By Ken Lento and Paul Mcellin
Automation and the way in which ‘trays’ (the medium used to contain each job) are handled within optical laboratories has gradually evolved over the past ten years, starting with manually carrying trays, to powered roller conveyors or gravity push conveyors, to plastic chain conveyors (table top). The evolution of technology in the optical industry has been driven by the increased production volumes of the major labs and by market growth and consolidation. The changes in machine technology with their higher throughputs have also driven a need to -produce higher volumes more efficiently.

The argument for automated tray handling is often one of last considerations and usually after the key process machines are acquired. Process equipment is essential and often considered the key to a successful production process with less importance placed on tray handling. Even though you can always consider lower technology options to move trays, such as manually moving product or simple gravity conveyors, you must really consider the cost impact of that decision and the effectiveness of the entire production process. An optical lab today must be capable of handling high volumes and/or batch sizes of just ‘one.’ Manually managing the -ever-changing demands of today’s production schedules and the Rx data supporting it is extremely difficult. You need to be able to track the production process and trace each of the steps. The ‘glue’ that holds it all together is the tray handling system and it is often the key to return-on-investment when purchasing high-dollar machines.

Although larger laboratories have the volume and -resources to justify higher levels of automation, smaller labs typically find the investment level too high or the technology gap too great to purchase conveyors. For the most part, the investment in -newer technology has only been reasonable for the larger labs, where there is always pressure to reduce their investment and operating costs.

Research suggests that there is a demand for something new, a system that has specific advantages over existing tray handling technology. This is what lab managers are saying they want:

• Lower total cost, capital plus cost of ownership

• Lower noise

• Minimum disruption to production when installing new systems or when modifying or expanding existing lines

• Easy to install, requiring little set up (plug & play)

• Smoother tray handling

• Less use of space

• Less controls and elimination of pneumatics

• Scalable from small to large systems

The move to plastic chain conveyors started 10 years ago and improved many tray handling issues of the time. By 2010, with rapid advancements in technology, escalating consumer demands for style and turn around time, and a business climate fostering sustainability, the time had come for a new generation of tray handling systems. A key consideration for the next generation tray handling system is justifying the investment. Will this new automation be more accessible to smaller labs and provide a more efficient system for the high volume producers? Certainly more users would mean more volume, leading to lower cost and a faster return on investment for all.

Conceptual thinking has coincided with new -technology developments within standard conveyor products already available to other industries. These technologies include a smaller conveyor, just 45 mm wide driven by 24vDC drive units combined with embedded intelligence. This enables the conveyor motors, to be controlled from local sensors without any additional external controls, and creates highly modular system structures. It also means that the power consumption is less than a light bulb and can be plugged into a household socket using a 24v DC transformer.

One of the most important features of ‘Vision X’, the new development from FlexLink Systems, is the ability for labs to make more creative conveyor layouts. Existing solutions present greater restrictions on how to layout a system. ‘Vision X’ offers a more compact design and the ability to change levels in a small space. Machines can be arranged in many different ways, even in a circle.

So what are the key features of ‘Vision X’?

• A twin track conveyor system that offers many -advantages over the existing single plastic chain conveyor design.

• A twin track with greater stability and gentler handling

• A tray guidance system -incorporated into the ‘slide rail’ of the conveyor. There are no external guide -brackets to connect -allowing for faster assembly, fewer parts, and smoother tray handling.

• The system features solenoid stops (all electric) rather than pneumatics (air). A completely -airless system is extremely quiet. Where previously -pneumatic bladder stops were used together with a hard stop for singulation, the solenoid design operates beneath the tray combining both the stop and -singulation functions – this again reduces -complexity resulting in lower costs.

• A tray turner mechanism, value engineered to -reduce costs, allows for horizontal transfer from one conveyor to another at any angle up to 360 -degrees. This one unit is multifunctional and -replaces many tray diverters and devices required to move a tray off one conveyor on to -another, or to rotate a tray. The tray turner is available with a single post support or a goalpost design to allow trays to pass beneath. An optional vertical axis also allows the tray to be transferred to multi -levels.

• ‘Vision X’ is now offered as “standard modules” that include all associated equipment, including controls. A range of modules is available and are designed for the optical machines on the market today. Configuring layouts is very simple. Pick from the standard machine configuration models, drop the block into the layout and you have automatic engineering and costing.

• Conveyor speed and other motor (drive) -parameters such as acceleration are -configurable and can be changed easily by the customer and without requiring external support from the supplier.

• If tray accumulation is required, you can select the external roller guiderail option. The roller guiderail reduces line pressure without requiring additional stops and controls. This also simplifies the installation and operating costs.

• Conveyors need not be continuously running -under the trays, avoiding line pressure and reducing dust and wear. The conveyors can also start and stop as the flow demands, thus reducing noise. ‘Vision X’ is based on a standard conveyor that allows for completely different layout concepts than are currently available and the ability to condense more production into a smaller footprint.

The motor (drive) systems are “green.” They operate at 24 VDC versus systems in the past that required 230v/3 Phase high power motors. ‘Vision X’ operates without the requirement for any centralized control system.

‘Vision X’ has already been delivered to labs in the U.S. and more labs are in the process of securing this new tray handling system.


May/June LabTalk 2017