ON THE FENCE…ABOUT SINGLE BLOCK SYSTEMS

By Christie Walker
Wouldn’t it be great if you could block a lens once and be done with it? That is the idea behind On the Block Manufacturing processes. Currently there is only one company that has turned this concept into reality, and that’s SatisLoh.

“Until recently, most equipment companies were focused in just one or two production areas of the lab: finishing companies, surfacing companies, and coating companies. As a result, there was no cohesive development of a technology that spanned all three major processing disciplines, which is necessary for the concept of a single block for the entire process to be commercially viable. With the synergy produced from integrating Satisloh and National Optronics, we have one company with core competencies in surfacing, finishing, and coating, able to coordinate their R&D efforts toward the goal of a universal platform,” said Ian Gregg, director surfacing products, Satisloh North America.

So how does it work? The idea is simple, the lens is blocked once and then moves through all processing steps until it is finally de-blocked. With the Satisloh system, a machineable plastic block, Nucleo, is used in every machine including AR coating and edging. This new block is an open platform, designed to work in any brand of surfacing machine not just Satisloh machines. According to Satisloh, the benefits are numerous. The process: saves up to 12 process and 40 manual handling steps; eliminates transfer time among traditional Rx, coating and finishing departments; protects front surface throughout all processing steps; eliminates scratches because there is no handling of the lens; eliminates finish blocking; and drives down labor costs with total automation.

The Lab’s Point-of-View

Changing over to a single block system is a major commitment for a lab. Expert Optics, Shorewood, Ill., has made that commitment. “The system that was installed here at Expert Optics from Satisloh was the first of its kind in the world. Much was learned from this installation and improvements have been made. Whenever you’re the first, no doubt there will be problems to deal with,” said Bob Pommier, director of ­laboratory operations, Expert Optics. “One of the good things that we took away from dealing with being the first is that we gained a lot of knowledge about the machines and the process that most labs may not have the opportunity to experience due to the process being defined. This just makes us better at what we do.”

Other labs are taking a wait-and-see attitude towards the new system. “We have not tried the single block system partly due to expense and the disruption in the entire lab process. Also our friends at Expert Optics have not given glowing reports the last we discussed with them,” said Corrine Hood, president, Katz and Klein, Sacramento, Calif. “While we do not see any real obstacles at this time, but we are not involved in setting up the system so we might have a different answer if we were.”

“We do not have OBM (On the Block Manufacturing). The technology is new and we are not convinced there is a positive benefit versus cost ratio at this point. Additionally OBM limits our ability to use various AR products along with limiting throughput. You would need to run two manufacturing lines simultaneously. The AR coating single block systems are a key obstacle,” said Craig Giles, executive vice president, Soderberg, St. Paul, Minn. “We believe that sputter coating technology is not the way of the future and this is the AR technology that has to be used when manufacturing with OBM technology. Another issue is the “alloy like” product needed to adhere the lens to the block. The de-blocking process is very basic and lacks refinement given this is a new technology.”

“While understanding the benefits of embracing new technology, it also remains prudent to let others experience the ‘pain’ which typically accompanies the release of equipment—especially something as revolutionary as the single block or Nucleo system,” said Jeff Szymanski, vice president, Toledo Optical, Toledo, Ohio. “In many ways this is still unproven technology. It has not been installed into enough laboratories to fully vet out its advantages and disadvantages. It also remains a significant concern as to how this new technology might integrate with our current systems.”

With Expert Optics being the first lab to try the new ­technology, they are the ones to work out the kinks in the system. “The system is just coming out of its infancy stages and OBM promises to be something that will take lens processing to the next level,” said Pommier. “Currently we are surfacing lenses with good success and applying a backside scratch coat. The lenses will then go through an automated de-blocking system. The next phase is to implement applying the AR to the backside of the lens. This process began at Expert in early January. All the testing has been done and we are ready to start production with AR on the block.”

Expert Optics is working with lens manufacturers to supply them with an AR coating on the front side of the lens. Then the edging process will be the last phase of the On the Block Manufacturing process, which is scheduled to be implemented mid-2012. As the test lab for this new technology, Expert has run into challenges that other labs won’t have to deal with as they move to implement the new system. One challenge is making sure all the technology interfaces and is automated.

“Two companies that have done a tremendous amount of hard work with Expert and Satisloh in interfacing and automating the system are DVI and NCC Automated Systems. They have been a big part of the success of getting this process off the ground,” said Pommier.

Being the industry guinea pig for single block technology takes a belief in the system, patience, and perseverance. Expert Optics has all three.

“The advantages of the single or on the block process are speed, accuracy and streamlining the process. By minimizing the numerous steps in a conventionally run lab, it will allow us to make a complete pair of lenses with AR in four hours versus one to two days. The reduced steps also minimize the opportunity for human error. We are also thrilled to be involved with green technology. Eliminating the need for alloy in blocking and having blocks that are either reusable or recyclable, are big boosts for all of us here at Expert and the environment. With the Nucleo block we can recycle it but there is also a barcode on the block that in the future will enable us to move towards going with paperless trays in the lab as well as other functions,” said Pommier.

Of course, Satisloh agrees. “The big win with this technology is how readily it lends itself to automation. Reduced labor costs and dramatically decreased turn-around times make labs more profitable and better able to challenge off-shore competition. Eliminating the need for alloy also offers some significant advantages including a positive environmental impact, enhanced employee safety, and gaining independence from a commodity subject to extreme price volatility,” explained Gregg.

These benefits haven’t come without obstacles, with a number of issues still to be worked out. “The most basic challenge to a universal platform is the drastic difference in the size of the holding piece during the different phases of production,” explained Gregg. “In order to provide sufficient support during the surfacing process, the block piece needs to be in the range of 60mm to 75mm, whereas during finishing, we must be able to reduce the size of the lens to as little as 15mm or 16mm. The solution requires that the holding piece must be made of a material that is structurally stable but can still be machined without damaging machines or adversely affecting tool life. In the case of our OBM system, this material is SAN, a recyclable plastic monomer common in many industries.”

Satisloh may be the only company currently implementing single block technology, but other manufacturers are also looking into solutions to the single block process.

“The challenges are many, since we cannot remove the modularity, cost effectiveness, reliability, and flexibility of current systems when introducing something new. In other words, it has to be demonstrably better,” said Kurt Atchison, president, Schneider Optical Machines, The Colony, Texas. “The single block system has obvious advantages mostly related to labor and yield benefits due to reduced manual intervention. But we need to make certain the process provides a low cost per lens solution and is flexible enough to handle multiple lens and coating types.”

“A major challenge today is systems that have high limitations on lens or coating types and are, at the same time, expensive to operate. It is okay to have a specialized production or a line dedicated to certain products, as long as that line offers fantastic yields and cost reductions. Schneider continues to develop innovative systems that can process a large variety of lens and coating types. This takes time,” explained Atchison.

IN A PERFECT WORLD…

What would it take for labs that are currently on-the-fence to try the new On-the-Block Manufacturing? Here’s what three labs have asked for in a “perfect world.”

“In a perfect world, we would like to see the blocks disposable at the end of the cycle. We’d also like to receive the blocks with the pads already on them.” Katz and Klein

“In a perfect world, we would want a system that doesn’t restrict you (on AR) and still uses the same block for finishing.” Soderberg Optical

“Like the rest of the optical world, we would love to purge ourselves of the need to use alloy in our process. We would like a simple, cost effective, forgiving, reusable, stable and environmentally-friendly system to successfully take the blocking process to the next level. Is that asking for too much??!!” Toledo Optical

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Labtalk September/October 2018