3 Sides of the Automation Equation…Latest Solutions and Smartest StrategieS

By Julie Bos

Of all the trends affecting optical labs, one of the most prevalent is clear: automation. According to industry experts, automation is (by far) the fastest-growing trend in the business, and virtually every lab falls into one of two camps—either you’re considering it or already implementing it (and therefore trying to do it better). By consolidating input from all three sides of the automation equation (equipment, software and conveyor automation), you will discover the latest solutions and smartest strategies to move your lab forward.

The goal is simple: By automating specific areas of your lab operation—and ultimately connecting those areas together—your lab will continue down the road to a larger, more comprehensive automation solution and realize all the benefits that go with it. 

The Role of Automated Equipment

For most labs, automation starts at the equipment level—simply automating one production task. But as the automation trend has grown over the past decade, automation now touches more tasks than ever and addresses a wide variety of former lab “challenges.” Here are a variety of ways advanced equipment can play a role in advancing automation in your lab.

Problem Solved: Bottlenecks in Backside Coating

In an automated lab, one typical bottleneck is backside hard-coating application. The Velocity Automated Coater from Coburn Technologies helps address this area. By completely automating lens handling, cleaning, coating and curing, the Velocity Coater improves overall laboratory efficiency and yield. The system has several key attributes that allow production to keep moving. Adding the Velocity Coater to the automation line removes time-consuming manual lens cleanup by an operator while producing consistent cleaning process on every lens.

Unlike other systems, which simply automate the manual loading and unloading of lenses, the Velocity Coater also automates the most critical step in a successful coating process—pre-cleaning. While other coaters rely on the operator to pre-clean lenses, producing yields that fluctuate from operator-to-operator throughout the course of the day, the Velocity Coater incorporates a multi-stage pre-cleaning process plus a final in-chamber wash cycle to produce consistent high yields day after day.

Problem Solved: Breakage During Cleaning and Coating

Labs that perform hand-cleaning often require a significant amount of manpower and suffer a substantial amount of breakage due to the manual handling. In addition, many labs in the U.S. are still spin-coating their lenses using machines that are typically manual. Investing in equipment that can automate both cleaning and dip coating can streamline the entire process while eliminating two costly issues in one move.

Buhler (Leybold Optics) offers automated cleaning lines, as well as automatic cleaning and dip coating lines. While there is some handling required (to load and unload the machines), the processes of cleaning and dip coating are done automatically, which means your staff can load a batch and walk away.

Problem Solved: Process Consistency

One major benefit of automated equipment is the ability to drive consistency throughout the lens production process. Systems from Santinelli contribute greatly to this goal.This company’s automated dual-edging systems—both wet (using an AES-2200 with two SE-9090 Supra edgers) and dry (using an ADS-2200 with two SE-1 Xtrimer 5-axis edgers)—provide the highest qualitative consistencies in the industry (in JPH terms).

Santinelli equipment can also automate the full gamut of finishing needs, from traditional “bread and butter” jobs to the most complex drill, shelf and wrap designs—all without the manual labor aspects of tabletop, non-automated edging. Labs can even automate their entire finishing process by adding high-accuracy “LT” tracers and semi-automated “ICE” blockers.

“If a lab is not willing to automate at least 75 percent of its total finish production, it’s wasting its money,” asserts Steve Swalgen, national director, lab business, for Santinelli. “We believe we have addressed all areas of finish needs via our various automated edging choices in a smaller footprint with greater capabilities, lower costs of maintenance, higher JPH, and unmatched service and support.”

Problem Solved: End-to-End Rx Production

The value of a comprehensive, end-to-end automation process is simple. It all boils down to efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

How can you achieve that comprehensive of a solution? Choosing the right partner can help. Schneider Optical Machines is one manufacturer that provides all levels of automated surfacing and edging equipment, including auto blockers, auto generators, auto polishers, auto edgers, auto inspection and auto laser engraving—a complete automated line or a fully automated lab is possible with Schneider’s state-of-the-art Modulo machines.

Schneider can automate the entire Rx production lab from surfacing and inspection to coating and edging. Using the Modulo system, a lab can have more precise control over all process parameters within the lab, as well as a real-time data feed that allows lab managers and operators to see what’s happening at any given moment in time. Furthermore, Modulo can be customized for labs of any size, not just big labs.

Problem Solved: Inefficient Backside Coating

It’s not easy to find an equipment platform that can provide fully-automated backside coating, which means many labs are struggling with sluggish inefficiencies in their coating process. Fortunately, Ultra Optics offers a first-of-its-kind solution—the new 44R.

As the only fully-automated backside coating system in the industry, this conveyor-fed, robotically loaded machine, coupled with Ultra Optics’ revolutionary new Ultra Care Program (UCP), brings ophthalmic labs cost savings and improved yields that have not been previously possible. Incoming work is fed directly from the conveyor after the polisher. This automated system minimizes handling errors as it is repetitive, predictable and has been programmed to adapt to virtually all lens thicknesses. Because the lenses are processed while still on the surfacing block, the system provides advantages such as front-side protection and the elimination of high-index lens warpage. In addition, separating the heated wash and dry modules allows for a more thorough wash and decreases breakage. A longer drying cycle also improves the long-term stability of the coating in the reservoir. 

Problem Solved: Maximizing Production Floor Space

Satisloh’s new Multi-FLEX polisher is addressing many of the challenges faced by labs when automating their processes. 

“By providing more than double the output of two machines in a footprint only slightly larger than a single machine, the Multi-FLEX allows labs to maximize their production floor space,” said Ian Gregg, vice president of sales operations for Satisloh. “In addition, a simple, robust automation system reduces maintenance requirements and maximizes uptime.”

Adapted from the semiconductor industry, the simplified loading system handles only lenses, no tools. Operating only in two axes, it reaches all positions with reliable, precise and fast movements. Positioned above the polishing chambers, the gantry loader doesn’t obstruct the view and provides free access for maintenance and adjustments. Designed for high-volume production lines with diverse production needs, the Multi-FLEX has multiple options for a mix of lens characteristics distinguishing this polishing system. In order to maximize efficiency and up time, Multi-FLEX is Remote STEP ready and fully compatible with the company’s new MES System, providing advanced analytics and diagnostic capabilities.

Problem Solved: Impractical, Inefficient Surfacing Processes

Freeform-capable (or “direct”) surfacing equipment has had a substantial effect on making full automation more attractive because in the past, the fining and polishing operation was very difficult to automate to a substantial degree.

“Picking the right lap from among the thousands kept on-hand, mounting that and the lens in the machine, and applying the right sequence of pads and slurries—that was never really practical,” said Robert Shanbaum, president of Ocuco. “Direct surfacing equipment, which uses a small number of conformable laps and requires no fining step, has made automating that step practical and has, in turn, spurred the development of automated blockers (another somewhat challenging process to automate), so that the entire surfacing process can be automated end-to-end.”

Another critical component of any lab automation solution is the LMS software, which determines each order’s path through the lab production process. The software interacts with materials handling equipment (conveyors, loaders) to move the order through the process as expeditiously and efficiently as possible. Of course, as the trend toward greater automation continues, so does the evolution of the LMS software itself. Curious about what’s new? Several LMS providers share their latest innovations and releases. 

Tips for Success with Automated Equipment

• Focus first on the most labor-intensive processes. If you’re hand cleaning, consider adding automatic cleaning and dip coating to save a significant amount of manpower.

• Keep an eye on overall cleanliness. It’s extremely important that the area surrounding any coating units remain dust- and debris-free.

• Let your workforce adjust naturally. By adding automation, your lab doesn’t necessarily need to start reducing your labor force right away. Instead, you have room to grow your volume without immediately adding employees.

• Gather input. Talk to the experts and listen to your vendors and suppliers. They’ve been down this road before. Look for best practices and try to incorporate those into your plans.

  • Start small and work up from there. Look for simplicity and gather real-time data on your lab’s performance so that your automation works for you.

The Role of Lab Management Systems (LMS) Software

Digital Vision, Inc.: DVI VISION System

The DVI VISION System is a complete solution for optical lab processing that interfaces with all major equipment manufacturers, digital lens designers and conveyor/automation systems. DVI remains on the leading edge of new technology, and has implemented solutions for a variety of the newest automated systems in production environments.

In addition, DVI works with manufacturers to establish communication protocols and expand functionality prior to implementation at a lab. This process helps standardize communication methods so that installation and support go as seamlessly as possible.

Ocuco: Workflow Monitor and Predictive Analytics

During this past year, Ocuco introduced a new product called “Workflow Monitor,” a significantly enhanced order tracking and productivity-measuring device. Meanwhile the company is also in the process of introducing another module that further builds upon that, called “Predictive Analytics.” This new module allows the company’s Innovations software to schedule all orders through the
lab—in effect, it takes order tracking into the future, determines where an order will be as it transits through the lab, which enables the software to make a reasonably accurate (and dynamic) estimate of delivery time.

Optivision: LMS Lab Software

As a result of multiple U.S. patents awarded, the Optivision LMS offers Lab Software that provides a secure, web-based, self-validating online Remote Order Entry interface that includes a frame tracer component to automatically transmit a frame trace along with the Rx order to the lab electronically 24/7 as one complete file, available to be recalled at a later time in case of breakage, warranties or other redos. This results in smaller lens blank selection and thinner lenses, while saving time, money, and eliminating lab rework.

The Optivision LMS Lab Software accepts automated transmission of Rx orders directly to the lab’s LMS from customers using an integrated Practice Management System (PMS) or Point of Sale (POS) software, and likewise, can automatically transmit a complete Rx order to any outsource lab in seconds with the pull of a barcode scanner trigger, saving time and mistakes from otherwise re-keying, faxing or calling in an order.

In addition to automated electronic job status emails and faxes, the automated job tracking in the Optivision LMS Lab Software permits the customer to check on their own orders in real time 24/7 using the online Remote Job Status interface to reduce lab interruptions and staff time on the phone.

Optical Lab Software Solutions: OPTUITIVE

OPTUITIVE is Optical Lab Software Solutions’ latest innovation in LMS designed for maximum usability and performance. OPTUITIVE provides automation systems with critical decision-point data for each job, such as Rx power, lens type and special processing instructions. A flexible user-defined rules-based engine controls the way each job tray travels through the production environment and is processed by each station. Both technical and service rules are considered for each job to determine the appropriate sequence of steps through the lab. The interaction between OPTUITIVE and the equipment is seamless, allowing the opportunity to achieve fully-automated and efficient workflows throughout the entire production process

In addition, OPTUITIVE delivers a powerful SMART USER EXPERIENCE for customer service and order entry, fully optimized in features, flow, content and visual appearance to boost productivity and save time. OPTUITIVE is browser-based and runs efficiently in private-cloud, virtual or local server environments using virtually any smart device.

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Helpful Hints for Choosing an LMS Partner

• Get smart. Arm yourself with as much info as possible.

• Include ideas from many. Seamless automation requires participation from multiple vendors. Consult with all participants communally early in the planning process to set clear expectations among the group for each step of the project.

• Consult with partners early. Consult with an LMS software provider before committing to the purchase of new equipment to ensure compatibility, and that the equipment’s features can be fully utilized. Itemizing these cost savings can help justify the overall investment.

• Rule out compatibility issues. Determine whether the LMS can communicate with all conventional and freeform/digital lens production hardware. (A communication problem could mean additional expenses in acquiring new hardware.)

• Define and understand your lab’s specific intended goals. The LMS Lab Software provider may have ideas or capabilities that can be used to meet or enhance those goals.

  • Look for the optical experience. When choosing an LMS partner, make sure you work with a vendor that understands the optical lab processing environment. Solutions for retail or other manufacturing may not be flexible enough to automate each step or handle the various components of an order.

The Role of Conveyors and Automation

The final piece in a fully automated lab is the ability to move job trays efficiently between process steps—and getting the right jobs to the right machines—without the need for manual intervention. While this “smart routing” has been used in optical labs for years, it continues to grow in sophistication and adoption. Today, three top automation companies chime in about how conveyor automation has changed in recent years, and what current solutions are available to ensure a more successful automation conversion.

FlexLink Systems

“To be cost competitive, automation of tray handling is essential; but what’s interesting these days is how much that automation has changed,” said Ken Lento, SBU manager optical.

“Ten or more years ago, conveyors to and from machines were designed in machine ‘loops,’” he explains. “Machines were spread out and a single conveyor loop carrying trays went to and from those process machines (e.g., blockers, generators, etc.). Today, labs are placing machines inline and close together which has changed the type of conveying methods used. Conveyors now run along the side of the machines and are loaded and unloaded with pusher/puller units, lift and transfer conveyors, and evolving into robotic loading/unloading.”

Going forward, more and more labs may be using low-cost collaborative robots to do mundane repeat tasks (like loading and unloading). Lento explained that one lab installed a collaborative robot at the end of a conveyor to load a cart with trays destined for their AR coating process. Prior to installation of the robot, a person stood at the location to manually unload and load the trays on the conveyor. Now that person does a more important task in the lab and only moves the cart when loaded.

Collaborative robots can also be placed to work next to humans without the risk of injury and without extensive safety guarding; since today’s collaborative robots are designed to stop automatically if someone comes in contact with the robot.

NCC Automated Systems

“While we are extremely proud of the equipment that we build, the actual equipment is NOT the most important part of an automation solution,” said Kevin Mauger president of NCC Automated Systems, Satisloh’s exclusive automation integration partner. “By far, the most important things are the design of the system to meet a customer’s short and long term needs, the process of installing the system around a lab’s current production, and a system that is easy to use and maintain.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” he said, “our silent conveyor system that was designed specifically for the optical industry (to get rid of the squeaks) is a game-changer, but without the important aspect of executing and installation a project seamlessly into a lab, it means nothing.” 

When selecting a partner in automation, Mauger recommends that labs spend a lot of time questioning the design with what-if scenarios concerning their production, growth, maintenance, and operator access. A proper design will accommodate at least a five-year plan, and will be flexible enough to meet your lab’s production demands, smart enough to grow with you, and will be people-friendly from a usability and maintenance perspective. 

Also, the installation process should be seamless.There should be a day-to-day plan with critical milestones and all tasks identified with owners. In order to install a system with minimal impact to your production, this will require a vigorous effort covering every single detail, complete with contingency plans. The system should go in quickly and get up and running immediately.   

Finally, Mauger believes that one of the most important things is that the process is enjoyable. This requires a well-designed system and a good installation, as mentioned, but is also affected by the attitude of the people you interact with, as you will spend a lot of time with them during the course of a project.

Simplimatic Automation

Simplimatic Automation contributes to the daily operation of successful optical labs through the smart and simple integration of material handling and automation equipment. Simplimatic offers fully-customized line design and integration, or off-the-shelf products and spares at a moment’s notice.

Simplimatic’s Simpli-Flex modular conveyor is easily configured and controlled, making it a top choice to handle optical trays during manufacturing and processing. Automation equipment, such as Simplimatic’s Optitrak tray handlers and Optitrak Elevators and Lowerators, provide in-line automation to seamlessly manage optical trays during the many phases of production. Simplimatic also integrates custom controls into optical lines to singulate, divert and generally manage tray flow. Simplimatic is also a FANUC and Universal Robot integrator that has the talent and resources necessary to automate down line optical packaging processes. 

What makes Simplimatic solutions unique? Tom Coker, national sales manager optical lab automation, explains. “Simplimatic’s automation equipment is extremely durable and reliable—and made in the USA,” said Coker. “In addition, Simplimatic’s line of Optitrak equipment has a typical life span of more than 10 years, translating into decreased in-line downtime, labor costs and a great return on investment. With an influx of foreign-made automation equipment, Simplimatic takes pride in offering U.S. support for every product that we manufacture, and a guaranteed 48-hour service response time to any of our customers around the globe.”

TrayTaxi

“Considering today’s highly competitive and fee sensitive environment, I can’t imagine operating a wholesale optical laboratory without using automatic tray handling and robotics,” said Tom Yancy, president of e.lens, Inc., owner of TrayTaxi. “Automation has not only had a tremendously positive effect on turnaround time and profitability, it offers additional benefits in the form of employee safety and less risk of repetitive motion injuries.”

This company’s solution is TrayTaxi, a dual-purpose tray handling device that can be configured to load or unload industrial edging and surfacing equipment. Because of this solution’s flexibility, TrayTaxi often survives lab production reconfiguration when other single-purpose machines must be retired. In addition, TrayTaxi requires a smaller footprint, is lightweight and offers unequaled mobility and setup.

Helpful Hints for Broadening Your Automation Reach

• Realize things have changed in recent years. You might be surprised to learn how many automation solutions are now available for the ophthalmic industry. Automation has made dramatic advances over the past few years with a heavy growth in robotics. With modern conveyors, controls, cameras, and robotics, optical labs can experience greater throughput while virtually eliminating lab error.

• Don’t try to travel the road alone. Just as your lab has expert knowledge about making optical products, automation partners are experts at automation. Trust the guidance of an automation partner who has an experienced team of mechanical, electrical and system integration engineers.

• Remember, conveyors aren’t responsible for overall lab performance. In a successful lab, many factors affect production efficiency, including the performance of process machines and functionality of the LMS and lab network itself. Conveyors are important, but they’re only one piece in the puzzle. All pieces need to be in place and successful, as well.

• Don’t get sidelined with sticker shock. Many optical labs are curious, but often scared to make a pricey automation purchase. However, these systems have the potential to save hundreds of thousands of dollars over the lifetime of the solution.

• Do your homework. Know your business, know all of your production variables and needs, and know your growth plans. These variables will define the perfect design for your system.   

Automation at Work: Two Labs Chime In

As we’ve learned more about what’s new in automated equipment, LMS software and robotic conveyor tracks, the question becomes: “How are all these solutions working for real-world labs today?”

To get answers, we checked in with two labs—Walman Optical (Minneapolis, Minn.) and Cherry Optical (Green Bay, Wis.)—to gain their perspectives. We thank Adam Cherry, president of Cherry Optical, and Bryan Schueler, vice president and general manager of Walman Optical, for their insights.

How has automation impacted your lab, either positively or negatively?

Cherry Optical: Automation has impacted our business in a very positive manner. We’ve invested in automation in a number of different areas and will continue to do so in the future. Our current automated areas include lens inspection (A&R Focovision), digital surfacing generators, surface de-blocking, surface de-taping, spin coating and lens milling [edging]. The addition of automation has allowed us to grow our business substantially through skills training with production employees. By reducing the number of non-skilled tasks, we are able to create a more rewarding work experience for our employees. By transitioning to technology and skill-oriented roles within production, we now offer careers, not just jobs, at Cherry Optical.

Walman Optical: Automation has given us the ability to create a continuous workflow and better organized production environment in our larger labs. Automated fluid management systems also allow us to maintain a cleaner lab with less manual handling of pre- and post-production materials. Automated inspection systems provide greater consistency and speed in inspection team throughput, and automated edging reduces labor required on many manual tasks such as blocking.

Have you been able to reduce your number of employees, or have you simply adjusted current employees’ job descriptions?

Cherry Optical: Since Cherry Optical continues to be in a growth phase, we are unable to identify an area that automation has eliminated an employee. However, it is extremely safe to say that the investments we’ve made in automation so far have minimized the need for additional production employees to handle increased workload.

Walman Optical: It has been a little bit of both. We have reduced in some areas, or at least automated some of the tasks some people were performing.

What surprised you about your transition to an automated production flow?

Walman Optical: Production areas are much quieter and less hectic than before the automation. However, be very cautious about the cost/benefit analysis and projected benefits in expense and production.  In addition, we were overly optimistic with our timelines and execution plans. Our market also has significant constraints on construction resources and that related activity was difficult to execute.

What have you learned through the process? What have you done right? What would you do differently if you could?

Cherry Optical: We’ve taken the approach of investing in automation of non-value-added tasks. Training a laboratory optician to load and unload a machine or, in the case of surface de-block/de-tape—simply do the busy work of handling lenses—is counterproductive. By automating remedial tasks we are able to have our skilled labor concentrate on important tasks that require attention to detail. We will continue to invest in these technologies and learn ways to maximize the automation we currently have to maximize the potential of each employee.

 


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May/June LabTalk 2017