LABTALK UPDATE ON...OBM

By Christie Walker

Until now, if visiting a typical Rx lab in North America, one would see a very complex, production system involving dozens of process steps, little to no department integration and more than 50 human touches for each Rx produced. Other industries, even ones that also involve mass customization, have for the most part found ways to streamline the process or, they have found ways to move production closer to the ultimate consumer. For industries that have not found ways to streamline the production process the result has typically been either the offshoring of production or the development of radical new technologies making the “old way” of production obsolete.

 

For example, in the production of dental crowns, both has occurred: first offshoring; and recently a radically new method for producing crowns in a dental office. This new technology has taken the market by storm. The good news for the ophthalmic industry is that there are new production techniques being introduced that are allowing for process streamline, much faster production, and gained efficiencies. This fall, those same new technologies will be introduced in a “Micro-Lab” format by Satisloh to allow full–service eyeglass production in very small labs, even “in-office” labs.

 

On-Block Manufacturing (OBM) also referred to as “One-Block Manufacturing” is a streamlined method for producing completed Rx eyeglass lenses in a very short period of time without requiring a single human touch. The method involves blocking a semi-finished lens blank onto a unique plastic machineable surfacing block and then keeping the blank on the same block all the way through coating and even finishing. Using the Satisloh Nucleo blocking system as a “process integration platform” not only allows a lab to process an Rx completely on one block, but it also allows a lab to combine three departments (surfacing, coating, and finishing) into one integrated production line.

“The exciting part about introducing a process integration platform like the Nucleo Block is that for the first time labs can eliminate many process steps, reduce processing times, achieve higher yields, and in a high-volume lab, the process can be fully automated which eliminates any need for operator touches,” said Larry Clarke, president, Satisloh, North America. “ By eliminating about two-thirds of the normal labor required to produce an Rx lens and by increasing yields, the cost to manufacture customized eyeglasses prescriptions can be greatly reduced allowing labs in high-labor cost environments like the United States to be more competitive.”

 

And, there is the added benefit of being able to produce completed jobs with top quality AR coatings in less than two hours, which provides a lab with a new way to differentiate itself from near-shore or off-shore competition where it typically takes four to 10 days to get a consumers’ Rx back from a lab.

“The OBM production technique allows a lab to handle lenses in an “in-line” continuous production system as opposed to a batch process, which is typically slower and requires a lot of handling,” said Clarke.

 

WHY IS OBM NOW POSSIBLE?

In many cases, lab owners want to know why this production method is suddenly now possible when glasses have been made “the same old way” for over 80 years. There are two reasons that this breakthrough has become possible. First, new plastics and UV cured adhesive technology are allowing lens blanks to be blocked on a machineable block for the first time.

 

“The Nucleo plastic block material is not only inexpensive, but also rigid enough to hold a lens firmly with full-surface support through all production steps. It is alsonon-porous enough so that it does not hold water and can therefore be AR coated in a vacuum chamber with only minimal degassing times,” said Clarke.

 

The second and more important reason that OBM has become a reality is due to the introduction of FBS(Full Back Side) digital surfacing technology (also referred to as free form technology) that now allows the entire Rx including the add power, to be cut onto the back of a lens. With the advent of FBS progressive designs, a lab can now get by with only single vision spherical blanks in a few materials. Now a lab only needs to only carry inventory numbered in dozens of SKU’s as opposed to thousands making it financially feasible to carry both untreated and pre-treated (with AR) lens blanks.

 

The main concept behind OBM is that local labs—by carrying front–side pre-treated blanks—now only need to process the back side of a lens as opposed to the traditional model where lens treatments (like AR coating and hard-coating) had to be added to the both sides of lenses after cutting the Rx on the back, which required many steps and a lot of handling and process time.

 

“The best part of this concept is that anything that is done to a front of a lens, can be done better and cheaper off-shore at the location of blank manufacturing,” said Clarke.

A lens manufacturer, producing blanks 24 hours a day in a low labor rate location, not only has lower costs, but also typically runs thousands of the same curve and material at one time in batch processing and can therefore control and optimize every step and parameter in a treatment process. In addition, the blank manufacturer can treat the fronts of their blanks immediately following casting before being placed into packaging greatly reducing handling.

 

The concept of driving all costs and steps associated with the front sides of an Rx to the location of the lens blank manufacturer and only focusing on processing the back side of a lens in a local lab can even be taken two steps further…blocking and engraving. In many cases, lenses can be pre-blocked and/or pre-engraved with fitting marks immediately following hard-coating at the point of blank manufacturing. Shipping pre-blocked lenses has additional advantages besides reducing costs and eliminating a couple of steps at the local lab, it also eliminates the need for individual packaging, and, stacking of pre-blocked lenses lends itself to allowing local labs to put in automated lens pick and load systems eliminating lens pick and tray loading labor and further reducing operator error.

 

OBM RESULTS TO DATE

Satisloh started working on its OBM technology six years ago and installed the first line at a customer’s site two years ago. As is typical when introducing a dramatic new production technique, it took nearly a year to get the first line performing to expectations, but OBM lines are now achieving yields at higher than 96 percent and meeting all speed and quality demands and three additional lines have been successfully installed in the last year. The first re-order has now been received and the order book is filled to capacity for the next year. The main reason for the quick success of OBM technology is that with the exception of the Nucleo blocking technology, only very proven technologies and machines were used in each part of the line and the revolution has been more in terms of integration and automation of those proven technologies than in new equipment. The digital surfacing, scratch and AR coating technologies, and edging technologies have all been market successes for many years.

 

Having said that, the introduction has not been without challenges. Satisloh originally thought that edging lenses on the block would be the easiest part of the development, but in fact, finishing has turned out to be the most challenging in that it requires an accuracy far higher than past edgers. Satisloh will introduce an OBM version of its successful ES-Curve 5-axis edger early in 2013. Once completed, the compelling advantages of edging on the block are complete elimination of slippage and crazing, full surface support for the highest accuracy beveling, and of course – elimination of labor and operator errors in finish blocking. The good news is that the delays in completing the edging part of OBM has not held back the deployment of the technology since most prospects for automated OBM lines already have fully-automated edging departments and any new benefits associated with OBM edging for someone who already has automated edging is not a key to enjoying most of the benefits of OBM.

 

The other main learning discovered during the first two years of OBM deployments has been the need for redundancy. Although an OBM line does use very proven technologies and machines, even the most robust equipment occasionally breaks down and all automated systems require daily planned down time for preventative maintenance and shepherding. This has meant that for OBM manufacturing facilities like the one shown below where everything is automated together in one line, that every time any one piece of equipment is taken down for planned or un-planned maintenance, the entire line becomes unproductive. The average automated OBM line produces over 250 completed Rx pairs in less than eight hour with only three operators … a very attractive and addicting efficiency, so one can imagine the disappointment that occurs when the line goes down. For that reason, when presenting automated OBM systems, Satisloh now only sells double lines, which results in the desired uptime and overall throughput desired by customers. A double OBM line has a production capacity of over 1500 pair per 24 hours with only three to five people per shift, and, even with a hefty investment requirement, the return on investment is very attractive. However, the five million dollar price tag puts the technology out of reach of the average wholesale lab, and the current sales and installs tend to be occurring at retail chains, internet providers and lens manufacturers.

 

THE SURPRISE OF OBM AND FUTURE VERSIONS

“When first developing the OBM technology, we focused primarily on streamlining process and eliminating labor via full automation,” explained Clarke. “Since introducing the technology, the big surprise has been that although customers love the costs savings, the overwhelming excitement about the technology has more to do with the speed at which labs can produce Rx lenses and the added service levels that they can offer their customers when they can produce AR coated digitally surfaced Rx in as little as 30 minutes.”

 

 This excitement has caused Satisloh to rethink its original premise that OBM was all about automation. Labs of all sizes, even low volume in-store labs, have expressed a lot of interest in the OBM technology in a non-automated version. Although a manual load version of the technology will still require operators and lens touches, the number of operators is still greatly reduced (One operator can produce as many as 50 pair of AR coated digitally surfaced lenses in one shift), the technology still eliminates many steps in a lab, greatly simplifies processes and enables a local lab to offer AR coated, digitally surfaced and edged Rx to customers in as little as 30 minutes. This allows wholesale labs to install a new express lab (within their normal lab), and small integrated retailers to install a full-service lab in a very small footprint without needing the normal infrastructure associated with installing an AR lab. The new Micro OBM lab being introduced this fall will now allow labs of nearly any size to justify an investment in OBM and gives them the ability to offer a state-of-the-art Rx in minutes with minimal labor and infrastructure and can be justified for Rx volumes as low as 20 pair per day.

The micro OBM lab also allows a lab to utilize pre-blocked lenses from a number of lens manufacturers and even eliminates the need to alloy block in-house. Satisloh believes that the new Micro-Lab concept will allow the industry to place Rx production closer to the end consumer, greatly speeding up delivery, and will allow the industry to re-shore—a trend seen in other industries like the dental industry. The U.S. dental industry is currently experiencing a very fast-moving trend toward producing ceramic crowns in-office in 15 to 30 minutes using “pre-blocked” ceramic blanks in various color shades. Sound familiar? The similarities are uncanny as can be seen below.

Satisloh will have 3 micro-OBM lines in their booth at Vision Expo West and will be making custom Rx lenses for equipment prospects.


CURRENT ISSUE


May/June LabTalk 2017