Going Digital: One Small Step for Equipment Makers, One Large Step for Your Lab

By Judith Lee
When an optical lab decides to move into digital surfacing, the lab owner might feel like astronaut Neal Armstrong when he took that first step in the 1969 moon landing. It’s a big step for an individual, backed by a significant investment of capital, human resources, equipment and planning.

• The investment is $350,000 to $500,000, with manufacturers offering digital surfacing generators for both large and small labs.

• A large generator will cost about twice as much as a small generator.

• The size of the generator will affect, if not dictate, lab productivity going forward.

• The lab needs the right blocker for the generator that was selected, as well as specific testing equipment.

• The lab may have to reconfigure its production area.

• Digital surfacing saves labor and usually enables workforce reduction, but the workers must be more skilled.

• Training is an important part of the transition, and time off-line for training must be factored into the budget.

• As with any new technology, the “learning curve” at first will reduce productivity and profitability.

Even with all these challenges, we say “when” regarding digital surfacing rather than “if” because the technology is here to stay.

“At some point in time, if a lab can’t go digital, it will be in very difficult straits,” said David Cuffe, director of technical support at Essilor. “For our lens products going forward, the updates will be in digital format only.”

Numbers shared by Satisloh North America CEO and president Larry Clarke bear this out. By the end of this year, a total of 180 digital surfacing generators (all brands) will be installed in U.S. optical labs, representing nearly a third of wholesale labs and about a fourth of all labs.

In 2009, 1.8 million progressives, or 7 percent of all progressives, were made with digital equipment. But Clarke expects digital production to jump to 21 percent of all progressives by 2012, and 61 percent by 2015.

What’s out there?

DAC INTERNATIONAL (www.dac-intl.com) introduced the first digital surfacing technology to the U.S. market. Currently, DAC offers the DAC DLL Series V RxD Lathe, which features three menus: 1) Rx to produce sphere, cylinder and prism standard prescriptions, 2) PAL for the generation of free-form lenses, and 3) Specialty Lens, which can produce hard-to-get, hard-to-process lens designs.

GERBER COBURN now COBURN TECHNOLOGIES (www.gerbercoburn.com) offers the SGX Plus Surface Generator, a compact generator designed to process lenses free of elliptical error. Additionally, the SGX Plus uses computer-controlled precision and a proprietary three-axis, dry cut method to create high quality lenses with less mess in small-scale surfacing labs. The CTL (Compact Turning Lathe) is new. The CTL generator can produce conventional, digital, and free-form lenses and is highly affordable. Designed with size in mind, the CTL fits all size laboratories, even for eye care professionals who perform in-house lens production. There are two models, the CTL85 (compact and manual, easily upgraded to digital and free-form) and the CTL 85DP (equipped for digital and free-form straight from the factory). DTL (diamond turning lathe) generator employs precision diamond machining technology for traditional or advanced lens processing such as Cut-to-Polish and Digital (free-form) lens production. There are two models: DTL150 (upgradable to cut-to-polish and free form) and the DTL200 (advanced lens processing to produce free-form). The DTL200 is available as a manual unit or may be upgraded to automation.

OPTOTECH (www.optotech.de) offers three models. The ASM60-CNC-CT is a good start-up machine for optical free-form production. The less expensive, efficient design of the machine gives rise to a positive “price-to-performance” ratio. The ASM8-CNC-CT-Omega-M/A is a larger machine with a specialty; production of backside-progressive addition surfaces for ophthalmic lenses including edging (elliptic and bevel) like progressive-addition, aspheric, toric, a-toric and prismatic surfaces, convex and concave lenses made of organic synthetics, silicate glass or aluminum. The ASM80-CNC-3C-Omega-M/A is a 5-axis machine center that can process free-form surfaces as well as free-form edging.

SATISLOH (www.satisloh.com), offers three digital models. VFT Orbit offers high throughput, utilizing components from Satisloh’s previous digital surfacing generators (VFT-ultra series) with a new approach to moving the various axis of lens and tools. The work stations for tools and lens loading are arranged in an orbital shape around a central rotating lens axis. The VFT Orbit-L is similar in design and technology to its big brother, but offers about 30 percent less throughput on cut-to-soft tool polish, free-form surfaces. The VFT Compact-Pro is designed for small and mid-size labs. It offers All-Format capability including full free-form. The VFT-Compact-Pro is equipped with a separate cribbing spindle that reduces process time while the fast tool performs both rough cut as well as fine cut.

SCHNEIDER OPTICAL MACHINERY (www.schneider-om.com) also has three digital models in its HSC line, which stands for High Speed Cutting. The HSC Sprint offers the benefits of digital in a small, more economical generator. Its footprint is about the size of an office desk, and can function as the central surfacing unit in a smaller lab, the back-up-machine in a freeform lab, or a dedicated production unit in larger labs. The HSC Smart X is a compact generator with a more powerful motor that provides high dynamics with high statics/stiffness. The HSC Master 08 is a large, configurable, industrial strength generator capable of performing all processing needs.

Preparing for your “moon walk”

From the time a digital surfacing generator is chosen, several subsequent decisions and plans are critical to a successful transition.

1. Ancillary equipment. Check with your manufacturer to find out what additional equipment is needed to make the system functional. “This can include a coolant/swarf tank, chillers, diamond cutters, and adjustment and calibration equipment. Most suppliers itemize everything out clearly,” noted Schneider’s Kurt Atchison.

2. Lab management system. Make sure your LMS provider knows there will be a digital installation, and when. Satisloh’s Ian Gregg said that LMS providers routinely work with digital installations, but “it’s still important to notify the LMS company ahead of time so that they can work through any necessary preparations.”

3. Prepare the facility. Utility work is needed in most cases, so plan this well in advance of the installation of your new equipment. “Gerber Coburn provides the lab with a site survey and detailed systems specification, which lays out what needs to be done in advance,” said Curt Brey.

4. Training. All manufacturers provide training, but the format varies. Some will provide on-site training, while others require that you send staff to their site. Generally, several days to a week of training are provided, with some companies providing follow-up training. Wherever training takes place, the employees will not be filling orders in your facility during that time. “While it is not the easiest thing to take employees out of the lab, we find it much more effective if they are able to focus on the training and not be distracted by the daily activities in the lab environment,” Gregg said.

5. Scheduling. If all the previous steps have been taken, then it’s time to schedule the digital installation. The installation may take a week or more, depending on how many machines are being installed and how much the area will be reconfigured. However, Baldwin claimed that most installations are efficient. “Installing the equipment goes quickly and the customer is up and producing free-form lenses within one week or less,” said Brey.

6. Expectations. While it’s good to think positive, it’s also important to manage expectations. The first few weeks after the installers leave and the training is over, there are bound to be questions that no one can answer on-site. If a lens manufacturer hasn’t kept its software up-to-date, the software may not perform well with the new equipment. Gregg said this is when a good rapport with the project team will come in handy: “Most important is establishing good lines of communication between the lab staff and the vendor’s project team to keep everything on schedule and avoid any last minute surprises.”

If you’re still not convinced that digital surfacing is in your future, industry experts say that it’s only a matter of time until you change your mind.

“It’s the topic of the time. Most lens manufacturers have some digital offerings, and all lens manufacturers want to get into this business,” said Cuffe. “In the next decade, we will see a huge change in this area.”


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May/June LabTalk 2017