ST. CLOUD, Minn.—Eye-Kraft has built a reputation around service and independence. As a result, the St. Cloud, Minnesota-based optical lab has seen a steady growth in business since it first opened 65 years ago. The lab has undergone several expansions over the past decade, installing their first AR coating facility in 2015. Nearly 10 years later, the lab has seen such an increase in demand that they have once again had to expand their coating facility to accommodate a growing customer base.

(L to R) Members of the Eye-Kraft coating team included, Back Row: Alvin Kennedy, Robert Hillmer, Kendall Brown; Middle Row: Melissa Long, Judy Dockendorf, Jennifer Ashbaugh, Sarah Erickson, and Francis ThunderHawk; Front Row: John Tuman and Cathy Mayer.

“Customers have come to us looking for more personal service, value and flexible capability as the manufacturing space continues to consolidate and vertically integrate,” said Eye-Kraft president Jason Sharpe. “Our coating function has actually driven much of this growth. In 2013 Eye-Kraft outsourced all AR coatings with no in house capabilities. We installed our first unit in 2015 and honestly, I didn’t anticipate the demand and incremental business that just having the machine would produce.”

Sharpe said the lab quickly reached capacity with the addition of the coating facility and had to upgrade to a larger unit within two years. By 2021, the pandemic had once again pushed them to capacity, and they had run out of room in their machine and clean room.

“So we built a huge new facility inside the lab, added another, larger box coater to the mix, and left room for two more as we continue to grow,” he said.

To help meet demand, Sharpe spent a significant amount of time determining how best to serve Eye-Kraft Optical customers over the long term. This began with the addition of an OptoTech OAC-25.

“I was nervous about not having enough volume to keep it running, and it only did a handful of jobs a run. The OAC 75 doubled our capacity, and the OAC 90, our most recent addition, runs in tandem with the 75 and doubled us again plus 30 percent,” Shape said. He added that his team worked closely with OptoTech out of their Germantown, Wisconsin facility to ensure that all their processing needs were met.

“Jeff Grumbling, Laura Campbell and their entire team there have really helped us build and grow this program from the ground up for nearly a decade now. Their service and responsiveness are excellent, and they treat us like a strategic customer, even though we’re a mid-sized lab at best,” he said. “We couldn’t be happier with the decision to work with them, and we’re now installing a brand-new dip coating line with them to further enhance our service capabilities.”

Sharpe reflected on how the lab went from doing 25 lenses per run on a single shift to two machines doing 150 lenses per run across three shifts, adding that though there were some growing pains, his staff was quick to adapt to the new technology and the results are in the numbers.

He said, “We’ve had growing pains, just like any new process, and AR is incredibly complex, so we’ve had a few bumps in the road. With well-trained staff and solid operating procedures, our current process is relatively error free. The biggest drawback to vacuum deposition AR has always been that it’s batched, and when there’s an issue it usually affects a large amount of product. Thankfully, this is a rare occurrence now.”

Eye-Kraft coating technicians at work in their new facility.

Sharpe believes the success of the expansion comes down to the support of his team, who helped make the change a smooth transition for those in-house as well as customers.

“My coatings manager, Melissa Long, started out with us as a temporary hire working on our finishing line. [Long was honored by Vision Monday as a Rising Star among its Most Influential Women in Optical in 2021.] When we first installed our little clean room and AR machine, I promoted her to run the department, and she took the project head on and really mastered the process with the help of our vendors and industry network,” he said, adding that she went from managing that area by herself to running a team of 11 crew members over three shifts.

“My maintenance crew has also been incredible in their growth. Bill Koltes and his team really stepped up and took on maintaining some of the most complex equipment in ophthalmic manufacturing with little experience or training. Gary Gorecki, my operations vice president, brings it all together and orchestrates the organized chaos that is daily manufacturing at Eye-Kraft.”

Sharpe said the expansion has resulted in the entire lab growing their skills and capabilities.

“It’s so much fun to watch them. I’m incredibly proud of my team,” he said, adding he is looking forward to working with them as the lab continues its expansion journey.

Later this year, Eye-Kraft will be installing a new dip coating line. They will also be adding several new anti-reflective and anti-scratch coatings to their product portfolio.

“I learned my lesson about scalability from our first build out, and our new room has bays for two additional box coaters as we continue to grow our customer base. We’re establishing a custom coatings function for non-coating surfacing labs as well, and this will drive increased volume and growth in the lab-to-lab business,” he said.

Sharpe believes this recent expansion has allowed him to remain competitive and provide the services of a multinational lab without having to send work overseas. As a result, he has been able to keep jobs in America and continue to grow his workforce.

“I think most multi-nationals and large corporate lab systems have consolidated coatings production, and many send a large portion of their surfacing and coatings work to Mexico, Thailand and China. Although, I think this trend is moving more on shore now that the savings in labor costs overseas has diminished and the pain of international distribution of products has become tiresome,” he said.

“Having my equipment here reduces lead times for customers, gives me control over product flow, lets me be flexible in product offering, and keeps Americans employed in a U.S. family-owned business. This resonates with my customers, who want their work to be local and to support local U.S. businesses.”

The Eye-Kraft journey continues with the addition of the new coating lab. However, Sharpe said they are far from finished with their expansion. The goal of being a full-service lab means providing customers with local manufacturing paired with service that is easy to navigate.

“Eye-Kraft is such a different place that it was 10 years ago, and our AR installation and expansion has been a huge part of that,” he said. “Being a true full-service lab, not reliant on outsourcing or offshoring, is a big draw for ECP customers looking for a true independent lab with full-service capabilities. The only thing I would have done differently is gone big at the very beginning; we outgrew our first try almost as soon as the paint was dry,” Sharpe concluded.