Will You Sink or Swim With Automation and Robotics?

By Judith Lee
Not too far downstream, automation and robotics will comprise a technological life raft that will make all the difference between “sink or swim” for optical labs.

Already, labs that have invested in automation have seen a pay off in improved output and quality, streamlined workflow, and a more skilled workforce. Most importantly, these labs believe they have a significant edge on their less-automated competitors. The consensus is that automated and robotic equipment will become a “business essential” such as a telephone, computer and lab management system.

“You really won’t be able to do business without it,” said Chris Bowers of Walman Optical’s ophthalmic laboratory division, headquartered in Minneapolis.

That’s not to say that everything is smooth sailing with automated equipment. Those who work in automated labs acknowledge that increased automation demands a hefty capital investment, a high tolerance for operational change, and a strong, ongoing commitment to employee re-training. Of the labs interviewed, total automation was not be the goal.

“Total automation makes you too inflexible, and it costs too much,” said Matt Schmidt-Wetekam, a partner in Perfect Optics Lab, Vista, CA. “Partial automation allows you to maintain flexibility. It’s best to automate only where you get the biggest benefit.”

Knowledge is Power

Before putting that first toe in the water, you should do your due diligence. “Research, research, research!” exhorted Paul Ponder of Maui Jim. “Be sure the equipment, conveyors, and systems you are considering will meet every expectation. You should talk to other labs that have automated equipment and get their views on which vendors are most reliable, and most importantly, realistic.”

The level of automation of the labs interviewed ranges from a single area to all three areas of surfacing, finishing and blocking. Be sure to give some thought to where it would be best for you to begin; perhaps there’s old equipment that’s begging to be replaced, or perhaps your company has set more aggressive goals in specific areas.

“There are many levels of automation. At each level of growth in both product offerings and volume there are advantages for the use of automated equipment,” noted Ryan Markey, technical products manager for HOYA labs. Markey offered these guidelines:

• In blocking, automation is used to increase accuracy and speed and still requires an operator.

• Finishing automation requires a great deal more thought. With modern frame designs and new materials, new technology is required to maintain high quality standards. The new automated equipment affords the ability to create consistent shapes and sizes while maintaining a quality edge surface. This same equipment also does not slow the process in the way that earlier models did.

• Surfacing automation has arrived with the digital surfacing technology upgrades HOYA has made in our facilities. This automation has given us the ability for increased production while reducing spoilage. The increased accuracy of this generating technology has also given HOYA the ability to design and create an entirely new family of scientifically controlled, precisely designed digital progressives.

If you think automation will eliminate tracing issues, you might be disappointed, Markey warned. “Automation, as it relates to tracing, is overrated in some cases. Many of the companies that offer tracing equipment do not transmit all of the data needed. Averages and compensations are used to provide shapes. Some of the lab management software systems do not accept the additional data that it would take for a more accurate trace. Having an experienced operator is still key during the tracing process to verify shapes and size.”

When selecting automated equipment, turn to vendors for information that shows where and how the investment will make money for you.

“You need a financial model that shows a return on investment. The vendor should be able to put that down on a spreadsheet for you. If he can’t do it, don’t do it. You’re running a business, and you have to be able to show where it makes sense to invest,” Bowers said.

Preparation

Introducing or expanding automation requires careful planning to minimize unintended consequences, particularly with automated conveyors.

“The layout will become inflexible; you cannot get from point A to point B. Watch out for emergency exits, and don’t box yourself in with an intricate conveyor system,” said Schmidt-Wetekam.

As you prepare for change, employees are likely to be anxious that their positions may be eliminated. Each one of these lab owners said automation did not reduce their workforce, but did reallocate operators. Those doing new jobs and even those staying in their previous positions need to be retrained.

“Integration of operators [into the new system] and retraining are always challenging when making a change. Operators become accustomed to doing something one way. Changing habits is always hard,” noted Markey.

At Maui Jim, Ponder said employees were cross-trained in new and pre-existing positions, which increased efficiency, and provided better coverage when workers were absent. This led to overall increases in jobs completed.

With automation a good preventive maintenance program is more important than ever. Retrain good employees so they can perform these important tasks and minimize interruptions of your automated units. And of course, plan for problems. Make sure there is at least one person available at any given time that has the technical background to supervise, troubleshoot and quickly restore each automated unit.

“Let’s say your first step is blocking, and you can block 120 jobs per hour. If one generator goes out, you can only block 60 jobs per hour. It’s an interconnected system, and a breakdown in one area will profoundly affect the other areas,” said Schmidt-Wetekam.

Schmidt-Wetekam noted that maintenance and troubleshooting of automated equipment demands highly skilled people with backgrounds in programming, hydraulics and mechanics. This reflects a national need for more skilled workers.

In a survey last year of 779 industrial companies by the National Association of Manufacturers, 32 percent of companies reported “moderate to serious” skills shortages, with much higher needs cited by bio-tech and energy companies. Experts say your best bet is to select current employees for training in key areas.

“Select people with the right mindset and intelligence and retrain them,” said Thomas J. Murphy, chief executive of Ben Venue Laboratories, in a New York Times article in June, 2010. Reportedly, the Cleveland drug maker reviewed 3,600 job applications this year and found only 47 qualified people.

Even though you may be preparing for immediate changes in your operations, always be thinking ahead.

“When you plan for automation, you have to plan a few years ahead. Where will the lab be in three to five years? Layout your automated system like a Lego set that you can add to over time. If you don’t do this, you may be forced to rip out what you have, and this is extremely expensive,” Schmidt-Wetekam warned.

Dive in

It’s important to manage your expectations when it’s time to “flip the switch” on your automated system. Lab owners who have taken the dive into automation say the transition is bound to hit some bumps.

“Our biggest hurdles were reliability of the equipment, combined with variety of product that an optical lab has to produce. Most manufacturers in other industries make the same thing over and over again. In optics, every job is different. This can create stoppages in an automated system,” said Schmidt-Wetekam.

Schmidt-Wetekam said you can expect, at first, to have a machine malfunction about once an hour. This is why you need to have that skilled worker available who can correct a problem and get all the machines running again.

“If there is an interruption, you must be able to correct it immediately, because the cost of interruptions is significant,” Schmidt-Wetekam noted.

For Bowers, the biggest headache was convincing the computers and the machines to “play nice.”

“You have to learn how to get them to interface; do it or die. That was my job. A lot of companies don’t want others to see what they’re doing, so there are ‘black boxes’ and firewalls. You need the help of machine vendors to obtain an interface. Everyone has to hold hands, and you need IT people too,” he said.

According to some lab owners, in some cases, you may have to learn to live with disappointment.

“Hopefully, when you were purchasing, vendors provided accurate data on the capabilities and throughput, as well as the performance level of their equipment. For some equipment, once it’s installed you realize it is not what was stated by the vendor,” noted Ponder.

Still, each of the labs realized immediate benefits from their investment in automation and robotics, mostly in the areas of reduced breakage, improved workflow, and higher productivity.

“The conveyor moves all the time, so it’s a consistent workflow. We also have less breakage. We’ve saved an entire day on the production of a complete job, and we are using this savings to produce more jobs,” noted Schmidt-Wetekam.

Ride the wave

Once you have researched, invested, retrained, and survived the transition period, you will not regret taking the plunge. “The real savings to your operation is in quality and accuracy. New technology has been a long time coming to the optical industry and growing with it will afford labs the ability to offer consistent quality and service while maintaining your competitive edge,” said Markey.

These lab owners’ appetite for new technology is unabated. Each one said he has plans to continue to invest in automation and robotics.

“What’s coming in blocking automation is very interesting. If we can get to the point where no one touches lenses, we will have nothing to worry about. This is very new. We are conservative, so we are letting some others try it first,” said Bowers.

Schmidt-Wetekam said Perfect Optics is looking to automate finishing, although some things (like insertion) cannot be automated. “In that case,” he said, “you create good workflow to the manual stations.”

Looking ahead, lab owners feel good about the investment they’ve already made. “We absolutely have made good investments in automation. As an industry, if we still made lenses the same way we did 30 years ago, we would need twice as many people and eyeglasses would cost ‘way more than they do now,” Bowers said.

For Ponder, it’s not a question of whether to automate, but how soon can you do it: “There is no doubt that if you want to stay in the game, be a leader in the industry, and WOW your customers, you need to build a lab that shows your commitment to being the best.”

Tracing Points: Automate your frame database

“Several years ago I came within an eyelash of cancelling our subscription to the Tracing Points program from Frames Data. At the time, data only came out quarterly. By the time we received the latest update, we typically had half of everything we needed already loaded into our system. I asked Frames what it would cost to receive a monthly update, they shot me a price and now we couldn’t live without the data.

In fact I’ve never understood why every lab doesn’t subscribe to tracing points. Here are some of the advantages for us.”

1. By importing the data into DVI we save significant time and money over inputting the data ourselves.

2. Typically importing frames data keeps our database more consistent than if multiple operators were entering the data.

3. We are able to upload the data and SKU numbers.

4. More accurate thicknesses and placement of optical centers for our uncut customers.

5. Prior to Frames Data’s Tracing Points, it was difficult to convince operators to keep our frame database.

6. There is no better LMS system than DVI and DVI works better with Frames Data’s Tracing Points.

John Sutherlin

Sutherlin Optical

What is Tracing Points?

Tracing Points is detailed information on frame styles from Frames Data’s comprehensive database. Not only does Tracing Points deliver the basics, (sizes, colors, material, UPC Codes, etc) it also contains trace data created by experienced Frames Data technicians.

The Benefits

Tracing Points can help you turn jobs around faster, with greater workflow efficiency and accuracy. Once the frame information is loaded into your lab management software, you have a very detailed, accurate in-house frame database at your fingertips. Some of the ways you might use the data include:

• Lens blank selection. A VCA-standard compatible trace file is available so that the lab technician can select the proper blank to start the job based on the frames to be used. In addition, data points—such as frame curve and Z-tilt—help to ensure the most accurate fit for the Rx being produced.

• Surfacing. Because an accurate trace file is available, surfacing can begin before the frame is received at the lab. This can reduce turnaround time on the job by 24 hours or more.

Having a robust frame database can enable further automation. Work with your software provider to automate:

• Frame inventory management. For lab-supply-frame jobs, the database can be used to automatically order the frame—either from in-house inventory, from a distributor, or direct from the manufacturer. Accurate UPC, SKU, pricing, size, and color information is attached to the frame record for accuracy and efficiency in placing frame orders.

• Billing. Accurate, up-to-date wholesale pricing is included in the database, allowing the lab to automate billing for lab-supply-frame jobs.

• Replenishment. When a frame is dispensed/sold by the lab, the database can be used to automatically re-order frames and replenish stock to pre-specified levels. Because these orders can be set up electronically, order management at the vendor is significantly improved—providing significant benefit to the frame vendor and improved relationships between the lab and the vendor.

• Reporting and tracking. By using Frames Data’s standardized frame database, record keeping is accurate and complete—allowing for a variety of reporting and analysis to be done.

How do I start?

Tracing Points is available as an annual subscription. To subscribe, call Frames Data’s associate director of sales, Angela Carroll at 212-219-7831.To learn more about Tracing Points and order a CD with sample data, visit www.framesdata.com.

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Labtalk May/June 2018