Labs Identify 'Unsung' Laboratory Equipment

By Linda Little
No one in the optical industry is going to dispute the role of a generator or edger in the success of the lens processing operation. Nor could one dispute the fact that technological leaps and bounds have brought us digital surfaced lenses.

However, what about all the ancillary products that are needed in order for a lens to actually end up in a frame? Often forgotten and misunderstood, there are other pieces of equipment that play a key role in both lens processing success and lab operation improvements. In order to identify these “unsung” products in the optical laboratory, I asked laboratory owners and managers what pieces of equipment they liked in their labs aside from the generator or edger.

The first couple of calls were awkward. I think they thought I was joking when I asked what their favorite piece of equipment was. I was persistent though. After agreeing that their generator really was terrific, a pattern emerged. Interestingly enough, three areas in lens processing were identified where a product or technology had made a significant difference.

Rimless Drills

Probably owned by every lab, and maybe taken for granted, the rimless drill was the leader among the unsung equipment favorites. As Dave Lea, of Lea Optical, Clearwater, Fla., put it “the rimless drill machine revolutionized that part of the business.”

The first Optidrill, distributed by Salem Vision, was felt to do a great job with relative ease. With the availability of this product, rimless lens sales grew tremendously. The Optidrill brought the technology laboratories needed to meet the market demand. The frame shapes were now repeatable, the quality consistent, the cost of production was lowered, and a mix of holes and notches could be created. Breakage at this step was very expensive for a laboratory and the Optidrill reduced this risk.

Even though there is a resurgence of zyl type frames, the CNC Optidrill continues to play a key role according to Bob Dahl, Southwest Lens, Dallas, Texas. “Ten years ago drill mounts were done manually. It was next to impossible to do anything sophisticated. We could put one hole in each side.” Dahl added that his business still has a significant percentage of rimless.

Steve LaDuke, operations manager for Katz & Klein, Sacramento, Calif., also placed the CNC Optidrill as his third choice for his favorite piece of equipment making a significant difference in the lab. “The CNC Automatic Optidrill made it possible for all of us to process rimless and meet the demand,” LaDuke explained.

Today the CNC Optidrill is a recognized favorite and Optidrill EVO, the new version, is quickly gaining ground. “I really feel the Optidrill has made a difference,” explained Noel Diaz, Empire Optical, North Hollywood, Calif. Salem Vision Group is also the distributor for the Optidrill EVO. The EVO offers front or back drilling automatically and is 30 percent faster than the original and offers a 360 degree table that adjusts to the optimum angle as determined by the base curve of the lens.

“The drill is the other best product in the lab. We’ve had one since Salem first sold them,” commented Ed Dietz, Dietz Laboratories, Inc., Fort Worth, Texas. “I am looking forward to the addition of an automatic CNC Drill this year.”

WinVoice Development, a subsidiary of Tom Yancy & Associates, is rolling out the new CNC e.lens Drill. The company promotes this as a money saving product, offering the opportunity to reduce labor costs due to the speed and reduced spoilage through prevention. The e.lens Drill will integrate seamlessly into a lab’s existing process and software. They offer three models to match production needs.


The next unsung operation mentioned the most was blocking, both surface and finishing. Not surprising, when one considers that blocking the lenses accurately and correctly is primary to the rest of the process being successful. Blockers required skill, knowledge, patience and time. They were dirty and messy, had expensive accessories and needed upgrading. Louie Larson, lab manager for Acu-Rx, Brooklyn Park, Minn., identified the Satisloh Prismatic PLA Blocker as one of his favorite pieces of equipment.

“The blocker works so nicely. There is hardly any breakage and it is easy to operate and maintain,” explained Larson. The CNC controlled layout blocker with plano blocking offers layout guided operator instructions, and processes up to 120 lenses per hour. The prevention steps he is most happy with are the integrated alignment system for lens positioning, which eliminates any need to move the lens and the automatic recognition of blocking rings to determine whether one is necessary and/or if it is the correct one. For high production labs, this blocker has reduced the opportunities for errors and increased the production capability.

For smaller labs, the Gerber Coburn Step-One Blocker was “the best invention in the industry for our lab,” stated James Blackwell, lab manager for Apex Optical, Orlando, Fla.. “This blocker was always on axis, used wax and reduced the number of blocking errors.” The cost of alloy and the lead in alloy had driven the need for an alternative material at that time. The Step-One Blocker was the first and only blocker available as a wax or “freebond” blocker as trademarked by Gerber Coburn. According to Norm Sorenson, sales representative for Gerber Coburn, the Eclipse Surface Blocker replaced the Step-One Blocker a few years ago. The product offers standard layout and blocking features, a higher throughput plus the option of using freebond wax or alloy for blocking (determined when ordering the product). Similar to other key products, the software technology is really the reason to invest. User friendly software updates, one touch features for blocking and chilling, and different model options offered in the Eclipse Surface Blocker create a nice package for today’s smaller labs that loved that Step-One concept.

One cannot overlook the finish-blocking step as another great opportunity for reducing errors and time in lens processing. Noel Diaz, Empire Optical, identified the Satisloh Verifier SL60 as the product he chooses first that has made a difference in his operations.

“This product is really automated and requires a lot less labor for blocking,” Diaz explained. “It combines power verification and blocking, decentration, even uncuts.”

The SL version also offers a high productivity, 60 jobs per hour and windows based OMA/VCA interface. Simple to use with fewer operating steps, reduced rejects and high precision, the product offers automation to the finishing process that is reliable.

Coating Equipment

Last but not least, the third ranked favorite category was coating equipment, most mentioned was an Ultra Optics Backside Coater. “We are upgrading our backside coater,” explained Ed Dietz. “We’ll be replacing my favorite product, our Mini III, with a new, automated coater that can process two lenses at a time. It will be my new favorite.” The Ultra RX, from Ultra Optics was introduced at the 2007 OLA and again at Vision Expo East. The product has not yet shipped, but buyers are thrilled with the prospect of the automated coater that will meet their needs for productivity and quality coatings.

For larger production operations, Ultra Optics offers the RLC Robotic Backside Coater. Louie Larson, Acu-Rx, added that “you don’t have to de-block and wash the lens. The trays come down the conveyor, the lenses are washed and coated and de-blocked—it’s all done.” The RLC Robotic Backside Coater is a significant breakthrough for big labs, according to Dave Kirchoff with Ultra Optics, “The lab doesn’t have to deal with coating anymore.” The coater reads the barcode on the tray and knows what to do—knows whether the coating needs to be tintable or non-tintable. It serves as a wash machine and de-blocks as well. Production capacity is 100 trays per hour. The RLC is the only totally robotic coater on the market. The product has eliminated operator error and operators all together. For a lab the size of Acu-Rx, a three shift, uncut lens only operation, “the robotic coating unit is my favorite product today,” according to Larson. “We can run it without needing the amount of labor we have had in the past.”

Backside coating and AR coating equipment were referenced often as another area of key production improvement. “Hard coating and AR coating equipment has also been significant,” Bob Dahl added. “If a lab isn’t offering AR coating today, they aren’t in business.”

Honorable Mentions

So the pattern emerged—in key areas of lab operations that needed productivity improvements and reduced opportunities for errors–drilling, blocking and coating products that reduced costs and improved quality, as well as increased productivity, were chosen as significant. I can’t stop there though without sharing the honorary mentions—products that were at the top of one lab’s list but not all.

Steve LaDuke identified their DVI Software System as the overall lab product that he couldn’t live without. “We’ve been with DVI for over 12 years,” LaDuke explained. “Our lab runs because of DVI.”

Dave Lea added an interesting perspective for independent labs. He felt high tech/high end lenses that required skill to process and that didn’t blend well with a mass merchandiser’s market, were great products. “They keep ‘us’ offering quality products that are unique,” Lea explained. “They allow us to compete.”

Steve La Duke also added the Basel Technologies Micro Separated Centrifuge Unit available through Satisloh. “It separates the plastic and polycarbonate swarf into bins and we throw it (the swarf) away. I only have to clean it every six months versus every day!” I could share his appreciation after he explained it, and I remember ‘swarf,’ though I still wonder if it is a real word.

Louie Larson of Acu-Rx also mentioned that he thought their centrifuge unit was a pretty neat system. So, probably the least discussed, most disliked operation of swarf removal and containment may finally have a nice solution! Check with your generator manufacturer for a recommendation or contact PSI or Universal Photonics for centrifuge solutions.

Though not exactly the response I was looking for, I have to share one lab’s answer. When asked what she couldn’t live without in her lab, that wasn’t a generator or edger, the lab owner promptly, without hesitation replied, “My employees. I can replace anything else, but I can’t live without my employees,” explained Peggy McKelvey of Peggy’s Optical, Fresno, Calif. “I treat my employees with respect and the way I would want to be treated. They make the difference (in the lab’s success). Anybody who doesn’t think the employees are the most important factor in their lab is ‘happily crazy’.”

Thank you Peggy for reminding us that, no matter how great the technology, it still takes people to be successful.


Labtalk June 2020