By Julie Bos
Managing production in a busy optical lab is no small task. It requires sufficient inventory, quality equipment, knowledgeable employees—and perhaps most importantly—efficient production processes that keep jobs moving smoothly throughout the lab. If done right, labs can optimize performance, minimize breakage and better meet customer demand—all while maximizing their profitability and fueling business growth.
Despite the complexities involved, many optical labs have found the key to success with automation. New advancements in automated hardware and robotic conveyors are proving to be a gold mine—and numerous labs across the country are experiencing the positive effects.

The theory behind automation is simple: Transform large workloads into standardized processes that are organized, efficient and way more cost-effective than their manually-processed counterparts.
Yet while the idea of automation makes perfect sense, implementation can vary widely from site to site—based on lab layout, solution preferences, timeframe, staffing levels and capital investment. Once you know there are different ways to automate your lab, you need to research the best approach for you.

Not surprisingly, the world of lab automation is constantly changing. New hardware is released. More innovative transport mechanisms are invented. And new automation philosophies and technologies are continually emerging—giving optical labs even more choices about how to move forward. Here’s a close-up on several new advancements that are taking lab automation by storm.

“For years, ours and other companies have implemented automated, pick-and-place loading systems that eliminate the need for operator handling,” said Kurt Atchison, president, Schneider North America. “This has been done with great success all over the world and in dozens of labs across the U.S. However, the new direction we call Modulo brings automation and robotics to a whole new level. Whereas today’s automation is simply robotic loading of machines, our new technology is complete automation of the entire process.”

With Modulo, the entire production process is now controlled by a series of intelligently interlinked machines that offer complete automation from start to finish. This gives labs an entire new level of automated control with real-time feedback of every process parameter, such as temperatures, polish condition, pad status and in-process lens quality.

Another benefit is increased visibility. Modulo enables a supervisor to see everything going on with every machine at any time. All processes can now be monitored remotely from the lab supervisor’s office—at work or even from home. This gives labs the ability to minimize non-productive time while efficiently producing high-quality work.

Modulo has integrated another first in the industry with its PMD, a digital on-the-block back surface mapper that provides time-saving feedback on surfacing quality without the job leaving the conveyor line. Contrary to current mapping procedures, the lens is inspected automatically and on the block. If any issue arises—whether it’s machinery-related or even a quality drift—the Modulo Control Center provides instant feedback to the operator.

This advancement in blocking represents a game-changer in itself. With complete automated blocking, labs can now focus their hands-on time in other areas while reducing the potential for human error. The CCU Modulo blocker is capable of blocking any lens type: Plano, prism, single vision, multi-focal or progressive lenses—all with automation and robotics.
The intelligent conveyor system is another unique new element, creating a very small footprint and completely controlled workflow. Say goodbye to sorting and line-balancing issues. With intelligent machines, in process quality inspection and perfectly managed workflow through the Modulo Control Center, every step of the process is controlled and managed.

The Modulo system includes auto blocking, generating, polishing, lens inspection, laser marking and additional future additions such as coating. All machines are available as stand-alone units and a complete Modulo system can be built up over time. The system and/or its individual machines are a good choice for labs running at least 180 jobs per day.

“This is the new automation paradigm,” said Atchison. “It’s not just robotic loaders, but total process control and production management. Every machine has perfect utilization, as well. The result is true automation in a simple-to-implement package, versus what can often be a difficult re-engineering project.”

“With industry advancements such as Modulo and other designs, automation is paving the way for labs to operate more efficiently, in turn limiting the need for manual processing,” he added. “With these new systems, we have reached the true ‘lights-out facility’ target.”

For Satisloh, automation of lab processes has been a focus for more than 20 years and the company continues to bring innovations to market that reflect this commitment.
“In recent years, we have partnered with the optical industry’s automation integration leader—NCC Automated Systems—to provide labs with the most advanced solutions available,” said Ian Gregg, director of surfacing products. “Through a joint development project, we’ve introduced MobilEyes, an SGV (Self-Guided Vehicle) designed to free the lab from the constraints of traditional hard conveyor systems. When combined with our leading-edge machines and processes, we’re able to create a state-of-the-art system for any size lab.” [See related article on page 14.]

Satisloh’s OBM (On Block Manufacturing) technology is an example of how revolutionizing the blocking process can introduce automation to AR coating, an area that traditionally has been very labor intensive. In addition, the company is bringing to market a second alloy-free technology known as ART (Alloy Replacement Technology). This technology enables labs to automate their blocking process with a system that works seamlessly with all of their existing lab equipment.

Autoblocker ART uses the same hardware as Satisloh’s Nucleo blocking system, as well as its unique bonding adhesive and spatial blocking technique. What separates ART is the block piece. Unlike the OBM process, the ART block piece is designed to be used repeatedly—up to 100 times—and fits in all current lab machines that accept the standard v-groove metal block.
Think about this: Alloy is one of the most hazardous and expensive substances found in an optical laboratory and is steadily becoming more and more difficult to deal with. Offshore producers in low labor-cost countries are forcing labs to increase their cost competitiveness. Any lab looking to move away from alloy and/or automate their blocking process is a good candidate for Satisloh’s automation solutions.

“Satisloh is the leader in alloy-free blocking technology, producing the only systems that offer a safe, environmentally friendly solution for automated prism blocking,” added Gregg.

OBM is designed as a fully integrated system, best suited for a startup or complete re-engineering of an existing facility whereas Autoblocker ART is meant as a direct replacement for a lab’s current alloy system. Both systems are environmentally friendly and bring advanced levels of automation that help labs become more efficient and drive down labor costs.

Augen Optics’ current automation approach is to bring the latest lens-processing technology to small to midsize labs running 150-250 total jobs per day. Called EasyForm, the free form production system includes a surfacing generator, blocker, polisher, laser engraver and lens design software. The EasyForm system automates all processing except for loading, which is mechanized through loading trays.

Because the Augen EasyForm system separates automation from loading, it enables digital surfacing for all types of lenses, including free form and conventional progressives and single vision lenses. This drives precision in lens design output and greater overall efficiencies in processing and polishing times by decreasing the cut-to-polish times for all jobs processed by a lab.

“By using a completely different approach to controlling the diamond that surfaces the lens, our system can be produced at a lower cost,” explained Marco Machado-Torres, chief operating officer for Augen. “This makes it highly cost efficient for labs to use the EasyForm system to run all their jobs, both free form and conventional, instead of having multiple systems to process different types of lens designs.”

• Shorter processing times for all lens designs
• Precision in all lens designs, whether free form or conventional, that’s equal to that found traditionally only in free form processed lenses
• Reduced cost by eliminating the need to support different production lines within one lab
• Reduced need for personnel and multiple training programs
• A smaller footprint for full range production

The EasyForm lens processing system can be implemented in stages; however its price point (for all equipment including the free form generator, blocker, polisher, laser engraver and software) enables any lab running 150-250 jobs per day to amortize the total cost over 24 months.

“Our solution was created from the start for small-cell production—all to bring the latest technology to small labs,” added Machado-Torres.


Labtalk June 2020