MULTIPLE AXIS EDGERS: THE LATEST SALVO IN THE AUTOMATION WAR

By Judith Lee
Like D-day on the Normandy beaches, advanced automation has been a turning point in the battle to modernize ophthalmic manufacturing. The latest salvo comes from four- and five-axis edgers, each of which can replace several tabletop edgers, enable labs to produce complex orders (and lots of them), and realize efficiencies in staffing and operations.

The investment in these edgers is significant, ranging from $115,000 to $250,000. Yet manufacturers and users assert that just one of these machines (and some labs have several) can transform a typical optical lab into an elite operation that turns out specialty jobs such as wrap-around lenses and glasses with interchangeable lenses.

“We went from doing a few wrap Rx’s a day to nearly 200 a day. This was a whole new facet for our business,” noted Doug Pech, president of Pech Optical.

“Yes, our five-axis edger allowed us to increase volume. But this is such a wonderful edger, you use it for a lot of things you can’t run through a conventional edger,” said John Sutherlin, a principal in Sutherlin Optical, which now has five of these edgers.

It’s estimated there are about 150 of these machines in use by U.S. optical labs, 75 percent of which were made by MEI, an Italian company experienced in Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machining in the mechanical and automotive fields. Satisloh is a more recent entrant, and has sold about 25 percent of the U.S. machines. Schneider Optical will be entering the market this year.

Although MEI calls its products four-axis edgers and Satisloh lays claim to five-axis technology, all these edgers differ from tabletop edgers in similar ways. Edo Tortolato, MEI sales engineer, offered this explanation: “Better flexibility, higher precision of lens profiles, more size stability using a tool that works like a knife instead of like sand paper.” He said MEI’s very first customer provided this list of benefits:

• Three to four times more flexibility in terms of tool profiles than in a standard grinding machine.

• The milling tools maintain the profile until the end of the tool life, avoiding errors in the profile and the typical rounding of all corners in the grinding wheels.

• Customized profiles increase the productivity of the machine and reduces the risk of errors.

• The cutting force due to the edging with milling tools is lower, considerably reducing the risk of lens breakage.

• The edgers are industrial strength, extending the life of the machine four to five times beyond that of a tabletop edger.

• The cutting angle can be changed to precisely match the lens curvature, even when it is extremely high.

• Less environmental impact (even though a good dust absorber and some manual cleaning is required).

• The number of rejected jobs drops dramatically.

• The edging cost per job is lower than the edging cost with the standard edger.

• These industrial edgers allow software and hardware upgrades, otherwise impossible with the standard edger. Kevin Paddy, product line director of finishing for Satisloh, noted that since one five-axis machine can take the place of two to seven tabletop edgers, the 150 edgers out there are comparable to 600 tabletop edgers.

“There are some customers who have realized the value and are investing in it. This trend is no different than AR was 10 years ago, and free-form finishing was five years ago. If you get in first, you will win because you can dictate the price and earn a faster ROI. As more labs acquire the technology, it becomes more competitive and drives down the price, and the ROI is not as quick,” Paddy said.

Jeffrey Zeidner, optical lab manager for Vision Essentials by Kaiser Permanente, said his lab purchased an MEI edger about two years ago, and it quickly replaced two smaller edgers and a CNC drilling machine. The four-axis edger processed drill mounts and high-wrap lenses, but it also processed standard work quickly and accurately. The lab recently added two more MEI machines, embracing automation as strategies for competition and cost-containment.

“We are only interested in machines that use automation to the fullest extent,” Zeidner noted. “The maintenance required for these machines is very low compared to other high-production automated machines.” Zeidner’s lab reduced labor needs by about half, as one operator can run up to seven machines at a time (with tabletop edging, they had four operators running 12 edgers). However, the edger operator needs a different skill set than those needed to run conventional edgers.

“All the information on how to process the order is sent from the Lab Management System computer. Building an accurate data base is crucial to operating these machines. Creating the data base requires skill sets not normally required of a machine operator, such as CAD design software and knowledge of how CAD designs work,” he said.

MEI provided four days of operator training, after which the operator could process simple jobs with the edger. Pech Optical tells a similar story. The lab was an early adopter, acquiring their first four-axis edger five years ago when there were just a handful of these edgers in U.S. labs.

“We made a conscious decision to get into the sport sunglass market. We had one talented guy who was doing the work by hand. The new machine gave us the ability to manufacture difficult Rx’s more consistently, and we don’t have just one guy doing it,” Pech noted.

Pech Optical added more MEI machines for standard ophthalmic work, selected for high speed and accuracy. The lab has a total of five automated edgers, each one replacing three tabletop edgers.

Sutherlin Optical took the plunge about two and a half years ago, choosing a Satisloh machine because it was “significantly less money” and presented the opportunity to become a beta test site.

“Programs were written specifically for us, so we could become productive very quickly,” Sutherlin said.

In terms of operator training, Sutherlin said it took very little to learn how to produce straightforward jobs: “If you can run an Optronics edger, you can run this. But with more complex jobs, it does require more time [to learn] in front of this edger.”

Sutherlin Optical has not eliminated any tabletop edging, running their automated edger alongside the older machines. The Satisloh edger is particularly useful for high minus jobs, or anything that might pose a risk of slipping, thanks to the cutter’s higher RPM’s. Along with reducing rejects, the edger has greatly increased volume throughput at Sutherlin.

Sutherlin noted that other lab owners considering the purchase of a five-axis edger often call with questions: “A lot of labs don’t fully grasp the advantage of angling the lens edge. When you can angle the cutter, it fits better in the frame, and everyone is happier.”

With glowing reviews and happy customers, both MEI and Satisloh promise they will continue to gain ground in the U.S. market. Schneider Optical Machines will be entering the market with a new 5 axis industrial edger late summer of 2011. “At the MIDO exhibition in Milan/Italy, Schneider introduced the new HSE Freestyle all-in-one industrial edger which drew close attention by the professional visitors. The HSE Freestyle edger was shown in conjunction with a new optical true shape tracer, CT image, which gathers the frame data with previously unseen accuracy and detail,” said Chillon Joersz, Schneider Optical Machines.

“Labs have upgraded their generators for digital surfacing because this is a new source of revenue.

Five-axis edging gives labs the same benefit; it provides a new opportunity for labs to generate revenue in their finishing department,” said Paddy.

“We are aware that we’ve changed the way to edge ophthalmic lenses, thanks to CNC and milling technology application on this field. We are sure that milling technology and multiple-axes edgers will be the future,” Tortolano said.

It may be just as simple as winning the automation war by decisively taking each battle on the ground.

“I can tell you because of throughput and production of better-quality lenses,” Sutherlin said, “I intend to never buy a 2D edger again.”

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August/September LabTalk 2017