What You Need to Know About Automated Tray Handling

By Ken Lento
Are you having a hard time convincing yourself or others that it’s time to step up to newer technologies? Are you tired of seeing high reject figures in your lab and watching inefficient operations perpetuate themselves? If you answered, “yes” to any of these questions, you are a candidate for a total or partial automated tray handling system.

Some estimates indicate that approximately 25 percent of all the optical labs in the United States have some form of automated tray handling (conveyors and other equipment). From labs making as few as 150 jobs-per-day to the labs making thousands of jobs-per-day, labs are moving to automating this process. Greg Blackwell of Pinnacle Optical implemented conveyors from lens pick to shipping and increased the lab output by more than 20 percent—significantly reducing his breakage. What could you do with 20 percent additional capacity in your lab, without having to add more machines or employees?

Newer lens coatings, generating, and polishing technologies require a more exact process timing in order to achieve better quality lenses and to reduce breakage. For example, with new hydrophobic AR lenses (and the issues with having edge blocks adhere to the lens) it is recommended to minimize the time from blocking to edging. If you leave this step to antiquated manual handling, you increase the chances of block slippage and breakage. A speed-controlled FIFO conveyor can insure that this time is minimized. You can further fine-tune this point-to-point speed so that the best result is achieved as egg timers and human error are taken out of the equation.

No matter the process in the lab, a controlled flow of trays will always give you the best process advantage. Once you get trays moving automatically, then you can look to other enhancements to make your automated tray handling system more advanced—like smart technology. Many labs today have both digital and traditional processing equipment operating. Combining the information from the lab Rx software and a smart routing conveyor you can insure that jobs are automatically routed to the proper equipment and process areas. This will make each area more efficient and reduce the breakage because you are not processing a lens on the wrong equipment.

One of the biggest arguments for not automating the tray handling (besides the outlay of capital dollars) is space. Lab managers will say conveyors might impede the walking areas in their lab. This may have been true years ago, but not today. There are many new methods of handling trays in vertical and overhead spaces using elevators, alpine conveyor systems, and vertical cool down towers. All these solutions are being utilized successfully today.

There are many considerations you need to take into account when justifying a conveyor system. The payback is going to come from efficiency gains, reduction in spoilage (maybe the reduction in lost trays), some breakage reduction from not dropping or losing trays, and the reduction in personnel who manually move those trays.

Or, you just may not be able to function within the limits of the newer technology machines or coating processes.

I have never heard anyone who installed an automated tray handling system say “what a waste of money”. In fact, the response has almost always been just the opposite—“I wonder how we lived without it!”

Article written by Ken Lento, president of FlexLink Systems, Inc., Allentown, Penn. FlexLink is a leader in production logistics, providing material and information flow management solutions to assembly and manufacturing industries.

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Labtalk-November/December 2017