Robo Labs Are Not Created in a Day

By Seth J. Bookey
If you’ve been to the past few annual OLA shows, or you’ve been reading this magazine, you know that “the technology is here.” But is it in your lab? And does it need to be there all at once? As it turns out, the fully automated lab is not created all in one day, but more likely tends to evolve over time. So you don’t have to worry about your lab suddenly looking like the set of Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” overnight.

Randy Baldwin, director of surfacing and coating at Gerber Coburn, observed, “From the U.S. perspective, more and more labs are looking for reduction of labor costs. They are looking toward automation. They are looking to automating particular areas of the lab first. For example, they might automate the generating area or surfacing. Some might automate blocking.”

The nature of the automation might depend on what the lab is hoping to achieve when streamlining operations. For example, Baldwin noted, “In the U.S., there’s not a lot of people doing cut-to-polish. People are doing soft tool polishing on conventional curved lenses and need a generator that will do that. In the next year or two the trend to cut-to-polish will grow, since they can get rid of laps, lap management, and pad management.”

Many labs started out their automation plans on the surfacing side, and are now looking to automate other phases of lens processing. The size of a lab also determines the nature of the automation as well.

Steve Swalgen, national director of lab business for Santinelli International, said that while conveyor belt systems are great for larger labs doing 600 jobs or more per day, “Labs that are not using conveyors would be likely to go with stackers and destackers.” He also observed, “Their biggest concern starts with waste. Labs want more control over the process. They want more consistency with technology, and they want to lower finishing waste numbers. Consistent, quality, especially with drill mounts, is also important. The costs now are greater than ever before when you have lens re-dos.”

Swalgen agrees with Baldwin’s assessment about automation evolution, that labs that have some automation now are probably automated in the surfacing area, and are considering the finishing department next. Also, while “labor is a factor,” noted Swalgen, “it's more labor redirection than reduction,” as labs tend to reassign workers to more important tasks while letting the machines do the routine jobs.

Swalgen said, “When it comes to automation, there are some who have split up their choices, while some try to use only one vendor. With proven technology, they will buy several machines. Finishing is a natural follow-on to surfacing.” John Fried, president of A&R Optical Machinery, which makes automated blocking and lens inspection equipment, also noted that most labs “don’t start out with the finishing blocking process. Many of the labs we are dealing with are automating their surfacing room and might be going into finishing.”

Fried also observed, “All of our customers are keenly interested in our technology for a number of reasons. It’s extremely important to inspect lenses in a completely objective way. So we can deliver a consistent product to labs’ customers. The operators determine so much, but human errors are always possible. Our instruments eliminate those errors.”

But automation brings a variety of considerations with it before buying that new multifunction edger. “You can't have downtime with automation. The automation has to get past the routing obstacles that shut down an edger,” Swalgen said, adding, “One-cut sizing is critical to automation. Good communication between software and the machines is necessary. You wouldn’t have a lab today without software, but software doesn’t always work automatically with new equipment. You cannot get into a situation where you redo jobs coming off of automation.”

Gerber Coburn’s Baldwin noted that many labs are hoping to automate within a year or two. “One lab wants to be so automated that the janitor could stack jobs and push a button,” he said.

Here’s a look at how some wholesale optical labs approached their recent automations.

Midland Optical

Getting good customer support from lab equipment manufacturers really helped when Midland Optical, based in St. Louis, updated its machinery over the past 20 months. “It went quite easily,” said finishing department manager Bill Wilson. “We found room for the new equipment and got the electrical work done in advance, and the companies did the rest.”

The lab’s new additions include a V Pro in the processing room and two ES-3 machines from Satisloh in the finishing department, as well as three RHU-1000 robotic handling units from Santinelli International to accompany some SE-9090 industrial edgers.

“We’ve had a bit of automation in the finishing department before. We had two Weco 880s. The three Santinellis have taken their place,” Wilson said. “The Santinelli products give us better quality. We’ve picked up more volume with the three machines from Santinelli. The Wecos we had were about seven years old.” The ES-3s replaced three manual edgers and do a lot more jobs.

Midland Optical reconfigured the lab to make room for the new machines. “The 9090s went where the Weco 880s were,” he said. The manual edgers had to be moved. They still use the manual ones, since “some jobs need special bevel work or need to be taken care of in a special way—a lot of half-eyes with a B measurement less than 26 mm,” he added.

“You can process jobs faster and process more. There are no human actions to interrupt the flow—no breaks or lunch hours,” he added. Both the Satisloh and Santinelli machines are hooked up to conveyor belt systems. Along with the obvious gains in accuracy and faster turnaround, there have been other benefits to updating the machines. “The big plus on the Santinellis is the edge polish quality. They leave no swarf on poly groove jobs, which saves a lot of operator time,” Wilson said.

Midland Optical does a total of 1575 jobs a day, in two eight-hour shifts. Automating the lens-processing operations made it possible.

Optik K&R

For this Toronto-based lab, automating the optical lens processing was easier because the lab was already familiar with many of the issues from having invested heavily in automating their contact-lens operation.

Ryan Maxwell, general manager at Optik K&R, noticed that the typical problems are alignment issues. “When the computer stops, when it cannot find what it’s looking for, the human operators wind up scratching their heads, reading error messages and trying to convert them to English, and figure out which sensors didn’t work. You don’t want to find out at the end of the day that you miscalibrated the machine.”

Integrating new equipment to work with lab-management software is also an issue. “Software integration is a problem, so we use our own proprietary software to get around it. There are a lot of small things that don't work. With the [National Optronics] 7EA, there's no way to tell [Gerber Coburn’s] Innovations that I want a job to be edge polished. We end up setting the machine one way for that, and then reset it for ‘no edge polishing,’ as opposed to the machine resetting jobs tray-by-tray. We could only do it by customizing the software,” Maxwell said.

“What motivation does a software vendor have to make sure I can use this edger to the best of my ability? We don't want jobs to go through quickly and then discover we have to re-do some or all of them. It’s difficult to get lab software to work with every vendor's machine. We also have an Optidrill, and we also have trouble getting it to work well with the Innovations library of patterns and lenses. Using a proprietary software solution can help, but it’s still very difficult,” he noted.

Optik K&R is using National Optronics’ 7EA for finishing and Gerber Coburn’s DTL100 to perform direct surfacing. There is more automation on the finishing side at Optik K&R since the lab wants to stay ahead of the curve on the surfacing side of lens processing. “We wanted to consider the latest features and stay ahead of the current standard,” Maxwell said. He used the recent OLA 2006 meeting in Florida to take some time to check out all the latest innovations in surfacing equipment found under one roof.

On the finishing side, automation has meant less multitasking for the operators, since, “the machine doesn’t take breaks—the person who is mounting is not also doing the edging. There's also more motivation, since the machine is constantly putting out more work,” he observed.

While producing more jobs in less time is a benefit, Maxwell noted that for his lab, “The service has to be there and be reliable. In a ‘lights out’ situation, a machine should be able to run for two hours after we close for the night. We are interested in being able to eliminate the human factor, even if it means it takes longer.” Consequently, using automated stacking and destacking equipment after hours makes more sense than running conveyor belts, which are used on the finishing end of the process.

Automation has given the lab cost efficiencies and better quality work, “since people aren't running from one station to another. They have some breathing space. They are not standing in front of the machine nonstop, cutting all the time. Our blocker is also automated, so a job can go on the conveyor to edging. By eliminating steps, there’s less human contamination,” he observed.

Maxwell also noted that automation brings with it some psychological hurdles. “There’s frustrations when things don’t work. A lot of people cannot see the big picture. They are not used to doing minor adjustments here and there—but if the machine is not calibrated properly, you can screw up a lot of jobs in a very short time. You are there to make sure the machine is working properly,” he said. Good service from the supplier is always key. “Gerber Coburn is great with service, as is National Optronics,” Maxwell noted. “We are always asking for alignments and corrections, but they even come by when I haven’t called them.”

Interstate Optical

Headquartered in Mansfield, Ohio, Interstate Optical recently added a new combination lens verifier and blocker, as well as a leap-pad applicator, to its stable of automated lens-processing equipment. Already in place were automated generators and multifunction edgers, many of which are linked up with conveyor-belt systems.

According to Ted Mayberry, vice president of production, the verifier/blocker unit replaced older machines, but it handles only 60 jobs per hour, and the lab is doing 125 jobs per hour, so Interstate is considering purchasing another automated verifier/blocker unit.

“The people it replaced were good, skilled people, who moved into other positions. One was an assembler, and another an inspector,” Mayberry said. “We sent the older verifier to our other lab in Indiana.”

While Interstate is using generators and edgers from the same manufacturer, the verifying and blocking machine comes from a different manufacturer. “As the lab seeks to automate other parts of its lens-processing operations, it will be considering a variety of suppliers. We try to look at all of our options,” he noted.

Interstate Optical had a master plan when it came to automation, and “as the technology seemed to be right in a certain area, we implemented it. In the beginning—about five or six years ago—we tried out some machines that weren’t ready yet. Today’s machines are better now than they ever were,” Mayberry said.

By and large, Interstate has found that its lab personnel have embraced technology, in part, Mayberry noted, “because nobody’s ever lost a job due to automation. We’ve eliminated certain parts of the process, but not employees.”

Mayberry also said that Interstate’s lab-management software, DVI, works closely with the lab whenever new equipment has been added. Regardless of the manufacturer, DVI has been able to provide the lab with seamless interfaces.

Superior Optical

Robotics and automation have played a part in many lab success stories, but in the case of Superior Optical, new technology has been key in coming back from the ultimate “lab redesign”—Hurricane Katrina. Headquartered in Ocean Springs, Miss., (with another location in Ft. Pierce, Fla.). While the lab had been upgrading before the storm hit, automation became critical after Katrina; the lab was closed from August 29, 2005 to the May 1, 2006.

“After Katrina, it made our choice easier since some of our older employees left the area. It would have been more difficult without automation,” said Jonathan Jacobs, owner of Superior Optical, which is now back to its 300-jobs-per-day workload. The lab has automated both generating and edging, with Gerber Coburn DTLs and Satisloh ES-3 units.

“With the new machines, we could do more with fewer employees,” he noted. “We’re doing a lot in a limited area—space was definitely a consideration. The hurricane allowed us to rearrange everything.”

While Superior had been using gravity-feed conveyors, when the lab was rebuilt, the decision was made to switch to stacker/destacker units for edging. “We can leave for the evening and have 35 more jobs ready to go when we come back the next morning,” he said.

Jacobs has also discovered that automation is only as good as the data it receives. “Automation presented problems when lens vendors’ specs were not precise. If you don’t have the right information, the machine keeps getting fed until someone fixes it,” he said. Automation also presented a training curve for lab personnel, when it comes to maintenance and calibration. “In my opinion, there are more maintenance issues. We try to utilize the vendors. We sent people to training. With Gerber, the techs come in, as does Satisloh; they come in every quarter,” he said. Gerber Coburn also helps out with remote diagnosis and data changes via email.

Even though automation has helped Superior get back to pre-Katrina work levels, there are limitations. On the generating side, jobs would need to be segregated if the lab was doing cut-to-polish work, due to limitations presented by the lab-management software. “It doesn’t quite understand how to handle the work. There’s got to be a way for a job mix to go through. The software will tell us to do some work traditionally. So far, most of the vendors have not found a way to segregate the software so it can go back and forth,” Jacobs said. “We are sticking with traditional finishing until that issue is fixed. We are also waiting for cut-to-polish for poly so we can do all materials at once.”

On the edging side of the lab, continuous jobs are being run; but there also, jobs are separated. “We try not to put polish work through it since it slows it down. We separate rimless for another machine. We use the robotic machine for our bread-and-butter work. We might run the slower jobs for the evening work. During the day, we might do polish work separately,” he added.

In general, automaton has answered many problems, but so far, “the equipment is ahead of the software,” Superior Optical is hoping to automate its Florida lab during the next year. Currently, the building’s electrical system and layout doesn’t facilitate automation. “Going in with a new building made for automation, really helps,” Jacobs said. “[When rebuilding in Mississippi] Essilor and Satisloh gave us lab drawings and we've used a combination of both. We can take our experience here and take it to Florida when we plan layout, electrical, and plumbing.” Jacobs also noted that in the fast-changing world of automation, floor plans made today might differ from vendor specifications a year from now.

The difficult experience of Katrina taught Jacobs that automation cannot be done in one fell swoop. “It’s virtually impossible to shut down and redo things. You have to figure out a way to do it so segments can be incorporated over a weekend, so you are not down for long,” Jacobs said. “So when you do bring the equipment in, and the vendors come in to install it—you can have everything ready for them to test before production starts for the week.”

Both Gerber Coburn and Satisloh stayed a full work-week with Superior to get it operating, with plenty of follow-up visits for tweaking. “That’s the one thing with any automated equipment: if you think you’re going to crank it up and have it running immediately, it’s not going to happen. Things need to be adjusted to how your lab works. Unfortunately, grinding lenses is not all that cut and dry. There is some voodoo involved.”

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August/September LabTalk 2017