PPG hopes lens business speeds transition from glass

These are the dog days of summer and you're slathering sunscreen on every bit of exposed skin to ward off damage from the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays.

Of course, the 15-year-old joint venture between Downtown-based PPG Industries Inc. and France's Essilor International has a vested interest in promoting eye safety from the sun -- it developed the technology that allows plastic eyewear lenses to automatically tint darker as the light brightens.Executives at PPG, which owns 51 percent of the venture, see Transitions Optical as a growth engine as the conglomerate continues shifting away from glass to coatings and optical products.While the company doesn't break out revenues for Transitions, which is part of its chemicals business unit, they are "in excess of $300 million" annually, said Rick Elias, president of Transitions Optical, which is based in Pinellas Park, Fla.That's still relatively small for PPG, which last year generated total revenue of $9.5 billion, but its significance is growing as the lenses gain popularity.Elias estimated that 15 percent of all prescription lenses sold in the United States are Transitions Optical, even though lenses that are fitted using the light-sensitive technology can cost $50 to $100 more than a standard prescription lens.The venture employs about 1,200 worldwide at manufacturing sites in Florida, Ireland, Australia, Brazil and the Philippines and is opening a sixth plant next year in Thailand."Transitions has had great growth ... and not many competitors," said Frank J. Mitsch, an analyst who follows PPG for Fulcrum Global Partners, New York.

The technology behind Transitions dates back decades to before plastic lenses overtook glass as the norm for prescription eyewear.

PPG chemicals researchers in Barberton, Ohio, were the first to develop CR-39, the material used to cast plastic lenses, said Elias. It was used in World War II to line fuel tanks of military bombers so that when a bullet hit the aircraft, fuel wouldn't leak.

"When the war ended, a tank car [of CR-39] was sitting around and PPG told its chemists to figure out something to do with it," said Elias.

They came up with a way to use it for plastic prescription eye lenses and sold the technology to Essilor and other lens makers.

After Corning in the 1980s developed a popular "photogray" glass lens that turned darker in bright light, PPG realized customers would eventually demand such "photochromic" technology in plastic. The research moved from Ohio to a PPG research and development center in Monroeville in the early 1990s.

Elias was charged at that time with commercializing the technology and helped develop the strategy for the venture with Essilor.

"It was a great marriage because PPG is a very strong materials company but didn't know about lenses," he said. "Essilor was a longtime customer of PPG and had that expertise."

Fifteen years after its creation, Transitions is now recognized as the market leader in supplying plastic photochromic lenses, said Andrew Karp, group editor for Lenses and Technology, a trade publication of Jobson Optical Group, New York. Its primary competitors include Signet Armorlite, a California company; and some Asian and German lens makers, Karp said.

"Transitions dominates the competitors who entered the market after them," he said, noting that plastic lenses now account for almost 99 percent of spectacle lenses sold.

But while it has achieved name-brand recognition worldwide, Transitions doesn't actually sell lenses directly to consumers.

It supplies the technology to laboratories that treat the lenses for various prescriptions, said Heidi Weitz, a co-owner of Downtown optical shop HeidiOptics.

"They are definitely the industry leader and their technology is getting better," Weitz said of Transitions. "It's a lot less expensive than getting two pairs of glasses ... and more convenient. It takes the place of sunglasses or clip-ons."

Her business, for instance, carries a Transitions display that demonstrates for customers how Transitions lenses become darker under ultraviolet light. If a customer wants the technology in their prescription, Weitz calls a lab that carries Transitions technology and orders the prescription. Then she cuts the lens to fit the frame.

PPG hopes a new consumer education campaign, "Eye Didn't Know That," will further spur understanding -- and sales -- about the technology and the need to protect the eyes.

It includes an interactive exhibit targeted especially for middle-school students that shows how the eye works. It already has traveled to 10 U.S. cities and opens Friday at the Carnegie Science Center, which created the exhibit late last year and will make it part of its permanent collection after it finishes a run in Vancouver, British Columbia, in September.

PPG and its partners also have launched a $25 million print and broadcast advertising campaign to go along with the consumer education program, including a 30-second spot that frequently airs on the Weather Channel showing people in a futuristic city wearing Transitions lenses as a narrator warns about the dangers of UV light to eyes.

Elias said market research Transitions conducted in developing the consumer education campaign showed that while 80 percent of the population knew UV rays are harmful to skin, fewer than 6 percent realized UV rays can harm the eyes.

"So this was an opportunity to educate people. They don't think about eyewear for UV protection; they think about eyewear for corrective vision."

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