Streamlining the Production Process
Bill Heffner III
Bill Heffner IV
Over the past year, Morton, Pa.-based FEA Industries has made significant investments in its surfacing department, adding new stackers and de-stackers and installing a robot arm for lens-picking. The lab has also implemented a RAX lens inventory management system and is working with a new laser-based device for lens marking that is not yet on the market.
These changes, coupled with the acquisition of two new edgers in the finishing department, an automated photochromic dip coater from Buehler, two Velocity hard coaters from Coburn Technologies plus the installation of DVI lab management software (LMS) were part of an overall investment of $1.5 million in the facility. According to owner William H. “Bill” Heffner III, the lab spends that amount annually in equipment upgrades.
“We try to stay ahead of the curve technology wise and bring in a lot of new toys,” he noted.
Heffner is particularly impressed with the Velocity coaters. “The machine has a steaming unit that cleans the lenses better than by hand. This improves the yields coming out of the machine,” he noted.
These investment decisions involve more than just having all the latest bells and whistles, however. Heffner and his son, Bill IV, said they only bring in new technology that promises a high rate of return on investment.
“Ideally, we want new equipment to essentially pay for itself within three years,” the elder Bill explained.
There are tax advantages to re-investment, of course, but the biggest returns are derived from reduced labor costs. Prior to making the aforementioned upgrades, FEA, which produces roughly 2,000 jobs per day with around 70 employees, was running essentially three production shifts. New equipment and accompanying changes to the lab’s workflow over the past five years have enabled the Heffners to operate with a 12-hour staggered shift, in which some departments (surfacing) work from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., while others (finishing and shipping) are on the clock from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m.
“New technology has allowed to reduce number of hours for our workforce but still get same throughput by streamlining the production process,” Bill IV said.
Both Heffners emphasized that the changes haven’t just reduced the workforce, but enhanced it. “We have kept our better employees and moved them to different areas and cross-trained them,” Bill III explained. To keep high-performing staff happy, the lab offers health benefits (of course), a competitive salary and a profit-sharing plan.
Another area that has been enhanced by the re-investment has been inventory control. With the new inventory management system, the lab has been able to reduce its lens inventory significantly. In the past, FEA maintained a lens inventory worth $1.2 million. “The new system has allowed us to stock just what we need for real tight inventory control,” Bill III noted. “Now, we inventory about $500,000 in lenses. That reduces our overhead and improves our cash flow.”
As big a role all of the new equipment has played in these improved efficiencies and cost-savings, though, it has been the new LMS from DVI, which was installed in April, that has affected the biggest change, according to the Heffners. The software connects all functions of the production process, from lens picking at the start to surfacing, finishing and coating, allowing lab managers to better control for quality and efficiency.
With the LMS helping to monitor the process and robotics (from A&R) bringing jobs from department to department, FEA is essentially fully automated, except for its AR department, which is at present only partially automated. This transition has allowed the lab to shave one day, on average, off its turnaround, even with fewer workers on the floor.
“Unlike every other mass-production industry in the world, everything an optical lab makes is custom, and all our customers want it yesterday,” Bill IV said. “Automation has essentially allowed us to standardize everything. Today, production is more predictable and better controlled. Ultimately, that means more efficiency and less human error, which means better products and service to our customers.”
Continual Process Improvement
Costa Rx Lab
Daytona Beach, Fla.
The Costa Rx lab in Daytona Beach, Florida is unique because it is dedicated to producing Costa Sun Rx. In fact, the lab offers prescription versions of Costa’s entire plano sunglass line, including its signature 580 Lens Technology.
Although its output is relatively small—ranging between 250 to 450 jobs per day, the specialized nature of the jobs requires unique processes and procedures. Eighty-five percent of the lenses processed by the lab are made of either polycarbonate or Trivex lenses, with glass accounting for the remaining 15 percent. All of them feature a Costa colored mirror coating on the front side, and an AR coating on the back, and all are polarized lenses with a 6 or 8 base. The combination of these elements provides a unique set of challenges for the lab.
Adding to the challenge are the high expectations of Costa’s customers. “Our customers are very discriminating, so Costa Rx sunglasses need to deliver the same performance and looks as the plano version, without being able to notice that it is an Rx pair of sunglasses,” said lab manager Christophe Jacques, an optical industry veteran who has an extensive background in engineering and R&D for sunwear and lens coatings.
“We work very closely on the coating, finishing and edging processes, trying to optimize the fitting of the lenses into the frame,” he continued. “We need to know everything about the lenses from the time they are conceived and generated in the surfacing department.”
The Costa Mirror process is done in-house, using vacuum thin film deposition technology. Each mirror coating is designed to offer a perfect bond to the lenses and is composed of several layers of high-density materials applied to the lenses finished with an oleophobic coating designed to protect the glasses. “We are using standard equipment, but the way we utilize them, the consumables, chemicals, the way we evaporate them is unique to Costa,” Jacques noted.
To develop the Rx processes and coating recipes that each product and frame style requires, the lab’s production team works upstream with Costa’s product development team, taking into consideration all frame and product technical information. “This data is also used to calculate and design each order to ensure that it delivers the best performance, protection and look for the patient,” explained Jacques. He added that creating the Rx processes and
recipes involves a lot of prep and validation work, which requires employees to be specially trained in engineering and continual process improvement. Costa increased its investment in the lab workforce by 20 percent over the past year, mostly through training, according to Jacques.
“We invested the time and resources to train our support team so they could gain the expertise we need, and also develop new ideas. It’s a slow process at first, but once you start getting results, it’s very exciting,” said Jacques.
Costa has also invested heavily in technology. Within the past three years, the lab has installed Satisloh surfacing equipment. (Both Costa and Satisloh are owned by Essilor.) In just the past 12 months, the lab has invested in finishing, anti-reflective coating, thin film processes, robotic loading, inspection and quality control, consumables and recycling. Some of these investments have already generated a significant return. For example, AR coating—which in Costa’s case means mirror coatings—have generated a 15 percent increase in productivity while reducing spoilage by 2.5 percent, Jacques said.
The Costa lab has automated many production processes, most recently its glass edging operation. However, not all processes are automated. “Processing high curve lenses has limited options in automation,” Jacques noted, adding that some prescriptions are out of range for certain frames styles.
Costa’s focus on continual process improvement means that Jacques and his team are always exploring new ways to improve efficiency and quality. That requires a flexible approach to problem solving. For example, because of the relatively limited selection of glass lens processing machinery on the market, Costa converts some plastic lens processing equipment to produce glass Rx jobs. “We’re talking to some vendors to see how we can overcome this technical constraint,” said Jacques. “We’re focusing first on edging glass lenses for high wrap frames. We’re developing new tools for that. There’s a lot of learning involved.”
Automating for Increased Productivity
St. Louis and Chicago
For a lab like Midland Optical, which operates through two locations in St. Louis and Chicago, the decision to automate may seem like an easy one, given that it processes more than 4,500 jobs per day combined through both locations (3,800 in St. Louis and 700 in Chicago). However, owner Matt Iovaldi emphasizes that automation isn’t only about increasing—or maintaining—volume.
“All of the new equipment we’ve added to our labs allows us to produce better lenses,” he said. “So, yes, while upgrading our production lines has allowed us to improve efficiency, both in terms of time and cost, which has helped our bottom line, it has also enabled us to service our customers better, through better-quality products.”
For Midland, which is an Essilor Partner Lab, re-investment in laboratory infrastructure is a cyclical process. According to Iovaldi, the lab spends roughly $500,000 to $1 million every 12 to 18 months on new equipment. Over the course of the most recent 12-month cycle, Midland has purchased two 4RacerTBA edgers from MEI Systems to bolster its finishing department, which already included two Bisphera-XDDs from MEI. All four edgers are high-speed, high-throughput systems, Iovaldi noted, and are totally blockless. As a result, Midland’s can finish as many as 180 jobs per hour.
“Obviously, that’s changed the whole nature of our finishing department,” Iovaldi said.
Within the past 18 months, Midland has also purchased two Satisloh VFT-orbit 2 generators and three Satisloh Duo-FLEX automated polishers, and added a Schneider Modulo de-taper and a Modulo deblocker as well as a 44R backside coater from Ultra Optics. Now, the lab has fully digital, fully automated, robotic production lines in which all of the machines are fed via conveyor systems. The whole processing department is run through a lab management software platform developed by DVI.
“Once the job is blocked in the surfacing room and goes down the line, it’s not touched again until it’s generated, polished, backside coated and engraved,” Iovaldi explained.
All of this automation has enabled Midland to save significantly on labor, which Iovaldi describes as the “biggest cost in the lab.” However, instead of “laying off” staff, the lab has simply kept staffing levels flat, and repurposed workers away from newly automated functions to those that are still performed by hand—namely, inspection and mounting of finished jobs.
“Basically, we can produce more work than we’ve been able to in the past with the same amount of people,” said Iovaldi, adding that the improvements have allowed the lab to maintain nearly 10 percent growth in revenues annually over each of the past five years. “Today, our employees are almost machine operators as opposed to optical technicians, and they are producing work faster and more accurately.”