Inventing the Future

"Inventing the Future" sure rings true for our (contact lens and IOL) industry. There have been hundreds, if not thousands of inventions in the history of the Contact Lens and IOL Industry if one considers the number of patents issued. These patents have occurred in lens materials, lens design, machinery, and processes. While most inventions and related patents do not come to fruition, as I know from personal experience,  the inventions that do, improve the industry and the world's quality of life. This subject of how inventions shape industry is interesting from many points of view. I have been fortunate to see and, on occasion, been directly involved with developments and innovations that have made the CL/IOL industry into a hi-tech endevor. Here, we will discuss a little history and how certain inventions have enhanced the Contact Lens industry.           

My first engineering encounter with the patent process was in 1975, while I was working for a company that produced CL manufacturing equipment. Walter Miller and Jim Elswik of Chandler Lab (Houston Texas, USA) sent three wood boards to us that were nailed together with one nail each so that they could pivot about the nails. This model illustrated the function of two stacked lathe compounds with which to turn two curves for a lenticular lens. Previous to this invention, a lenticular front surface was made by first turning the optic zone radius and then re-setting the radius slide to the carrier radius, and with a loupe, carefully moving the diamond to the diameter of the optic zone and turning the carrier radius. With the wood pieces as a model, we added a compound to the contact lens lathe in our product line and were able to turn a complete front lenticular surface in a continuous swing. We were very excited and placed the machine in our in-house lab. On the first lens there was a problem. Every time the lens was turned to the center thickness, the carrier part of the lens disappeared and the diamond was cutting pitch.  Clearly there was a major problem with the concept. It turns out that as the optic zone compound is brought around to the optic zone diameter, the distance from the tip of the diamond to the second compound pivot decreases. The amount of decrease is dependent on the optic zone radius and optic zone diameter. We worked out the geometry and trigonometry for what was going on and we went ahead and marketed the lathe. It included a phone book size set of look-up tables for the carrier radius correction factor. Remember, this was 1976.After the lathe was on the market, Warner-Lambert, a contact lens company in the eastern part of the US, sent us a letter about the patent they had for a design which matched ours. We carefully read their patent and found no mention of a correction factor that was necessary to operate the machine. Our legal team pointed out that without the correction factor the we had developed, the machine would not perform as claimed. One could assume that they had not built a machine to prove the concept. This oversight opened the door for several lathe companies to develop and produce their own versions and market them. This invention expanded manufacturing capabilities to easily produce front and back surface bi-curve designs and thereby revolutionized the industry. Prior to single-pass turning of a lenticular surface, it took a highly skilled lab technician to cut and polish a lenticular front surface. Once turning lenticular surfaces became common place, there was a need to machine polish the two zones. This need lead to a patent which was awarded for an oscillation mechanism where the operator could adjust the stroke while the machine was running. This allowed the operator to set the stroke to zero, place a 5 mm diameter lap on the optic zone of the lens, start the polisher, and increase the stroke so that the edge of the polishing lap approached the junction between the optic zone and the carrier zone. This may sound trivial with today's sponge tool polishing, but consider that twenty years ago, most polishing was done with molded pitch or wax laps. Precise control of the stroke allowed the optic zone to be machine polished.            

Early at Larsen Equipment Design, the slogan was "Streamline existing technology for better process" catchy right? Well, that soon gave way to the innovative side of the venture resulting in some patent awards. Some did well, some languish to this day. The resulting successful products have changed the industry.           
This brings me to the concept of Disruptive Innovation (DI). I first heard of this in the '90s when many new things were happening in the fields of computers and related technologies. Briefly, Disruptive Innovation is an invention that is unexpected that creates a new market and /or capability displacing a previous technology. This concept is attributed to Clayton M. Christenson. A current example in our industry of DI is scleral lenses. Of course these are not new, but the fact that they can now be mass- produced has changed the industry in ways not expected. They are being prescribed for all kinds of indications. We are seeing scleral lenses displacing even spherical corneal lenses. As processes have developed, scleral lens production has become more mainstream.             

Another example of DI is the bladder polishing system. The bladder polisher enabled labs to efficiently polish free-form surfaces and spheres which led to the purchase of more CNC lathes. This is an example where a peripheral devise increased the purchasing of the main component of a process.       

In contrast to DI  is the concept of sustaining innovation which offers a "me too" entry where survival is the reward. This actually happened from a company that offered a similar polishing system. I have seen a few of these systems in labs, but not in use.         
Finally, a great invention that we make use of  is video conferencing. This technology has proven invaluable for instruction on new machinery in labs around the world. We continuously find new applications for communication and instruction for lab personnel. This technology benefits both the lab and us, and helps foster these relationships.               
I titled this article "Inventing the Future". I mentioned that there are a large number of inventions associated with contact lenses. My goal was to illustrate the creativity in the industry from my perspective, but also to show that the CL/IOL industry is continuing to invent the future. One way to determine the future is to invent it.