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US Ophthalmic Industry Eyes Sustainable Vision as its Future Focus

The outlook for the US ophthalmic sector has a distinctly green tint, according to environmentally minded exhibitors and attendees at the recent Vision Expo West, one of the largest events for North America's many eyecare professionals.

Photo: Eye-tech: Digital innovation sets about optimising all thing ophthalmic.
Eye-tech: Digital innovation sets about optimising all thing ophthalmic.
Photo: Eye-tech: Digital innovation sets about optimising all thing ophthalmic.
Eye-tech: Digital innovation sets about optimising all thing ophthalmic.

Double bar is out, oil sleek mirrors are in, recycled is on fire – in essence, that's about as concise a summary of happenings at the recent Vision Expo West trade event as you are likely to come across. For those with a little more time to spare, however, there is some merit in taking a somewhat more lengthy peramble through the latest eyewear developments highlighted at this annual Las Vegas trade show and conference for ophthalmic professionals.

Although somewhat quieter than last year, the event retained the undeniably positive outlook that characterised its immediate predecessor – a sign that the US eyewear industry remains buoyant with many consumers more than willing to invest both in their health and in statement looks. Indeed, according to research by the Vision Council, the US trade body that represents manufacturers and suppliers in the optical sector and co-owns the show, unit growth in the country's eyewear product sector was up 1.3% last year to about 316.8 million pairs. The report also indicated that growth over the past three years was due to three particular factors – higher unit prices, new users entering the market and several select groups of consumers trading up and buying ever higher-quality – and more pricey – eyewear.

Diving deeper into these market trends, David Friedfeld, President of Clearvision Optical, a New York manufacturer of branded eyewear, set out to illustrate the changing nature of ophthalmic demand during his own well-attended industry seminar. As part of his wide-ranging presentation, he noted both the increasing commoditisation of the sector, with average unit prices declining and a growing number of customers speeding up replacement cycles to keep up with fashion trends. There's also the rise of private-label frames and the increasing level of customisation made possible via 3D printing – an option Friedfeld believes is likely to become increasingly popular over the next five years.

One trend he singled out as now impossible to ignore was consumers' growing insistence on sustainability in terms of both materials sourced and production practices. Underlining his point to attendees, he said: "In five years' time, will you be wearing eyeglasses made of recycled ocean plastic waste? Environmental awareness is huge right now, with millennials very focused on our cultural values as businesses."

Looking to the future, Friedfeld also highlighted the ways in which technology is likely to impact the optical sector, including the looming introduction of smart contact lenses that can autofocus and allow wearers to see in the dark. He also noted that Facebook and the Milan-headquartered Luxottica Group, the world's largest eyewear company, were co-operating on what they termed Project Orion – augmented-reality Ray-Ban glasses designed to replace smartphones and scheduled to hit the market in 2023.

Photo: Classy glasses: Statement eyewear.
Classy glasses: Statement eyewear.
Photo: Classy glasses: Statement eyewear.
Classy glasses: Statement eyewear.
Photo: Popticians: The latest looks on show.
Popticians: The latest looks on show.
Photo: Popticians: The latest looks on show.
Popticians: The latest looks on show.

Despite such forward-looking optimism, some remained concerned that even much of the currently available technology – notably 3D printing – had yet to make any real impression on the mainstream eyewear market. Indeed, according to Milan Madhavji – Founder and Chief Technology Officer of Specsy, an Ontario based-manufacturer of 3D-printed glasses and sunglasses – with issues ranging from material selection to the quality of finished products to price, there was still rather a lot to iron out.

Expanding upon his concerns, Madhavji said: "Not so long ago, there was all this talk about how 3D printing would make things cheaper, but I can tell you it hasn't. It still costs the same to print one pair as it does to print 10,000 – there are no economies of scale."

Explaining the problem, Madhavji said his company typically printed with white nylon, which, although more expensive than dark nylon, allows it to produce glasses in a range of different colours. While acknowledging it was technically possible to print with other materials, including steel and titanium, he said it was "bananas expensive". Among the problems, he maintained, was that many of the required components, such as hinges, were impossible to 3D print, a shortcoming that impacts on the quality of the product and its exclusivity. Summarising the challenges this represents, he said: "The kind of customer who wants custom wants it totally custom."

While 3D printed frames may remain something of a luxury, an increasing number of consumers are becoming more open to the use of colour as a means of expressing individuality – at least according to Joy Gibb, an optician with Utah-based Daynes Eye & Lasik and a consultant to the Vision Council. Advising opticians on how to best stock their retail offerings, she said: "If you have someone with a sassy personality, pull out those bright colors and let them rock it. We've been in pastel-ballet pink for a long time now but, of late, we're moving more towards peach-apricot tones."

With regard to upcoming colour preferences, Gibb said the coming seasons would see increased demand for dark greens and botanically inspired collaborations that draw on the minimalistic appeal of forest greens, soft browns, delicate purples and warm honey tones. In women's frames, meanwhile, she predicted an "avant-garde evolution", with sci-fi-inspired looks, exaggerated squares and show-stopping embellishments, such as giant eyelashes, 3D flowers attached to the frame and jewels hanging from the temples, as all being very much in.

At the conservative end of the market, she foresaw an increased take up of more muted, yet still on-trend, looks – notably tortoise shells with colours blended in, geometric-shaped wire frames with tinted lenses and frames in milky acetates. For an added touch of elegance in this sector, she suggested taking a classic silhouette and adding one element that really jumps out, such as a lighter-coloured bridge.

Highlighting the increased use of sustainable materials in the manufacture of eyewear, she concluded by advising brands to pay particular attention to this development. Highlighting its significance, she said: "It's an undeniable fact that the circular economy is gaining ground in pretty much every aspect of the apparel industry".

Photo: Quite the annual spectacle: Famed frames and leading lensmakers on display at Vision Expo West 2019.
Quite the annual spectacle: Famed frames and leading lensmakers on display at Vision Expo West 2019.
Photo: Quite the annual spectacle: Famed frames and leading lensmakers on display at Vision Expo West 2019.
Quite the annual spectacle: Famed frames and leading lensmakers on display at Vision Expo West 2019.

Vision Expo West 2019 took place from 18-21 September at the Sands Expo Center in Las Vegas. The event attracted more than 420 exhibitors and about 13,000 attendees.

Anna Huddleston, Special Correspondent, Las Vegas

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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