Automation Provides a Platform for Innovation


Optical labs became increasingly automated in the latter part of the 20th century, thanks to the spread of computer controlled machines, advances in lab software and a streamlined approach to production that eliminated steps in the manufacturing process. The pace of change accelerated dramatically in the early 21st century, as labs began using new automated lens processing technology designed for faster throughput, higher yields and a greater volume of work. As systems and processes became more automated, many optical labs began implementing widely used production methods such as lean manufacturing, Six Sigma and MES (Manufacturing Execution Systems) to further improve efficiency and productivity.

One lab operator that has fully embraced automation is VSP Optics. The optical division of managed vision care giant VSP Global services a network of 39,000 eye doctors through its VSPOne Optical Technology Centers located in Sacramento, Calif., San Diego, Calif., Honolulu, Hawaii, Olympia, Wash., Denver, Colo., St. Cloud, Minn.; Dallas, Texas; Houston, Texas, Columbus, Ohio, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., Tampa Bay, Fla., Charlotte, N.C., Baltimore, Md. and Melville, N.Y.

Swen Carlson, vice president of operations for VSP Optics, has a broad perspective on lens manufacturing gained through years of first-hand experience.

“In the late ’90s labs, it was basically still manually run equipment all approximating the same performance,” Carlson recalled. “Around 2006, we saw a shift toward technologies that really looked like automation in other industries that are bigger and more progressive than we are.”

Automation, particularly self-loading machines and conveyor systems that move lenses from one work station to another have significantly boosted lab productivity at many labs.

“By automating movement of trays, you just took that part of automation, can really get to that nirvana moment that all lean practitioners talk about, which is to improve flow,” explained Carlson. “That gives you lower WIP (Work in Progress) and that gets you that turnaround time. The quality goes up.

Investments in Automation Pay Off
One lab that has invested heavily in such advanced automation is Plastic Plus, the biggest independent lab in Canada. Earlier this year, Plastic Plus relocated to a new, 30,000 square-foot facility in Toronto, doubling its size and adding significantly more production capacity. The lab is entirely automated “from blocking to the mapper,” according to founder and owner Paul Faibish.

“Nobody touches a lens,” said Faibish, who said Plastic Plus is experiencing higher yields and reduced labor expenses. “Previously, we had people deblocking, detaping, and spin coating. This is now all done in-line. With less individuals touching a lens there are fewer rejects.

“Our service has improved substantially,” Faibish observed. “Most non-AR jobs go out same day. Over 80 percent of our AR jobs leave same or next day. Our job checks from customers are way down, and we’re getting more business from our existing customers. They’re giving us more work as they see our turnaround time decreasing.

“Automation separates the bigger independents from the small guys,” said Faibish. “But the new smart lab and the 4.0 is going to separate the really successful guys from the medium guys. That’s going to be the next level.”

Machines are good at doing repetitive tasks, and automating those tasks in the lab has allowed lab owners to reassign workers to other tasks that require skill, specialized knowledge and judgment. According to Matt Iovaldi, owner of Midland Optical, which operates facilities in St. Louis and Chicago, this shift has benefitted both his lab and his customers.

“As we’ve brought automation into our laboratory we’ve actually been able to redeploy folks into other areas. So for us it’s been a situation where we’ve been able to do increasing volumes of work with the same amount of people. There are functions in the lab still, especially in the bench department which require a lot of human handwork, so you’ll never totally eliminate the need for production work. I think the effect on them (ECPs) is giving them a higher quality product in a faster service time,” Iovaldi said.

Developing a Data Driven Approach
Recently, a new data driven approach to manufacturing known as Industry 4.0 has begun influencing the way optical labs function. Some industry observers believe Industry 4.0 will fundamentally change the way labs operate because it unlocks the full power of automation. As the Boston Consulting Group asserted in a report titled, Man and Machine in Industry 4.0, “Industry 4.0 will transform production: isolated, optimized cells will come together as a fully integrated, automated, and optimized production flow, leading to greater efficiencies and changing traditional production relationships among suppliers, producers, and customers—as well as between human and machine.”

A growing number of lens processing equipment manufacturers are championing Industry 4.0 concepts and helping their customers incorporate the new procedures into their facilities.

Because of the sheer volume of work they process, supplier-owned labs have been quick to adopt Industry 4.0 techniques. One of the first to implement the new production methods is Luxottica, which operates three large Rx labs in the U.S, including a new state-of-the art facility near Atlanta, Ga. Ettore Mosca, senior vice president of Luxottica Global Rx Operations, said the new smart systems allow Luxottica to process a large volume of orders with maximum efficiency.

“With the improvement of data gathering, including an increased number of inputs throughout the process, real time data analysis provides the ability to keep the processes stable and operating within control limits,” Mosca observed. “It allows the improvement teams to focus quickly on an issue and stop a potential problem before it occurs. In an operation where we produce over 50,000 orders a week in our larger facility, getting the data quickly can make all the difference. We can now impact a large number of orders in a small period of time, which improves and maintains quality and planned turnaround time.”

Mosca said the biggest impact on Luxottica’s customers is the reduction in the number of remakes, or “making it right the first time and keeping it that way.” As he explained, “When there is a process of repeatability and consistency in place, we can identify a systemic problem and correct it and have a meaningful and lasting impact. Having equipment and processes under control in an automated environment is crucial.”

There’s a learning curve for labs that implement these production methods, and Mosca said it was hard at first for him and his colleagues to let statistical data drive their decisions. “We have seen how valuable it can be to implement improvements or changes in process or equipment based on a significant amount of data,” he said. “Yes, anecdotal feedback will always have value and reveal trends we can act on. But we do not necessarily make a meaningful change without fully applying both good reasoning and data support.”

Some large independent labs are also discovering the benefits of smart systems. “Industry 4.0 is advantageous on almost every front as we move to this, because it will improve our quality and productivity and throughput and consistency,” said Bryan Schueler, vice president and general manager of Walman’s ophthalmic lab division, the largest independent lab network in the U.S. “The robotics and automation are part of it, but so is having systems that talk to each other, and a line management system that ties everything together at the product level. These systems allow us to more readily run 24 hours, and allow us to worry less about a really tight labor market.”

Schueler said smart systems are helping Walman deliver an “effortless experience” for customers. “We pride ourselves on offering premium service and quality. This level of automation enables us to provide consistently good turn time, and the same high-quality job, time-in and time-out.”

Prevention, Quality and Consistency
Optical labs face special challenges when applying smart manufacturing protocols developed in other industries because labs need to mass produce customized products instead of uniform batches of products.

“One aspect of lab processing that may differ from “generic” manufacturing is the uniqueness of each eyeglass prescription order,” noted Gordon Keane, founder and president of DVI (Digital Vision Inc.), a pioneering LMS (Lab Management Systems) company. “We have one customer that is filling 5,000 orders per day with 250 different progressive styles in 50 different lens materials to be inserted into several thousand different (and usually unfamiliar) frames. This is a complicated business.”

The data generated by smart manufacturing systems makes it possible for labs to spot variations in the production process that can lead to problems with lens quality. “We produce so many lenses, and there’s so much variation it’s hard to see trends,” Swen Carlson of VSP Optics pointed out. “For example, it’s impossible to see that our +6.00 spheres that we’re cutting on the generator are starting to push toward +6.5. Those kinds of drifts are impossible for people to internalize and understand because we’re running every kind of curve possible. But these smart systems with these sensors allow us to digest a massive amount of data and then turn that data into something that our techs can take action on before a job is rejected. It allows us to be preventative. That’s exciting, not only what it does to the business and what it does to the customer. We’re able to make a great product and do it consistently.”

Jeff Grumbling, president, OptoTech Technologies, said the new production methods “are about how you take that data from the machine and put it in the facility manager’s hands. Not only is it about how many lenses do I get per hour, it’s also about how many times was my machine idle, how many hours of preventive maintenance was done on the machine, and when is my preventive maintenance due.

Steve Swalgen, national director, lab business, for Santinelli International, also underscored the increasingly important role that preventive maintenance plays in controlling quality. “It used to be whereas the operators of the equipment were the critical factor in getting it right. Now it’s the maintenance people. You have less people involved in the actual operation, especially when it comes to industrial automation, and the more critical area is routine maintenance, daily, weekly or monthly.

Ultimately, it’s consumers who benefit from smart lens making technology. “Using all the data available from the machines and the systems allows owner-operators to be able to produce a higher quality product, which means the patient actually gets what was ordered,” said OptoTech Technologies’ Jeff Grumbling.

The recent emergence of 3D printing technology for spectacle lenses, pioneered by Luxexcel, gives labs and ECPs a powerful new tool for create personalized lenses that satisfy individual patient needs.

“3D printing affords us unlimited options with regard to putting add power in the lens wherever it might be needed depending on the wearer,” said Ronald Cooke, Jr., a longtime lab executive who just launched a new lab, R&D Optical in Cincinnati, Ohio. For instance, a pilot would need intermediate above and below for the instrumentation and distance in the middle. This will be possible with Luxexcel’s lens design software.”