A new eyeglass assembly lab in Halethorpe is poised to make prescription lenses for Google Glass after the wearable-computer product launches later this year.
The VSPOne facility, which opened last month, expects substantial growth from more conventional sources — customers throughout the Northeast ordering regular eyeglasses. But the lab also has the technology needed to process orders for prescription Glass and expects to do so, said David Carr, a company spokesman.
When, exactly, is up in the air. Glass — an Internet-connected display screen mounted on an eyeglass frame — is a prototype available only to beta testers for now. But Google expects to launch it sometime this year.
Other businesses in the area are working on Glass projects, too. Catonsville-based Mindgrub is making two Glass apps for clients, both aimed at professions that could benefit from information that pops up on command rather than by hand. One app is for firefighters and other first responders; the other is for surgeons.
"Heads-up display will become very useful when you want to do hands-free activities," said Todd Marks, Mindgrub's CEO. "We're starting to see a lot of demand. And it's not even out to market yet, it's just a developer's product at this point."
Google Glass has prompted a lot of debate, too, from the safety of driving while wearing to the privacy implications of glasses that can take photos and record video. Then there's the argument about how much it will really matter — whether such products are game-changers or novelties.
Glass is pricey for now, $1,500 — plus tax — for testers. Marks hopes the ultimate price is lower so more people jump on board.
Google teamed up with VSPOne parent VSP Global, which provides vision insurance and other eye care services, on the rollout of prescription beta testing in January. VSPOne already makes prescription lenses for Glass testers who need them, generally out of its lab in Sacramento, Calif.
VSPOne's Halethorpe facility, meanwhile, would be notable whether it makes prescription Glass or not — simply by dint of being a new manufacturing facility.
Mike Galiazzo, president of the Regional Manufacturing Institute of Maryland, can think of plenty of plants in the region that closed, but few opening. "It doesn't happen often," he said.
He thinks an eyeglass assembly facility — particularly one with a cutting-edge product in its future — plays to the state's strengths. Maryland has a strong health care and life sciences industry.
Galiazzo would like to see more advances from that sector translating into products made here.
"We're highly innovative, we've got a wide variety of university and federal labs, we have a highly educated workforce," he said. "What's lacking is that whole ecosystem, that whole industrial ecosystem, to make what's invented in Maryland."
Like many high-tech, automated manufacturing operations, VSPOne's Halethorpe facility has a lean staff. It runs with just four people — three technicians and Brian Snider, the lab manager.
"But within the next one to two years, we expect to have upward of 30 to 40 employees here," he said.
VSPOne is its parent's lab offshoot, and it's expanding along with the company's membership numbers. Halethorpe launched as a new site rather than a relocation.
A big part of the site's appeal is logistics. Staffers can quickly get eyeglass parts in and ship the finished product out, with a UPS location across the street and Interstate 95 around the corner.
The mass of federal employees in the region is another selling point. The federal government is a VSP client.
The lab now turns out about 50 glasses a day. VSP said that's far more than it expected, less than two months in, but there's room to make 200 daily as orders ramp up.
Doctors send the frames patients pick over to the lab, and a VSP processing facility ships over the lenses. Once Halethorpe employees have both in hand, it takes six to eight hours to prepare the lenses and assemble the glasses.
A digital edging machine handles part of the process, carving lenses into the right shape with the appropriate bevel. As trays with lenses queued up for the edger earlier this month, the machine's robotic arm grabbed one, read the accompanying bar code to determine how to process it and automatically set to work.
"It's a constant cycle that runs throughout the day," Snider said over the steady drone. "And the precision and accuracy of this machine is phenomenal."
He's speaking as a customer, not just a manager. His new glasses were assembled on site.
"I probably put them together," he said.