For the team at LBC Optics, every morning starts with a daunting sight. Hundreds of frames for eyeglasses ordered at Wisconsin Vision stores are spread out on the front counter. They need to be sorted in to trays, matched with a barcode and sent into the lab for processing.
Before the end of the day, orders from Illinois and Indiana will also arrive at the New Berlin facility, which processes 400 pairs of glasses each day.
With shipping and centralized production at a 20,000-square-foot New Berlin facility, Wisconsin Vision and LBC are able to turn around a pair of glasses in an average of three days. While it isn’t the one-hour timeframe some larger national competitors offer, the approach does have its advantages.
“To place all that lens inventory in every location, and then to have the equipment and the staffing at every location, is very expensive,” said Darren Horndasch, president and chief executive officer of Wisconsin Vision. “We’ve centralized it here to create economies of scale and still have a three-day turnaround time.”
Fabricating each lens from raw material to a finished product also allows for greater precision, a particularly important feature for the 70 percent of the market that wears multifocal lenses.
“What that means is they have to buy a huge inventory to cover all those prescriptions, whereas we can take one piece of plastic and make all those prescriptions,” said Andy George, president of LBC Optics, which was founded in 1988 and operates as a subsidiary of Wisconsin Vision Inc.
George and his brother Paul started Wisconsin Vision in 1978 and both are still owners of the company, which has 225 employees in three states. There are 23 stores in Wisconsin operating under the Wisconsin Vision brand and six stores in Indiana that do business as Heartland Vision. A separate ownership group that includes Wisconsin Vision owns eight Eye Boutique stores in Illinois.
The company uses a courier for Wisconsin locations and overnights Illinois and Indiana orders through UPS.
At the start of the manufacturing process, the orders are sorted and frames are traced and measured to within a hundredth of a millimeter.
A diamond-tipped cutter is used to cut the prescription into the plastic lens and aluminum oxide gives a quick polish. The logo of the lens designer is etched in and standard coating is applied. From there, a lens could be cut to fit the frame, but many are sent for an additional anti-reflective coating.
The second coating slows the process, taking about an hour and 15 minutes per 20 pairs. The lenses are put in a vacuum chamber and quartz glass is vaporized using a localized heat source that reaches 5000 degrees Fahrenheit. When the vapor is released, it clings to the first thing it touches, whether that is the lenses or metal in the chamber.
Not only is the process time intensive, it also requires a lot of maintenance. All the metal pieces in the chamber have to be removed every other day and sand blasted to clean them.
LBC is investing in adding a second chamber, increasing its capacity for applying anti-reflective coatings.
After a quick wash and inspection, the lenses are sent to be cut to fit the frames. They’re then installed and inspected one final time before being sorted for shipping back to the appropriate store.
The process includes some automation, but George said it is nowhere near the level of automation at large labs owned by Walmart.
“I’ve never automated and reduced employment,” George said. “We’ve always automated to increase productivity.”
George has been able to steadily increase employment in recent years as demand has increased and now has 25 employees at the facility.
“I’m just keeping up,” he said.
Even with hundreds of lenses moving through the lab on a daily basis, George said mistakes and mix-ups are fairly rare. LBC targets a remake rate of around 7 or 8 percent, while LensCrafters aims for 15 percent, he said.
“You’d be surprised how low it is,” he said.
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