By Julie Bos

Your lab is on a journey. The destination…success. There are road blocks along the way: rising workloads, spoilage costs and ever- increasing demands from customers. The right automation solutions—or lack thereof—can make all the difference in whether a lab reaches its destination or breaks down along the way.

Fortunately, an ever-evolving platform of automation features can change a lab’s trajectory—encouraging a huge upswing of efficiency and profitability. That’s why today’s labs are increasingly turning to more advanced levels of automation to drive productivity, reduce errors and absorb higher workloads without adding staff.

As countless labs have already learned, the right automation solutions—at the right time—can transform large workloads into standardized jobs that are organized, efficient and more cost-effective than their manually-processed counterparts. Time-consuming manual steps are virtually eliminated, leading to far better turnaround time, more capacity, higher productivity and fewer errors.

“Today’s labs are no longer afraid of automation; rather, they are seeking new ways to do more with the same staff,” said Jeff Grumbling, chief operating officer at  OptoTech Machinery. “In an environment that’s increasingly demanding, automation is freeing up time, allowing lab staff to pay greater attention to process-control and provide very high quality levels to their accounts. This means reduced costs and improved customer satisfaction levels, while enabling labs to focus on growing their businesses.”

Indeed, automation has come a long way—as demonstrated by the sheer diversity of what’s available.

“Automation comes in many forms, from a single pick-and-place robot on a generator or edger to a fully automated production line with intelligent conveyors for work sorting and tray management,” said Ian Gregg, director of sales, Satisloh. “The key is recognizing when the time is right to automate, and what level makes sense for your current and future needs.”

If you’re considering a full, lab-wide automation line, you also need to know what you’re dealing with. Unlike with many lab systems, implementing a full automation line isn’t a solo effort; it’s a team sport.

The Critical Triad: Hardware, Track  and Software

On your road trip to success, your lab will require three essential components—the car (hardware), the road (conveyor tracks) and a GPS system (software). Without any one piece, full automation that works efficiently and seamlessly simply isn’t possible. Let’s take a look at each component separately.

The Car: Automated Hardware Powers  the Production

It’s worth mentioning that there are at least two distinct kinds of systems that are often called “automation.” First, many lab machines now offer some kind of automatic loading system, so that they can run unattended by an operator. Secondly, there are conveyor systems of increasing sophistication that move orders in their “job trays” to and from these automatic, unattended machines. The most impressive examples of automation marry these two concepts in a way that very large installations of machines can operate with a very small number of operators.

According to Robert Shanbaum, chief technology officer of Ocuco’s lab division, “While it’s generally true that full automation is more often seen in very large labs (where the cost of implementation can be recouped over a larger number of orders), it can also be implemented to significant advantage in small labs, as well, where automatic loading can enable one operator to perform multiple tasks simultaneously.”

In terms of hardware, an influx of advanced freeform- capable (or “direct”) surfacing equipment has had a substantial effect on making full automation more attractive. In the past, the fining and polishing operation was very difficult to automate effectively. 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—it was often impractical. Direct surfacing equipment, however,  which uses a small number of conformable laps and requires no fining step, has made automating that step highly practical. In turn, this has spurred the development of automated blockers (another process that was challenging to automate), so that the entire surfacing process can be automated end-to-end.

Some hardware manufacturers are taking automation to the next level by building advanced capabilities into their next-generation equipment lines. For example, Schneider’s Modulo surfacing equipment combines automation with intelligent, self-organizing machines with a focus on  maximum utilization of equipment capacity.

“This level of smart automation allows for trays to be routed to the appropriate machine, based on factors like next required step and machine load availability,  thus removing the possibility of trays piling up at chokepoints,” said Kevin Cross, director of sales at Schneider Optical Machines. 

“Automation is in important step in a growing lab,” adds Cross. “It does not however need to replace good people; it allows for growth without the need to add more people. You can look at the most mundane of tasks and start to think about automating those while re-allocating your existing people to areas in which they can have a positive impact on the business and production.”

Other automated hardware, such as lens-cleaning, hard-coating and dip-coating machines, also contribute to higher efficiency.

“Automated cleaning lines are important because they are thorough and consistent, without the need for intervention from lab personnel,” said Ronald Cooke, director of sales for Leybold Optics. “Unfortunately, the more people touch lenses, the higher the chance of breakage. Using automated cleaning and dip coating machines greatly increases the throughput and decreases expensive lens loss, resulting in higher quality lenses.” 

The Road: Automation Tracks Serve as the Delivery Mode

According to Tom Coker, national sales manager at Simplimatic Automation, tracking lab jobs can be a complex undertaking, especially if you lack experience. Tracking is usually done with a combination of technologies, including barcodes, RFID chips and color chip sorting, but can be easily achieved with the right controls logic capabilities (and an experienced provider that can work with any LMS provider).

“The ease or complexity of integration is usually dependent on the individual LMS provider capabilities,” he said. “The main question that should be answered when automating a new lab section is, ‘what tracking capabilities will be best for our lab and our customers.’ Generally new labs want to stick with traditional barcode tracking, a proven and industry-standard option, but a variety of other complimentary tracking technologies are also available to keep labs on the cutting-edge, while meeting specific lab and customer requirements.”

If your lab is aiming to automate a new section (or even your entire lab), eliminating guesswork is also a wise move.

“The more homework you can do before a project, the better the end result is going to be,” said Coker. “If a lab knows its full LMS capabilities along with any tracking requirements that need to be implemented, adding a new section becomes exponentially easier for everyone involved.”

According to Ken Lento, general manager at FlexLink, another main concern for track systems is the process of setting up filters for smart routing.

“Labs used to make simple routing decisions on where jobs were to be processed, but now it’s becoming more complicated,” he said. “Many labs now have alternate routes for jobs based on lens type, material, available machine and other what-if’s that happen during the production day. Many labs also want to be able to automatically handle rejected trays from various machines that requires functionality beyond what machine manufacturers supply to the LMS system, making extra software efforts necessary.” 

The GPS System: LMS Solutions Act as  “Command Central”

LMS solutions serve as the main repository of information in a lab. Orders are entered into a LMS system to perform a wide range of tasks, including layout calculations, lens selection, pricing, inventory management and workflow management. Automation systems frequently involve routing orders to various machines or groups of machines based on the characteristics of each order. These specific details are contained in the LMS, which is why automation systems depend on it—and why the LMS is such a critical piece of the automation solution.

“The benefit of automation is that job processing becomes more efficient and less costly, but the loss is the opportunity for a human to decide how to handle a job based on what the job needs,” said John Keane, customer support at DVI. “Because of that, it’s critical for a LMS to store and communicate extensive job information so that automated machinery and conveyor decision points can act correctly.”

This may mean routing a drill job to a drill capable edger, communicating the appropriate eye information for a single eye job, selecting a slower surfacing or edging cycle for appropriate jobs and more. Furthermore, because automated equipment often has processing limitations (e.g., blocking ring selection, crib diameter requirements, a wide availability of edge treatments), it’s important for the LMS to be able to identify jobs that require manual intervention before the job raises an error or causes breakage.

“In today’s world, software is the gasoline that makes the hardware engine do what’s necessary to meet the required result,” said Steve Swalgen, national director of lab business at Santinelli. “Both are completely interdependent on each other. Together, these solutions provide  efficiencies of consistent output, ease of maintenance and labor mitigation, so that labs can better understand their profit and loss opportunities in a cost-per-lens manner.”

Because the LMS data basically “controls” the automation flow of jobs through the lab, it’s essential that it work well with a lab’s specific installed hardware and automation track. To ensure success, LMS providers work closely with manufacturers to establish communication protocols and expand functionality prior to implementation in a lab. This process helps standardize communication methods so that installation and support go as seamlessly as possible. 

“Typically a lab has a mix of equipment and systems, each playing a distinct role in the process of manufacturing prescription eyewear—therefore, it’s important to engage your LMS provider early in the discovery phase,” said Jodi Nickerson, director of sales and marketing at Optical Lab Software Solutions. “The LMS often controls, or at least touches, almost every part of the business from customers and orders, to production and shipping. Communication early on is key to prevent any disruption to your business.”

Pulling It All Together

Regardless of your automation goals, you need to assemble a team that can help you get there. Of course, this should include representatives from all three sides of the equation—your hardware provider, your software provider and your track provider.

“Strong partners will be able to assist you in the design phase and produce innovative solutions for your specific needs,” said Gregg. “They should take your vision, refine it and ultimately articulate it in the form of a detailed plan drawing—or better yet—a fully-animated simulation of your entire process. A simulation is an excellent tool for locating potential bottlenecks or other trouble spots prior to actual implementation. The key is to do your homework, talk to your colleagues who have traveled this road before you, visit some successful installations, if possible, and most importantly, ask your strategic partners lots of questions. They are your most valuable resource.”


Labtalk June 2020