A Balancing Act: Automation & Employees

By Julie Bos
When we consider how lens processing is done today and how it will look in the future, what do we see? One trend is clear—a strategic move toward higher levels of automation. However, as increased automation answers the call for higher efficiency and labor savings, this trend also raises some serious questions—specifically about labs’ ongoing dependence on employees.

Does increased automation really eliminate the need for employees altogether? If not, what’s the ideal relationship between automation and employee resources? How can a lab find the right balance—and get the most out of—both these critical resources? Several of today’s leading lens laboratories provided their thoughts on these topics.

Employees: Still a Vital Asset

Toledo Optical is one growing lab that’s actively adding automation to increase its overall efficiency and capacity. However, its stance on human capital is quite clear.

“Without question, our employees are the greatest asset that we have,” said Jeff Szymanski, vice president. “No matter how automated any industry becomes, you just can’t get a machine to care. At the end of the day, we’re not just manufacturing visual systems, we’re creating fashion and helping the world see better—it’s a quality of life issue. Automation is definitely helping us become more efficient from a production standpoint; but it won’t help us get to the next level with customer satisfaction. Only our employees can help ensure that.”

Paul Zito, president of Encore Optics, agrees. “Employees are the only business asset that actually appreciates—unlike equipment, which depreciates,” he said. “With proper training and management, people can actually become more valuable over time. If Encore Optics burned to the ground tomorrow, we could be up and running better than ever in three months time; but if we lost our entire staff, it would take years to re-build our business.”

“Automation or not, we’re really only as good as our people and what they do,” added Bob Lommerse, general manager, Toledo Optical. “Automation is nice. It can take care of some of the tasks, but certainly not all of them. We’re still very much a hands-on industry. In the future, I know there will be even more innovative automation and new equipment that can theoretically do many more hands-off processes, eventually all the way through edging. But we will still need good people on the front- and back-ends of that process to put good information into the lab management software and handle the product into the machine, and at the end, there’s no machine that can put all these parts together and do the inspecting and ensuring everything is correct—and keeping the machines running.”

Reallocate and Reassign

Despite the fact that more and more optical laboratories are automating specific processes, the reality is that few of these labs ever get rid of employees. They simply reallocate those resources to other, more strategic lab tasks and responsibilities.

“Even though our new digital surfacing process will require fewer employees, we plan to utilize these people in other areas,” said Lommerse. “For example, as our business continues to grow, we’ll need to operate longer hours, so we’ll probably put additional people on a swing shift so we can run the equipment longer and continue getting the work out efficiently to our customers. In addition, there are certain areas where we’ll probably need to apply more labor resources—such as tracing and inputting all the new frames and shapes into the system. We might also do some cross-training with our customer service department, to make that area even stronger. At this point, we envision utilizing our people differently and in different areas, versus having to let people go.”

Changing Processes, Changing Needs

Another lab that has witnessed dramatic changes due to automation is Expert Optics. Its road to automation began seven years ago, ultimately culminating in three automated surface rooms and the world’s first fully automated, no-touch Rx processing line. Today, the only person needed on the no-touch Rx processing line is someone to take the lenses off the machine and mount them in their frames.

Based on his own experience, Greg Ruden, president of Expert Optics, believes automation does indeed change a lab’s dependence on employees.

“Basically, labs that automate may simply discover they need a different kind of employee,” he said. “They may need employees with different skill sets—technicians who can troubleshoot equipment, who fully understand the process and who understand computer micros and macros.”

Knowing full well that automation would eliminate the need for some labor resources, Expert Optics made another strategic decision—to install Crizal by Essilor—about the same time.

“This meant we would be able to surface more Rx’s here at our facility, instead of having to send them off to the Essilor facility in Dallas,” said Ruden. “With more surfaces needing to be done, we were able to reassign our current employees to that department. In addition, we’ve also witnessed business growth with Chemistrie magnetic clips, so we’re doing more of those every day and can use more labor resources in that area. Basically, we’ve found different positions for our employees, so no one has lost their job because of our advancements with automation technology.”

Keeping the Right Balance

According to Szymanski, an automated labs’ number one priority should be finding the right balance in their individual production facilities.

“Certain labs may make the mistake of becoming over-reliant on automation, at which point they lose touch with the product they’re actually manufacturing and bringing to their customers,” he said. “Today’s eyewear—as sophisticated as it is—is truly an art form. I believe you need those skilled artisans and craftsmen to remain actively involved in the hands-on process. As a lab, we’re very blessed to have very skilled people who are dedicated to producing the highest level of quality and service. Therefore, even as we reassign our employees into other areas, we’re still committed to keeping them very active in the lens-making process.”

Automation = The Perfect Employee

“The perfect antidote for pesky employee issues is robotics,” said Hal Walker, president at Superior Optical. “Automated machines don’t call in sick; they’re never late for work; they don’t take off for lunch; they don’t ask for raises; they don’t start rumors or hurt other machines’ feelings. Yes, automation isn’t cheap, but it does offer certain benefits.” “I would like nothing better than to replace people with technology, since those areas in our lab that are robotic are completely devoid of all employee problems,” said Walker. “However, even as we move toward more robotics in the future, we know we will always have a need for the human touch. The good employees will stay—and the strong will survive.”

Free Training Web Site: Opticianworks.com The Web is chock full of sites offering valuable educational resources—but few are designed specifically for the optical industry. Check out Opticianworks.com to access a wide range of free training modules, PowerPoint presentations, a glossary of terms and more. It’s a great way to gain the knowledge necessary to begin a career in the optical industry. Lab’s can use this site to bring employees up-to-speed on industry lingo and basic optics concepts.

Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Employees Absenteeism

Texting while working. Long breaks. Employee clicks. The gossip grapevine. And too much breakage. Certain employee issues are fairly common between lens laboratories. But some labs have found creative ways to keep these pesky issues to a minimum. Here are some suggestions that are successfully at work today:

Implement incentive programs. Expert Optics uses a gain-sharing program that calculates the combination of in-house breakage and laboratory re-dos. If those numbers fall within a certain percentage of the lab’s total Rx’s, employees receive a financial benefit, paid in the form of cash.

Toledo Optical utilizes a similar program to keep breakage numbers in check. It created a breakage incentive program that rewards employees not only for shipping jobs in a timely fashion, but also for keeping breakage at a certain level. As breakage numbers come down, the lab uses a graduated scale to give employees an additional financial reward that goes right into their paychecks. This program is also tied to employees’ attendance. If an employee is late or absent during the week, that reduces the payout—a strategy that rewards employees for being there, on time, and for being an active participant on the team. As a result, Toledo Optical has been able to keep breakage numbers low, while also reducing absenteeism and tardiness.

Encourage employee input. Encore Optics encourages co-workers to think of new ideas and encourages communication between departments. Since employees are in the trenches every day, they’re going to see things others may not see. The lab stresses that there’s no such thing as a dumb idea—and to consider ideas that make the job easier for the employee down the line.

Improve the culture of your work environment. Encore Optics prides itself in its “let’s have fun and get things done” culture. This lab has written policies that address a wide variety of employee issues and strives to enforce them evenly (including management). This non-selective enforcement helps encourage good employee behavior across the board.

Treat employees like “customers.” Toledo Optical has found that proactive communication goes a long way toward easing employee fears. With each new wave of automation, the lab has worked hard to address employees’ fears directly—stating that none of the lab’s talented people will be sacrificed for the sake of automation. “We’re probably more open than most in what we share with our employees,” said Szymanski. “And the more we share, the more they understand, and the more we’re all pulling in the same direction.”

Keep employees informed. Toledo Optical engages employees with morning updates, weekly meetings, departmental gatherings, team leader meetings and quarterly state-of-the-union meetings, where all the employees come together to discuss in detail what’s happening in the lab, its strengths, weaknesses and areas of improvement. In so doing, everyone feels like their pulling in the same direction. It also helps combat pesky employee issues such as gossip.

Tighten the belt on problem behaviors. To cut down on specific issues, Superior Optics has “outlawed” cell phones in the work place (asking employees to take them to their vehicles, if found), and requiring all conversations to be done on a company phone. To cut down on long employee breaks, this lab also installed a surveillance system to better monitor break-time. If employee issues continue, the lab resorts to incident reports that are considered in the employee’s annual review.

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Labtalk May/June 2018