You've Got to Move It, Move It - Introducing Automation to the Optical Manufacturing Environment

By Ian Gregg
The optical industry is changing. Not a profound observation for sure, but one worth elaboration. Consolidation and off-shore producers continue to increase competitive pressure. The explosion of information available to anyone with an Internet connection means a more educated customer that is more demanding than ever. And while new lens technology means higher revenue per pair, this also increases the impact of spoilage to your bottom line. Add higher expectations of shorter delivery times, higher quality standards, and more complex combinations of materials and treatments from both ECP’s and patients, and you have a whole new ballgame. Truly the bar is being set higher every day.

In order to stay competitive, labs large and small are constantly looking for ways to reduce costs and increase efficiency without sacrificing quality. One of the most effective ways to accomplish this goal is through the addition of automation to your production environment.

Automation comes in many forms, from a single pick and place robot on a generator or edger, to a fully automated production line with intelligent conveyors for work sorting and tray management. The key is recognizing when the time is right to automate, and what level of automation makes sense for your current and future needs.

As they say, every journey begins with the first step, but before you can take that step you need to know what direction you are going. Your roadmap should begin with a five-year growth projection. A good place to start would be to look at your average growth for the previous five years, consider what opportunities you may have for growth, such as entry into new markets or expanding your geographical reach, and use that information to determine your production needs within that five-year window. A good rule of thumb for capacity is your average daily demand should be roughly 80 percent of your maximum total capacity. This will allow you to absorb any spikes in demand without sacrificing delivery times or jeopardizing quality. Once you have an idea of your capacity needs, you can begin to map out how your lab will look in the future.

It is at this point that you should begin the process of selecting a vendor partner that will supply machines and the automation components. Obviously, if this is your first foray into automation, you will want to work with a dynamic team that has the resources and experience to bring all of the pieces together in a system that meets the needs of your business. A strong partner will be able to assist you in the design phase and produce innovative solutions for your specific needs. They should take your vision, refine it, and ultimately articulate it in the form of a detailed plan drawing, or better yet, a fully-animated simulation of your entire process. A simulation is an excellent tool for locating potential bottle necks or other trouble spots, prior to actual implementation. Support and training are also key components of this relationship. Many of the pieces of this puzzle will represent new and different challenges to your staff, so they will need to be trained both before and after the transition, and they will need ongoing technical support in order to maintain peak efficiency.

Once you have your team assembled and your vision articulated, it is time to put together a plan for implementation. Although the ideal situation is to start with a new building, a blank canvas if you will, the reality is most labs don’t have that luxury. More often automation is integrated, to whatever degree, into an existing production environment. Having a good plan before you start could mean the difference between a smooth transition and, well, can I be honest here…disaster.

The first question to answer is, “Will this transition happen all at once or in phases?” If the phased approach is the right one for you, what will phase one look like? To what degree will you introduce automation to your system? Some factors to consider when deciding what to automate are job trays, labor or production issues, and available capital. Automated machines require job trays specifically designed for this purpose, so the question becomes: do I change my facility over completely to the new style tray, or do I re-tray at specific automated functions? Although there are some successful examples of the mixed tray scenario, most labs that have gone down the path of automation have opted to do a complete change over, thus preparing themselves for the inevitable future.

Next, take a look at your production floor. Are there bottlenecks or areas that are difficult to keep properly staffed? These are areas that could potentially benefit from some level of automation. And finally, what is a realistic investment level for my business? Your strategic vendor partner should be able to show you a comprehensive ROI calculation that will assist you and your accountant determine what makes the most sense for your circumstance. With these variables in mind, there are three basic levels of automation to consider.

The first would be to simply automate the “heartbeat” of the lab. For surfacing that is the generator, and for finishing the edger drives production. When automating just the generator, for instance, it will become the production manager for the entire process. Operators both upstream and down must maintain a pace of work sufficient to keep up, and any deficiencies will become evident very quickly.

The second level, and probably the most common, is to automate a line, or manufacturing cell, within the overall production environment. There are many successful examples of this strategy seen throughout the industry. This typically involves some interruption of production, but if managed properly the impact can be minimal. It is at this level that the lab begins to see a significant impact on costs associated with labor and spoilage.

The third tier represents the highest commitment of resources but also offers the most favorable return on investment. A fully automated production environment with LMS integrated conveyors for intelligent tray management and work sorting can create a distinct competitive advantage by increasing efficiency, lowering costs, and providing a certainty of outcomes not attainable in a labor intensive process.

The final step in this journey is implementation. In order to ensure the success of the project, your vendor partner should assign a single contact person who will be responsible for meeting with contractors, providing technical details, coordinating any sub-vendors and assisting you in developing the implementation plan. Again, every installation is different but you should be prepared to have some disruption of the status quo. If the plan is for a small initial step, say a robotic edger with a de-stacker to feed it work, this can usually be accomplished over a weekend. If your plans are more ambitious, for instance adding a complete automated surfacing line, a more realistic scenario involves a significant amount of prep work leading up to the actual “installation.”

Depending on the size and complexity of the system, mechanical assembly can take anywhere from a few days to a week, during which time the facility will obviously need to continue to produce. This fact further highlights the need for a strong partner with experience integrating automated solutions. Anything that can be accomplished prior to installation will help facilitate a smooth transition. For instance, in the weeks leading up to start up of the new system, most of the overhead electrical and plumbing can be done, any existing equipment that will remain can be “staged” in its new location, and, if needed, new job trays can be integrated into your facility.

Keep in mind that while this may all seem a little daunting; there are many examples of successful transitions from which to draw inspiration. The key is to do your homework, talk to your colleagues who have travelled this road before you, visit some successful installations if possible, and most importantly ask your strategic partners lots of questions—they are your most valuable resource.

Ian Gregg is the product manager for surfacing and finishing with Satisloh North America. To contact Ian, e-mail him at Ian.Gregg@Satisloh.com.

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May/June LabTalk 2017