The Need for Speed

By By Julie Bos

A growing business? Too many manual processes? A skeleton crew? Whatever your challenge, there’s a lens manufacturing technology that can likely help.

Yet choosing the right technology solutions can be a complex matter. After all, there are countless solutions for equipment, automation and software. New products are being introduced every day. And there are varying opinions about the best strategies and delivery methods.

Even for the most experienced lens-processing facilities, achieving “the holy grail” of workflow efficiency is no cake walk.

We sought the advice of several leading laboratories to get their tips on using technology to improve workflow:

Tech Tip #1: Save labor and improve simple production processes with automation.

Choose any simple (or manual) process in your lab, and there’s a sure bet that there’s an automation solution available to streamline it. Whether you turn to a conveyor system, a robot or a piece of automated machinery, automation (to whatever extent) can enhance efficiency in virtually any production area. Automation can also free up skilled workers to focus on more detailed tasks to improve workflow.

“Using a conveyor, for example, to return empty jobs trays at the end of production back to the start eliminated the need for employees to push large carts of trays from one end of our lab to the other,” said Celeste Devereaux, Systems Manager, Costco Optical Lab #908. “The benefits were plentiful—increased floor space, elimination of large carts and labor savings that was put to use elsewhere—to name a few.”

Devereaux’s advice to others: Review your processes in each area. See where a simple task can be replaced with a form of automation. Ask your employees for their thoughts. Consider: What is the time savings? What are the benefits? Where can you use that labor savings?

“In our lab, automation is used to move labor where it’s needed the most, not eliminate it,” she said.

Tech Tip #2: Use intelligent automated conveyors to “feed” surfacing and finishing equipment.

Interstate Optical uses an automated conveyor system from Satisloh to ensure that multiple digital generators and/or robotic edgers are always processing lenses rather than waiting for an operator to feed equipment. These conveyor systems can be programmed and interfaced with the lab’s lab management software (LMS) to send orders to the most effective machine for that specific order, based on the requested coatings, lens styles, frame types and materials.

“Without this type of conveyor system, we must rely on operators making decisions based on what they know about the specific order—this is a daunting task as there are many variables for which one must use to make those decisions,” said Ted Mabry, VP of Production. “One variable may encourage one decision while another aspect of the order may encourage a different decision. Programming the conveyor systems through the LMS interface and routing programs with the best possible decision eliminates these variables.”

Tech Tip #3: Automate your lens cleaning process.

The last thing that anyone should do with lenses is touch them. Invariably, the more hands-on contact there is, the more likely there will be some kind of issue with the lens—specifically, a scratch, pit or crack. A smart solution is an automated lens cleaning unit.

Think beyond a small ultrasonic cleaner. Consider something more industrial-sized—like a lens car wash. FEA Industries uses the LCU from Schneider Optical Machinery, a device that provides a high-capacity lens cleaning solution that not only removes environmental dirt but also factory ink markings, adhesives and other things that might get on a lens during the process. The machine does this so well—and with so little pressure—that everything comes out virtually spotless, without technicians needing to worry about rubbing too hard or cracking a lens.

The machine not only eliminates bad lenses due to mishandling, it also makes pits and other coating imperfections disappear almost entirely.

“It’s the type of machine that you think you don’t need—until you have one,” said Bill Heffner, Marketing Director. “After using it, however, you can’t imagine ever being without one. It not only gives you clean lenses, it reduces lens defects from several sources at the same time.”

Tech Tip #4: Consider stacker/de-stacker systems to maintain throughput.

When a small-to-midsize lab is trying to grow, one challenge becomes routing work effectively to ensure that machines always have something going in and coming out. These labs need machines to be constantly fed and emptied, but ensuring that consistency can be a real problem. It’s especially troublesome in labs with little space to move around, or limited ways to keep trays within easy reach to ensure machines are continually “fed.”

A good intermediate step can be a series of tray stacking/de-stacking systems. These systems make it easier to minimize the footprint of work going into machines, while ensuring that machines are constantly being given new work. One of the pitfalls of automated machinery is that it only works when it has something to work on—in other words, if the systems are waiting, they’re not working. A similar problem exists on the back-end of the process—if a machine output is stunted because it’s backed up waiting for work to go to the next station. A combination of a tray stacker plus de-stacker can make it possible to have 10 times as many jobs queued for a machine, while maintaining the same footprint as a normal flat conveyor.  This can dramatically increase machine throughput.

One typical roadblock here is cost—many of these machines aren’t cheap. FEA Industries turned to a newer laboratory automation company called AL Systems (http://alsysllc.com), which provides an attractive return on investment for smaller labs that don’t have the budget or lab space to do complicated conveyor systems.

Tech Tip #5: Reduce the risk of surface defects with automated de-blocking.

One non-trivial task at the end of the lens surfacing process is removing the alloy blocks from the lens. Over the years, there have been several traditional ways of doing this—either using an alloy reclaim tank to melt off the blocks, or the “shock de-block” method, which is essentially whacking the lens on a hard surface to remove the block. The potential pitfalls of the second option should be fairly obvious—it can cause cracks, chips, scratches and a host of other surface defects. To alleviate these issues, according to Heffner, Schneider offers a machine that automatically melts the alloy block off with hot water, making this highly manual process both automated and easy.

“What this does for process consistency is nothing less than astounding,” said Heffner. “It allowed us to streamline the process that would normally take several people and go down to just one machine operator. It also helped make the time it takes to de-block a job more consistent. When doing the task manually, it could take a varying amount of time based on the operator and the lenses.”

“The results here were lower incidences of lens breakage, and more consistent throughput,” he added. “While this may seem like a simple task, it’s a very labor-intensive one, and the more we can reduce touching the lenses, the more we can improve yields. This machine was able to pay for itself in almost no time, as the savings with this are obvious and immediate.”

Tech Tip #6: Invest in innovative LMS.

When it comes to improving workflow, Cherry Optical, Inc. relies heavily on its LMS from DVI. One important feature is the “customized work ticket,” which follows the job throughout production and contains all the details about the job.

“We developed a ‘cryptic code’ on the exterior of this work ticket that enables operators and lab opticians to understand a great deal about the job from just looking at it,” explained Adam Cherry, Owner and President. “We can see some basic important information—such as when the job arrived, if it needs to go out today, what kind of lenses are being produced, the need for AR or mirror coating, or the need for special processing—so that we can prioritize the work based on what type of job it is. By using this customized work ticket, we can quickly sort and prioritize work so we can ensure that we have optimal workflow and deliver exceptional service time. This kind of tool becomes dramatically more important as your business grows. It helps us make sure we are working on the right job at the right time.”

Tech Tip #7: Reduce the risk of backlogged jobs with LMS reporting functions.

Cherry Optical relies heavily on one reporting feature of its LMS—a job tracking and traceability function called Trace. Using this reporting function, staff members can quickly spot areas where jobs are getting backlogged.

“Using DVI’s Trace program, jobs essentially can’t get lost,” said Cherry. “They also can’t sit somewhere for too long without somebody noticing. The software can create a series of reports that show where jobs are sitting for too long—it’s pretty eye-opening. It helps give insight about where improvements could be made. When it comes to efficient workflow in the lab, great software is essential.”

Similarly, Optivision's LMS, which Eye Save Optical (ESO) uses, features a maximum/minimum system for "just-in- time" inventory that tracks lenses as they are taken from stock and automatically orders new product when quantities reach "minimum" levels. Such features can save significant time, and minimize potential inventory management issues.

Tech Tip #8: When buying new technology, don’t skimp.

Most labs know that incorporating new technology can make a big difference in producing pristine lenses, while also resulting in fewer mistakes and remakes. Yet many labs are tempted to make purchasing decisions based on a low price point alone.

Stewart Cage, President of ESO, would encourage decision-makers to consider more than the low cost. 

“I have learned the hard way,” said Cage. “If possible, when purchasing equipment, buy the best your budget will allow. Equipment is very expensive, so if your workflow or potential workflow permits, don’t be afraid to pull the trigger and purchase the equipment needed to make the very best product you can. Believe it or not, when your equipment is easier to use, your employees are happier and the workflow takes care of itself.”

Tech Tip #9: Don’t neglect your foundation. Give your technology room to grow.  

According to Ken Lin, President of X-Tra Lite Optical, every lab needs a good foundation to build upon. That means having enough space, power, network cables, plumbing and compressed air supply—plus having solid LMS.

Following this advice has worked wonders for X-Tra Lite Optical during its own growth journey.

“Recently, we added a Schneider HSE Modulo blockless edger to our production line,” he explained. “Aside from moving equipment around in our lab to create enough space, we had no issues in bringing the edger on line. Our LMS (from DVI) had no problems with the machine interface, and this addition has provided a big boost to our edging capacity and productivity without increase staff. We have flexibility to add/move equipment in our lab with minimal disruption. It all comes down to planning…anticipating future growth and technologies.”


CURRENT ISSUE


LABTALK March 2019