WORKLOAD RISING? Stay Afloat with Automation

By Julie Bos

Is your lab flooded by increasing work? Are you drowning in breakage and spoilage costs? Or simply tired of the torturous trickle of inconsistent quality or undependable employees? These are the dilemmas that can make a lab sink or swim. In recent years, however, the optical industry has discovered a life raft. Labs are increasingly turning to automation to drive efficiency, reduce errors and absorb higher workloads without adding employees.

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. It’s no wonder more and more labs are jumping in the game.

Testing the Waters: Lab Automation Self-Assessment

Is your lab ready to dive into automation? Or if you’ve already got your toe in the water, are you ready to take your automation levels up a notch? To find out, ask yourself these questions:
• How would you rank your overall workflow? Do you find production rates and production management to be inadequate, problematic or a constant battle?
• Do you typically need to process at least 25 jobs per hour?
• Are your machines not being used 100 percent of their available time? Are there times when they are in “standby” mode—waiting for jobs to be fed to them?
• Does it seem like jobs are taking too long to get through the lab?
• Regarding productivity, would you like to have more predictable results?
• Are your employee wages increasing?
• Is it becoming increasingly difficult to staff your lab?
• Do you need to get more work out with fewer (or no) new hires?
• Have you considered what handling-related operator errors you could eliminate with automatic loading systems?
• Do you prefer a well-tuned production system for generating standardized results? Or do you find yourself relying on the fluctuating moods and attendance patterns of your employees?

MAKING THE CASE: LABS THAT HAVE FOUND SUCCESS

Case #1: Superior Optical Lab, Ocean Springs, Miss.
Business Challenge: Several years ago, this midsize, full-service independent lab found itself challenged by inefficiencies—and wanted to expand its capacity without hiring new employees. Specifically, vice president, Jon Jacobs witnessed poor productivity in the lab and too much variation in yields and output. His specific goal was to eliminate those daily ups and downs. Because the lab already had an automated edger, Jon knew what automation could do—and wanted to attain that same level of increased efficiency in other areas of the lab.

Automation Solution: The lab decided to automate its surfacing area to keep up with its already efficient edging area. It also transitioned to digital free form surfacing at the same time. The lab implemented the Schneider HSC Smart XP with automatic loading, along with two CCP Swift polishers and a corresponding conveyor system to transport the jobs from one location to another.

Results: Today, Superior Optical is the picture of efficiency. Work moves through the lab quickly and without delay. Previously, it could take up to an hour to get the first job through surfacing; but now, the lab gets an earlier start due to the need to feed the automated line. Employee slow-downs are a thing of the past. Right away, the number of jobs processed per hour increased by 25 percent, and spoilage in the surfacing department went from 2.5 to less than 1 percent. In addition, one great employee moved from production to a newly created customer education role. In the future, the lab plans to expand into a second automated surface line with a single logistical conveyor system.

According to Jacobs, the new level of automation was the perfect addition. “We should have done it sooner,” he said. “We could have been enjoying a lot of the benefits much earlier.”

Case #2: SVS Vision, Mt. Clemens, Mich.
Business Challenge: SVS Vision is a 55-location retail chain serving 10 states in the Midwest U.S. Recently, this lab was facing a large expansion but didn’t want to add employees. It had no automation, needed the capacity to handle an additional 200-300 jobs per day and wanted to transition to in-house free form production. Like many labs, SVS Vision needed to get more work done with fewer people. It expected growth, but finding available skilled labor was a real challenge.
Automation Solution: SVS Vision decided to automate its entire surfacing area, adding three complete surfacing lines, including three HSC Smart XP generators with auto-loading and six CCP Swift digital polishers. This solution offered excellent reliability and enabled the lab to easily produce any free form design. Fortunately, the lab didn’t experience any roadblocks during implementation—largely due to adequate forethought, planning and preparation.
Results: Today, SVS Vision’s outsourcing expenses are a thing of the past. Now that all the Rx work is inside, the lab eliminated a $60,000 per month outsourcing bill. Plus, it increased throughput by 15-20 percent—all with three fewer people in production. Going forward, SVS Vision plans to automate its finishing department.

“Being able to significantly increase output and grow the lab while decreasing the number of employees was key,” said Fred Chandonnet, vice president of manufacturing. “We basically wiped the floor clean of our older, manual equipment and went 100 percent with automation in our surfacing area over the weekend. I would definitely recommend automation. It’s the only way forward.”

Before You Dive In: Consider These Best Practices for Success

To help ensure a successful transition to lab automation, consider these best practices, contributed from several industry experts.

START WHERE YOUR GREATEST NEEDS ARE
“There’s no right place to start the automation process,” said Kevin Paddy, Satisloh’s product line director for finishing. “It’s about focusing on where the needs are. If a lab is in the market for a new generator or edger, then that’s the area they should consider automating first.”
After that, labs should identify key areas where automation makes sense. These would include areas that are riddled with non-value added steps (e.g., manual equipment loading) or areas with workflow bottlenecks. Look for areas in your surfacing or finishing departments where you see job trays consistently backing up.
 
UNDERSTAND (AND MAP OUT) YOUR GROWTH STRATEGY
Surprisingly, not every lab has identified their short-term, mid-range and long-term goals. Therefore, they simply replace equipment as needed and place the new systems wherever they fit. Creating a strategic growth plan, however, enables you to buy and place the right automation systems at the right time—ensuring that every financial investment you make puts you closer to your ultimate goal.

“If a lab is currently doing 100 jobs per hour but wants to be doing 200 jobs per hour in 6-8 months and 300-400 jobs per hour within four years, the automation plan needs to accommodate the ultimate production goal and offer adaptability for this future expansion,” said Chuck MacGregor, NCC’s director of optical automation. “Each lab needs to formulate their goals and expectations about where they want to be—and when.”

Ian Gregg, Satisloh’s director of surfacing products, agrees. “The last thing you want to do is install an automated line and six months later, discover that you need to add another line—or worse, tear out what you put in previously to make room for the new system. It’s important to lay it all out in the early planning phase. If your goal is to have as many as four lines of automation installed within 10 years, your plan should really incorporate that from the very beginning.”

CALCULATE YOUR RETURN ON INVESTMENT
Determining the value of automation doesn’t have to be rocket science. It’s simply a matter of considering the production volume of each department and the number of people required to generate that volume (e.g., 20 people required to complete 100 surfacing jobs a day). Don’t forget to factor in the human intervention that undoubtedly contributes to breakage and spoilage. Knowing these facts can help you better calculate your labor savings with automation.
 
VISIT OTHER AUTOMATED LABS
When approaching automation, there’s a lot to consider in terms of layout, operations and mechanics. If you’re just getting started, it’s wise to visit an automated lab that’s willing to discuss their unique transition, challenges and results. Most labs today have at least a few automated pieces, and many are willing to share their experiences and advice.

RELY ON A TRUSTED VENDOR PARTNER
Collaborating with a company that is highly experienced with lab automation can go a long way toward ensuring end-to-end success. Remember, an automation plan can go through as many as 15-20 drawings before it’s totally complete—and the devil is in the details. You need a vendor you can trust to help navigate the specific details of your lab’s facilities, goals, staff members and skill levels.

LET CONFIDENCE BE YOUR GUIDE
If you’ve been using automation in one area, but are ready to expand automation into new departments, rely on your previous experience and success to ease your transition. If your lab in growing, you already know that automation can help you absorb higher volumes of work without adding payroll, so simply put your own knowledge to work again.

REMEMBER THE IMPORTANCE OF SYSTEM MAINTENANCE
As always, ongoing maintenance and cleanliness are critical factors for unattended (automated) machines. Proper maintenance, regular adjustments and routine calibrations are vital to keeping your automation systems running at optimal performance. Plus, these proactive habits help keep your lab out of “break-fix” mode, while ensuring higher productivity and higher overall satisfaction.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
The issues that optical labs face today are significant—and they require forward-looking solutions. Automation will certainly continue to play a role in improving processes. As your lab wades into the automation pool (or dives in head-first), remember to keep your ultimate goal at the forefront. And trust the industry experts to help you reach success.


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November/December 2014