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Passing of some Old Friends

2006-01-10

Category: General

As many of my regular readers (all five of them) know, I used to be an optician. Not just any optician, mind you, but I was one of those guys who made the good optics through skill rather than automation. That?s why there are some things about the industry that make me so sad.

The other day I received a call for help. From time to time I get these from former employers. In this case, it was one of the optical dispensaries at which I used to work. I won?t mention which, as a matter of propriety. They needed help with a particular type of glasses.

There exists a type of frame called a ?drill mount?. Instead of having part of the frame that goes around the lens, this kind of frame has the bridge (the part across the nose) and the temples (the parts that go behind the ear) bolted directly to the lenses. This makes for a very stylish looking and light-weight pair of spectacles. This also makes for difficulty in manufacture.

The holes in a pair of drill mount glasses must be placed very precisely. If not, the frame may be loose or the lenses may not line up correctly. (Most lenses must be aligned rather well or they will cause more trouble for your eyes in the long run.) The drilling must be done without chipping or scratching the lens. Given the skill required to do this consistently, most dispensaries will send their drill mounts to a specialty lab or, in the case of chain stores, to a centralized lab with special equipment.

My first drill mount was a single lens replacement. No one taught me how to do them, I was just told to get it done. I managed to work out the theory and soon became the guy to do drill mounts. Though I taught my technicians to perform the task, many of them lacked the courage to set a drill to a patient?s lenses.

So I got the call. They asked if I could go in and do an emergency drill mount. I told them I would come in and teach them how. By eleven-thirty the next morning, the glasses were complete and ready for the patient. While waiting for the technician, I snooped around what was once my lab.

They no longer make lenses. All the lenses are ordered in. That means my lens making machines sit unused and uncared-for. The rubber seals are stained with mildew. Many of the components are rusted or covered with dust. Having been pushed out of the way, these machines sit unevenly on the floor, out of balance.

Once, these machines were high precision marvels. The stainless steel gleamed in the brightness of my lab. I could place the lens laps on the posts, set the lenses atop them and watch as the ground away the last roughness of the lens surface. Cold water rushed across the assembly, rinsing away the unneeded material and cooling the lens and tools. A similar machine performed the final polishing, using a milk-white polish instead of water.

A machine called a lens generator gives the lens its rough shape. The generator at this lab was a table top model that acted more like a milling machine. I couldn?t see much of it on my visit, but it was covered with a thick layer of dust. Even though I considered this little generator to be a pathetic little upstart of a machine, it didn?t deserve to be stuck under a pile of junk.

There are better generators, of course. By better I mean the old ones that I like better. The generator on which I learned was a behemoth, standing nearly five feet tall and making enough noise to drown out the room. Once the lens was mounted, one had to make the tenth of a millimeter adjustment and then swing a heavy steel armature through an arc that moved one more than a meter from the starting point. Now that was a wonderful generator. The last time I saw it, it too was a skeleton in the museum.

The worst things on my visit were the old edgers. Lenses start out eighty millimeters (about three and a quarter inches) in diameter. Once the power has been ground into them, the lens must be cut down to fit your frame. That?s the job of the edger. One slaps on a patter that fits the frame, attaches the lens to the machine, and then starts cutting the lens. On the old edgers, the optician was instrumental in setting the bevel (that helps the lens stay in the frame) and for getting the size perfect.

My favorite edger was the Weco 440. This machine used a couple of diamond impregnated grinding wheels to do the job. The machines could be touchy, especially on lenses that where a little too thick in the middle. The one we used had far exceeded its warrantee and had suffered at the hands of the uncaring. None of my techs would use it unless they had to. It was the only machine on which we could cut glass lenses.

This machine had been modified, and then left to dry till crusty. Someone tried to clean it afterward, but it no longer mattered.

The other edger was a bladed machine that could only cut plastic. It worked in a similar manner to the Weco. There are safety mechanisms in place to prevent the rotating blade from hitting the lens holder. That?s why I was surprised to see the lens holder all chewed up. There were great brass chunks missing from it. How do you bypass safety mechanisms enough to do that unless you are deliberately trying? I do not know.

When I saw the second edger, the manager commented, ?Look at his face.? Apparently I was sufficiently horrified that it showed in my expression. All any of these machines needed was regular maintenance and they would still be wonderful devices. They could still make glasses far better than the machines.

I went out to my car and sat sitting blankly into no where.

I know why the industry has gone to the automated machines. The general population doesn?t want to pay much for their optical prosthetics (glasses). The companies have to cut costs to meet the price demands. An automated machine will do an adequate job and the cost of the operator is much cheaper than the cost of skilled optician.

A good optician can do more than just make your glasses functional. He or she can add the little touches needed to make your glasses special. For example, the automatic lens will fit into the frame and hold in place. A skilled optician can make your lenses fit and adjust that bevel front to back so that it minimized the negative appearance of the thickness.

Despite this knowledge, I can?t help but feel bad for my old friends, the lens making machines.


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