I have been working in the global eyeglass manufacturing industry, supplying raw materials, parts and accessories to distributors and manufacturers around the world, since 1999. When I first began, there were manufacturer pockets around the globe in various countries. As time went by, like many industries, the demand for cheaper products consistently bore weight on the drive to decrease cost, which led to manufacturing in China. The economies of scale as well as the very low cost of manual labor helped to drive the exodus to China. Difficult products are still being manufactured in small clusters around the world, however the “meat and potatoes”, the “grunt work” has moved offshore to China.
Titanium (pure or alloyed) wire and sheet is the preferred material to make frames of these days. The unit cost is very expensive compared to ferrous metals, however the properties are far superior. It is much more difficult to work than regular metals during the 200 step process to make a pair of frames. Because of this, technology was often limited to countries like Germany and Japan who invested a long time ago in developing processes to work this material. Japan has been selling a lot of its technology to China in the past decade so that now, standard titanium eyewear is usually made in China at a lower cost than Japan which has led to a lot of “restructuring” in the Japanese optical industry. Those companies that have a competitive advantage have survived (i.e. a specialty), however the “plane Jane Vanilla” types are, to a great degree, gone.
People do not know this but it takes approximately 3 months and 200 steps to make a pair of eyeglasses. There is a huge amount of outsourcing done to specialists who do various parts of the process. The titanium used in eyeglass manufacturing must have a very good surface quality. Because titanium is so hard (and yet so soft at the same time), it is easy to make deep scratches, but very difficult to polish it out. Here, not I did not say “grinding” because grinding connotes “making smaller”, but instead use the term “polishing” which results in a smoother, shinier surface with less blemishes. The end result is different, therefore the terminology is different.
Because removing scratches from titanium is difficult, the manufacturers demand the highest surface quality. Eyeglasses are a fashion, they are painted, plated or coated and then worn on the face. When you meet someone the first thing you see is their eyes, and if they are wearing glasses you see those. Because of this, the finished surface needs to be as blemish-free as possible. Without a smooth surface, the paint/plating will not apply evenly and you will end up with defective product that will not be purchased by the wholesalers and distributors to put on the market. In reality, most end-users may not even notice the level of perfection that the wholesalers are demanding. After all, how do you choose a pair of glasses? You find a color and shape you like, put them on your face, look in a mirror to see if they suit your image of yourself, then scan your friend/family member/store clerk’s face and response to see if their impression of the frames on your face seem suitable to them. If so, you buy. If not, you keep looking. Most of the scratches and blemishes that the manufacturers are required to prevent would not be noticed by the end user, quite possibly allowing manufacturers to decrease their defective count allow them to purchase lower-priced material and maybe make glasses even cheaper; however the companies that order the frames go far beyond that in detail.
Because of this, the manufacturers must have the best material available. This means a very high price compared to other titanium used in non-eyewear industries. There is a constant drive to find a lower priced titanium material for eyeglass manufacturing, but to date, the only material suitable is that which is made by the Japanese. I have tried supplying US material, Russian and Chinese but all fail for their various reasons. The U.S. material surface is not up to quality because it is used mainly for “rougher” industrial purposes. The Chinese and Russian is still unstable in terms of content.
The manufacturers also demand tight tolerances in the material diameter or thickness. Usually tolerances for titanium in the optical industry are +/- 0.02 or 0.0.3 mm.
We have two levels of quality for titanium sheet here in Japan. One is like a “mirror finish”. Obviously it doesn’t reflect like a mirror, but it is smooth. This is what the manufacturers need. The other one looks like someone slathered a thin layer of epoxy on the surface and then sprinkled sand over it. This CANNOT be used to make eyeglasses.
For titanium sheet, usually anything under 3 mm thickness by Kobe, Sumitomo, Shin Nittetsu are usable as is. For thicker sizes, the surface gets too rough and we have to use a cold rolled sheet. This meaning I would order 4 mm, my supplier would have his supplier roll 5 mm down to 4 mm so the surface was smooth. Again, this process drives the price up on titanium that has already been increasing dramatically in the past year.
Eyeglass factories are “small” compared to other industrial processing plants. The machines are small, hand operated, and so forth. The size of the sheets that feed into the machines are limited. This means that standard sheets (usually 1m x 2m) need to be cut into about four pieces in order to be used by most manufacturers.
The manufacturers of the titanium will not cut the standard sizes sheets, however the wholesalers who buy bulk and stock in Japan will. They know this is necessary for the industry. I have yet to find a company outside of Japan that is willing to do this; making the sale of sheet extremely difficult to the optical industry from non-Japanese sources.
My advice to suppliers outside Japan is this: This process may be different from what you or your manufacturers are used to doing, but in this global age, we constantly have to be innovating and finding NEW ways to do business. We need to meet the ever-increasing demands of our clients and gain a competitive advantage over the other rivals looking for business. The old established ways that worked so well for so long no longer apply.
Here is an example of a situation that occurred many times over the past six years:
Customer: “I need 20 kg of Beta titanium sheet 0.8mm thickness, cut sizes of about 1m x 0.3m. Courier is too expensive so please send via Post. We urgently need this material and we need it in good condition.”
Supplier: ” The minimum quantity 200 kg, and dimensions are 2m x 1m. Delivery is 3 months. We don’t pack for international shipping. We don’t cut down to size. We only ship by courier. We send the best we can, as always.”
For my business, this often killed the chances of finding a non-Japanese source for supplying my clients in the Chinese market. This way of dealing with a request is a dead end because it does not meet the customer’s needs. Here are the reasons why:
1) Optical customers have no way of cutting huge standard sheets down to size. They need the smaller cut sizes from the beginning.
2) Their machinery is much smaller in scale than automotive, building, aerospace industries, therefore need smaller cut sizes of material.
3) Factory loading and receiving is much smaller in scale therefore huge pallets cause major problems. Hand-carry-able sizes of material are essential.
4) Scratches on the surface of the hard titanium cannot be removed through polishing of parts to get the gloss finish that is required for eyeglasses; therefore best quality surface and proper international packing is critical.
5) Eyeglasses are fashion. The fashion industry is critically volatile and changing extremely quickly. The optical industry gets orders for glasses and must deliver in the shortest possible time. It takes three months to make one order. Manufacturers cannot be waiting three months for material before they start to produce. They choose the vendors that can supply from ready stock or in the shortest time possible.
6) One pair of glasses usually uses about 10-20 grams of titanium so even 20 kg of one size is a large amount for a manufacturer. They need suppliers who will provide smaller quantities.
7) Quantities ordered these days for eyeglasses have gone from tens of thousands, to thousands, and now are at minimum quantities of hundreds. Those hundreds are further divided into dozens of colors making the SKU delivery extremely small. Eyeglass manufacturers NEED access to small quantities of materials relative to the big industries. Even in China, everyone is producing now very small runs to meet the needs of the clients who must provide a huge variety of product SKUs to the market.
8) The shipping is also critical so being able to cut down to sizes that will be carried by the post office, or a very cheap courier is essential. Sending small quantities via Air Cargo, or Sea Cargo is prohibitively expensive. The buyers/the market forces are driving the selling price down of the eyeglasses. Because eyeglasses from the manufacturer do not have a large profit margin, the manufacturers need help cutting their costs; expensive shipping is something people are always trying to do away with.
9) Most eyeglass manufacturing of standard (non-niche) eyewear (and all metal eyeglasses) is done now in China for the reason that China makes it MUCH CHEAPER than anyone else. Most ALL manufacturing is done in China these days for the same reason. People make product in China to DECREASE THEIR COSTS. For the vendors selling raw materials to China, it is not possible to take 20%, 30%, 40% profit margins unless you have an extremely specialized material or product. And titanium, even the special memory alloys have become a commodity therefore unfortunately though they are expensive to begin with, a high profit margin is no longer a choice. It simply cannot be done.
10) Many suppliers do not really do the “best they can”. They think that mistakes caused by “human error” are unavoidable. This simply is not true. All factories make defective product but that defective product should never leave the factory to the customer. This means that proper safeguards should be put in place in order to prevent that from getting out. This can be done. Guaranteed. But the question is do the people working the factory floor really care? This is an issue. It is even MORE critical in this day and age to find a partner that DOES care and is willing to improve and take responsibility for products that slip through their net and make it to the customer causing them inconvenience. We are always looking for partners that are continually working to improve their capabilities in all aspects of the project.
Even though the eyeglass industry is very small compared to the jumbo jet aircraft industry, there is a huge population in the world who need eyeglasses as a “medical tool” (lower income bracket), and those who want the tool to be a fashion statement (higher income bracket). Because of this, overall, the industry is quite large and the market is definitely there.
Since things have changed so dramatically in the past 15 years, and the markets have truly become global, it is even more essential for companies and individuals wishing to improve their market share to be always looking for new innovative ways to improve their competitive advantage in the market. Those that struggle to find a way to break down the barriers are the ones that succeed. This is why competition is so important and why monopolies actually hamper the market. Without competitors there is no need to innovate, offer more to the consumer, improve your abilities, increase your knowledge-base and develop the market in new and unique ways. Without competition none of the affordable luxuries we have would ever have been available at prices the average consumer could afford.
Competition, innovation, education, a demanding market of educated users and a burning desire to find “the next edge” are essential to a successful business.
Any companies who are willing to take those challenges and try their luck at the market will likely succeed if they keep at it and do not give up, in spite of the challenges and head-banging they will inevitably face. Any companies like that out there, interested in entering the Japanese market with an unique service or product are welcome to contact me any time!