LAS VEGAS—Owners and executives from both large and small labs, addressed concerns, opportunities and the effects of emerging technology at The Modern Lab – Propelling Optical’s Smart Lab Era, hosted by Vision Monday and Lab Talk.

The program, based on VM’s Modern Lab editorial series, was kicked off by Andrew Karp, Jobson’s lens and technology editor. He began with an overview of recent trends that are reshaping “the labscape.”

“The consolidation wave of the past two decades is over, and we see a new wave of start-ups,” said Karp. He said new players, notably midsize and small labs, have taken advantage of free-form technology to reduce lens inventories and are benefitting from high levels of automation that previously were too expensive or too big to get into those labs.

Karp pointed to another recent technology-driven change: the advent of smart manufacturing systems. “Labs are able to use data in a much more useful and intelligent way than ever before, and are able to make sense of that data and implement it in ways that are driving productivity and improvements in service,” he said.

Service is a key differentiator in today’s consumer driven market, and Karp noted that “the Amazon effect is shaping the entire experience for suppliers of all kinds. Consumers want things when they want them, where they want them, how they want them, and that is affecting how eyewear is being delivered through the retail channel, through the ECP, and by extension, through the lab.”

He then presented the results of an exclusive new lab survey conducted by Jobson Research and The Vision Council’s Lab Division. Overall, respondents viewed their greatest strengths as the ability to maintain a loyal customer base and provide same-day or next-day service.

Kurt Atchison, president of Schneider Optical Machines, the event’s Platinum Sponsor, discussed the pressure on labs created by consumer and ECP expectations for faster turnaround (the “Amazon Effect,”) and the effects of a tight labor market for lab roles that increasingly require technological know-how.

A panel discussion followed, featuring Swen Carlson, vice president of operations for VSP Optics and chair of The Vision Council’s Lab Division; Keith Grossman, co-owner of Simplify Optics; Scott Pearl, managing director of ABB Optical Group’s Digital Eye Lab Network; and Bryan Schueler, vice president and general manager of Walman’s ophthalmic lab division.

Commenting on the impact of smart manufacturing systems in labs, Carlson pointed out that “the systems are smart enough to monitor the equipment,” but wondered “what are the decisions that need to be made? In the past, we’ve paid leaders to do that. These systems are smart enough that, with some form of AI, they ought to be able to do more decision making for us.” Grossman said smart systems help lab managers by “knowing when it’s time to proactively change something.”

Pearl said that although modern labs have access to a lot of data, the question is, “How do we make it actual? What is the user interface for our people? What do we train for?”

Several panelists commented on the need for “open-platform” information systems that fuse data from multiple systems and provide it in a coherent way to lab managers and staff.

Schueler spoke about the challenge of producing personalized lenses using a mass manufacturing approach. “It’s always easier in automation to do the tasks where you’re going to do thousands of them. But we’re not going to do thousands of one frame. That’s one place where the modern lab can come into play… how do you automate out this wide variability?”

The panelists agreed that even in highly automated labs with employees who have computer and engineering skills, certain jobs still require hand work. “You still have to have people that can work with their hands, and are artists,” Grossman asserted. “A good tinting person is an artist, not an IT person.”

The Platinum sponsors of the event and the cocktail reception that followed was Schneider Optical Machines. The Ultra sponsor was DVI. Coburn Technologies, Filtertech and Ultra Optics were Premium sponsors.