Right on Track: Lab Automation and Efficiencies

By Julie Bos
Whether your lab is well underway with automation or still stuck at the starting line, one thing is certain: Increasing automation is a critical component to crossing the finish line with higher efficiency, higher profits and a more competitive business model.

“There’s a great interest in automation today even if for no other reasons than to help control costs and improve the movement of product throughout the laboratory,” said Richard Palmer, consultant at Practical Engineering. “Creating an effective automated laboratory is as much technical as it is an exercise in logistics.”

The challenge, of course, is making the right automation choices at the right time. Doing too much too soon can have crippling effects on your productivity (not to mention your capital budget). Yet doing nothing can lead to higher-than-necessary labor costs, missed profits, a lost competitive edge and more. It can also increase the stronghold of another growing threat off-shoring.

“Off-shoring—with its low labor costs is really a threat to manufacturing in this country these days, but a good automation strategy enables optical labs to compete with off-shore manufacturing because it can help labs drive down labor costs and keep jobs here in the states,” said Ian Gregg, director of surfacing products for Satisloh North America.

Lab automation can also have some dramatic results on production and profitability.

“Adding robotics can help standardize quality, optimize labor resources and drive a twenty to thirty percent increase in production,” said Ken Lento, sales manager, FlexLink West and Optical. “However, not every lab is sophisticated enough to know the precise ROI calculations to consider before making automation decisions. Furthermore, no two optical labs have the same amount of floor space, number of labor resources or level of -understanding and commitment to automation. Therefore, automating a laboratory is a customized process every time.”

How can your lab get to the next level of automated efficiency without sabotaging your current production levels and workload? Here’s a step-by-step guide.

Phase 1: Entry-Level Labs – Where Do You Start?

If you’re a brand new lab or simply new to the world of automation you’ve got the unique luxury of designing your automated lab from scratch. To do things right, however, detailed planning is a must.

“It all starts with a master plan,” said Kevin Paddy, product line director, finishing, Satisloh/National Optronics. “Labs should ask themselves what they want their operations to look like in five years, then break that vision down into clearly defined phases and start addressing their most immediate needs first. If replacing the lab’s generator is the number one priority, then they should get an automated generator to kick-start their shift to automation. Or if the lab really needs a new edger, get an automated one it’s another great place start.”

Kurt Atchison, president of Schneider Optical Machines, recommends looking at all the non-value-added steps in the current process first. Identify areas with labor-intensive steps that could easily be automated or those areas where operator errors are costing your lab money and service headaches.

Once a lab has evaluated its current process flow and outlined its future production plans, it should review its project ideas on a case-by-case basis and the ones with the quickest ROI should be implemented first.

“The primary goal of automation is to maximize production efficiency and machine utilization while reducing -spoilage,” said Chuck MacGregor, director of optical automation at NCC Automated Systems. “Labs with little-to-no -automation have lots of ‘low hanging fruit’ with easy-to-implement projects that can quickly take them to the next level of efficiency.”

As your lab starts replacing current systems with automated ones, zero in on pieces that are getting older, don’t operate fast enough, have inaccurate performance or require a lot of maintenance. Swapping those systems out with faster, more automated versions will be the first step in the right direction.

Another approach is to get an automated “anchor” for each department and work out from there. In the surfacing area, for example, consider an automatically loaded generator. According to Kurt Atchison, this can immediately improve production first because a generator is never fully utilized with the operator variable in the mix, and secondly, because it can act as a flow manager, creating a smooth, continuous workflow. Likewise, in the finishing area, consider an automated edger.

“Labs can implement these anchor systems with minimal disruption and space and they add immediate value,” said Atchison. “Plus, down the road, the lab can always expand the systems with conveyor tracks that will take the process closer to full automation.”

bThe Lean Principle of “Pull vs. Push”/b Here’s one caveat to consider: Simply adding a piece of automated equipment or two doesn’t necessary equate to perfect workflow harmony.

According to MacGregor, an efficiently designed lab should manage surges and create a balanced workflow that minimizes work in process (WIP) and increases productivity. Therefore, optical production lines should be designed around tried and true manufacturing design techniques, such as the “pull not push” principle of workflow.

A common idea within lean manufacturing processes, the “pull” principle eliminates automation bottlenecks and achieves steady-state workflow between multiple systems. As automation systems become more complex with more pieces of equipment, overall system design and layout become more critical. Assessing how and where automation is required is a direct function of designing to prevent bottlenecks. Adding automation in these target areas will even out the workflow, adjust to workflow surges and spikes, and ultimately provide a balanced system that yields steady-state production.


New Technology: On-Block Manufacturing (OBM) One new process that’s making big waves in lab automation is OBM, first debuted by Satisloh as a prototype last year. What’s game-changing about OBM? The ability to integrate all finishing processes using a single block—enabling totally automated in-line production. With OBM, a lab can combine three different departments into one small footprint reducing required space and work flow distances by more than 50%. By integrating and eliminating many process steps and focusing on back side processing, a lab can produce AR coated and edged jobs in less than two hours, allowing a lab to promote same-day service. For more details, request a brochure on OBM by e-mailing [email protected] or calling (800) 866-5640 and asking for the marketing department.

Automated Edging: New Releases from Schneider

Schneider has now introduced automated edging to its line of products. The new HSE Freestyle now integrates all edging processes, including difficult multi-dimensional shapes and bevel types into one. It includes a non-contact measuring system, wet cut process for smooth edge finish and revolutionary new shape-editing software for ease of use. For more details, contact Kurt Atchison at [email protected] or call 972-247-4000 ext. 211.

Phase 2: Semi-Automated Labs – Where Do You Go from Here?

According to Ken Lento, about one-third of all optical labs already have some form of process automation. If your lab falls into that category, you need another approach to increasing automation efficiency. You don’t need to recreate your master plan. You just need to take it to the next level. Here are some recommendations:

First, take some time to seriously evaluate what you’ve already got. Look at the initial reasons you invested in automation and see if you met your goals and have realized all the benefits you had expected. If you hoped to have more control over labor costs, have you reached that goal? Next, consider your lab’s current capacity—based on your current jobs, machinery, labor resources and machinery output. At peak performance, how many jobs a day can you produce per day given all the factors of production? With the automation that you’re considering, what is your anticipated capacity increase? Unless you can -answer those two questions and demonstrate a compelling increase and ROI, you’re not ready to go any further.

According to MacGregor, labs with moderate-to-high automation should review their Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) scores and modify their processes, if necessary. OEE is essentially defined as the ability to keep machines running, running well and producing good, saleable product.

If all your evaluation data supports additional investments in automation, you can start connecting isolated machines through conveyor tracks (or -continue -expanding your track system to reach new stations).

Close-up on Conveyors

“Conveyors help connect the dots—connecting one manufacturing process to another,” said Lento. “FlexLink can even build in timed cool-downs and delays between processes (e.g., after blocking, before -processing), which helps manage the tray accumulation between processes and keeps machines from starving between jobs.” When choosing the right conveyor track, here’s another tip.

“The goal of a material handling system is to keep the machines running,” said MacGregor. “Labs should strongly consider conveyor systems with smart routing, buffer systems and other devices to reduce manual intervention. These are investments into your production facility that can have a significant impact on lab operations and overall efficiency.”

See Your Automation Vision in Action Before You Buy

When it comes to lab automation, sometimes seeing is believing. Whether your lab is just getting started with automation or wants to take its current automation to new heights, simulation tools can help you visualize the benefits before you begin.

“Most conveyor companies have diagrams, flow charts and software that can demonstrate the movements of a conveyer belt, the workflow and the time- and labor-saving benefits it can provide along the way,” said Palmer. “These tools can be a tremendous help to any lab trying to create and implement an automation plan. They provide a lot of insight to a laboratory owner or manager as to what the finished product will look like, what it will cost and how it will work. It’s very valuable information.”


Labtalk June 2020