves designing and custom making contact lenses for orthokeratology, keratoconus and surgical grafts.

“We also do a lot of standard designs, like rigid gas permeable lenses, which our customers like because they offer better vision and ocular health than disposable lenses,” Mr Lehman explained.

While Gelflex’s mass produced soft lenses are European Conformity (CE) and Food and United States Drug Administration (FDA) approved, the company is currently working towards CE Certification for its custom-made lenses. This will also support changes in the way Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) views custom made devices.

“It’s an extremely costly and laborious process but international certification is soon to be a legal requirement to demonstrate controlled production processes, traceability, quality and extensive testing for safety and performance. It’s an investment in our business and in outcomes for our customers,” Mr Lehman said.

Being licenced to manufacture prescription safety spectacles to Australian Standards certification has been integral to the success of RX Safety.

“We were the first Australian lab to be certified for prescription safety eyewear back in 2007 and that became very important to our business. However, there are a number of safety eyewear suppliers in the market now, so to maintain our growth path we’ve evolved our businesses into several more niche areas,” said Mr McInerney.

RX Safety is one of few companies worldwide to specialise in scripting dive masks. The company also designs and manufactures speciality glass lenses including leaded glass lenses for radiographers, optical lenses for the defence force and lenses that create contrasts, enabling people who are colour blind to identify characters, shapes and drawings etc. they would not otherwise be able to see.

With a background in research and development, and mass lens casting, and having productionised several innovative coatings and lenses for the then Sola Optical, Mr McInerney said he feels privileged to have created a career for himself that challenges him every day and maintains his interest.

“One of the more interesting projects I was tasked with recently was to create 3D spectacles for inflight air refuelling officers in the Royal Australian Air Force. We designed cross polarised lenses that enabled them to see the nozzle that goes from the tanker into the jet fighter.

“Optometrists often come to us with unusual requests, or I see an opportunity and decide to create something new. About three out of every ten ideas actually commercially work, but we treat them all seriously.”

When it comes to spectacles and sunglasses, the Rx team is regularly asked to supply lenses that fall well outside the typical prescription range; for example, a script of -28 or lenses with 15 dioptres of prism.

“Our team works closely with optometrists to advise them and ultimately achieve the best outcomes for their patients. We’re known for our personalised service and expertise – as a small company (there are just 11 in the team) this is something we can do. If we were to allow ourselves to get much bigger I think we’d lose that personalised edge and the nature of our business would be changed forever.”

Reference 

1. www.verifiedmarketresearch.com/downloadsample/? rid=37830