Keeping Count - Automated Inventory Systems

By Catherine Skelton
Is your inventory monitored manually? Are you reading this article because you are wrestling with the “should we invest in the equipment necessary to move to an automated system” question? As an industry, the average wholesale lab has been slow to make the move to automated inventory systems. The labs that have made the investment, predominately with lenses, are singing the praises of the systems and the benefits they have seen.

ADVANTAGES

The first advantage that companies mention is always efficiency. Prior to installing the computerized system for their lens inventory, Interstate Optical in Indianapolis, Ind., needed a lens specialist dedicated to compiling the list of lenses that needed to be ordered each day. This person would spend an hour (or more) calling each one of the lens manufacturers to place the necessary stock order. Factoring the time spent by a trained lens specialist plus the fact that the phone line was tied up during that time, and of course the potential errors in the transfer of information, changing over to an automated system became the “right move.”

With the new automated system, the lens barcode is scanned when the job is started (something anyone in the department can do) and a few buttons are hit at the end of each day to calculate what has been used. This has turned a one-hour job into a five-minute operation. The manufacturers’ barcodes ensure the correct lens is reordered each and every time. Efficiency and accuracy are the end result. Efficiency and accuracy become evident with an automated system in other ways as well. When a lens is scanned, the computer will calculate the minimum and maximum for base curves and thicknesses. With the increase in specialty jobs and the popularity of drill mounts this feature cuts down on potential costly breakages and redo’s by making sure the correct lens is selected for the job. In an automated system the bacode-scanning checks and balances will not allow the wrong lens to be selected and then used.

PHYSICAL INVENTORIES

In the past, taking physical inventories for lenses, has required the wholesale lab to “shut down” for, in some cases, an entire business day. These inventories conducted for tax purposes or “year end” assessments are in most automated systems conducted on a scheduled basis. The Lens Lectriver (for an average production lab inventory) has roughly 40 “bins” and each bin takes 15 minutes to inventory and reconcile. The inventory schedule calls for two bins to be inventoried and reconciled each day. The inventory process that once required the lab to close for a business day (difficult to justify in our competitive and time sensitive market) or conducted on the weekend (large overtime payout) can now be handled utilizing a perpetual scheduled system.

DISADVANTAGES

Are there disadvantages to using an automated system? Of course, as with any computerized system there are limitations. The most evident and fortunately the easiest to correct is the computer’s inability to make a decision. What happens when a backorder occurs? If your lab relies solely on the automated system the job will be “put on hold” until the lens becomes available. Recognizing this challenge, Interstate Optical has a procedure in place to flag all backordered lenses and allow an override by the lab personnel in order to make a decision to substitute or change the lens brand. The production lab of the future will surely utilize automated systems for areas of the business such as inventory control where the “human element” is not necessary.

Every business evaluates its operating costs and the daunting task of deciding how to reduce the costs while maintaining the highest level of quality and service for their customers. Investigating an automated inventory system could be the first step in controlling costs and utilizing your most valuable resource, your employees. Your customers will be better served by using your employees to improve quality, service and relationships with your customers—benefits no computerized system can provide.

AUTOMATION…TO PICK, PLACE, AND PROFIT

by Jay F. Passey Over the last few years automation has made a big splash in the optical industry. The inclusion of equipment such as: autotapers, autoblockers, robotic generating, automated swarf handling units, smart conveyors and now most recently, robotic edging, have positively impacted the way labs operate their business. Labs now require significantly less labor, the remaining labor is more efficient, and breakage rates related to ‘human error’ are at an all time low. As labs reap the financial and production benefits of automating we have to ask ourselves, where else in our organization can we take advantage of automation? How about at lap tools and/or lens pick? These job duties are generally monotonous, requiring constant attention with either picking or replenishing, and you still run the risk of human error at these workstations.

At present there are two schools of thought for the betterment of those positions. The first way to improve the position is to semi-automate thus improving the efficiency at the position. For the picking of the laps, the company P@P Picking Systems, has designed a system where the operator scans the job ticket the system retrieves the lap and presents it in a placement area. An indicator light is illuminated denoting the correct lap to pick. Once, the lap is removed the operator then will press a button to acknowledge that the lap has been picked. It also works in reverse for replenishing the lap back into the system. For a semi-automated lens pick system many labs utilize a ‘Lektrival’ type storage unit or there are other ‘pick- to- light’ systems available from P@P and Flexlink to name a few.

The other solution is to fully automate those positions. These systems carry the job tray via conveyor to a reading station, locate and remove the lap from the system, then place the lap into the job tray and send the tray on its way. In the instances where the lap is already in use somewhere outside the system, then the job will continue to circulate and be represented until the lap is available. To replenish laps, a lap conveyor will shuttle the laps back to the reading station and will be placed back into the system automatically.

Today, fully automated lap pick systems exist and operate in a number of the larger labs in the U.S. These are the laboratories that have recognized the return on investment by implementing such a system. However, the investment really is dependant on a couple of factors; number of laps, ceiling height, required jobs per hour you want the system to pull, etc. These systems are truly custom-built to suit your needs. The systems are also modular and can grow with your business. For a fully-automated lens picking system at the lab level no one has yet to take the plunge. However, the technology is available and proven in other industries. “Come on in the water’s fine...”

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Labtalk November/December 2018