The Case for Automation

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By Julie Bos

When taking a lengthy or arduous journey, it’s always nice to follow someone else’s lead—to learn what went right, what went wrong, and how the path could have been smoother. This is certainly the case when making the decision to automate some or all of the production processes in your lab. With that in mind, we’ve collected success stories from four different optical labs who have made the move to automation and achieved excellent results.

Costco Optical Lab

Overview:  The San Diego branch of Costco Optical Lab is one of two that supports the optical departments at all Costco Warehouses across the country. Within its 160,000-square-foot building—130,000 square feet is dedicated to production—this 24/7 facility has 750 employees and produces more than 50,000 pair of glasses per week, with 100 percent of the lenses receiving in-house A-R coating and 100 percent of the jobs undergoing surfacing and finishing (because the lab only services Costco locations, there is no need for uncut work). Typically, work is in the lab for less than three days, and back to the Costco member customer within five days.

Motivation to Automate:  Like many labs, Costco Optical wanted to eliminate non-value-added steps throughout the manufacturing process, while also reducing human error and labor time spent on transport.

“With automation we could get more accurate results in quality and throughput,” said Jeff Konstanzer, Assistant General Manager at the lab. “Better technology contributes to better quality—and with smarter conveyor, a better work flow. The labor we now save is redistributed to support growth. Our productivity continues to become more efficient and standardized. In automation, it’s easier to find root causes of issues and find solutions, whereas with human error, it’s not an exact science.”

Automation Transition At-a-Glance:  The lab started ramping up its automation in the late 1990s, and it hasn’t stopped since. Here’s the general timeline and major stages:

• 1998-2004: Installed various pieces of equipment (auto-tapers, surface auto-blockers, Satisloh VPRO generators and ES2 edgers) with minimal conveyor support.

• 2005: Installed a conveyor to support A&R automated finish blockers.

• 2006: Added a fifth Satisloh VPRO generator to an existing system and conveyor.

• 2007-2008: Installed an additional conveyor for Satisloh ES2 edgers, to meet increased volume.

• 2008: Added Satisloh VFT Cut-to-Polish generators, Opto-polishers and MEI edgers with a conveyor for support.

•  2009: Upgraded to a new technology conveyor.

• 2012: Expanded the production facility to the full 130,000 square feet (from 36,000 previously), upgrading to new 100 percent Cut-to-Polish Generators and Polishers; the lab also doubled its machinery and capacity in all departments with conveyor to support.

• 2013-present: The lab continues to add various machinery and automation to fit production needs as technology allows, including the addition of a transport robot this year.

According to Konstanzer, implementing automation in stages was definitely the right approach. “First of all, the cost, technology available and the needs of the business are constantly changing,” he said. “When implementing any new process, especially automation, we found it imperative to improve slowly, work out all of the kinks and sustain before moving on.”

Current Automation Solutions: Today, Costco Optical Lab has a vast lineup of automation solutions, including:

•  A transport conveyor moving jobs between machines throughout the lab.

•  Auto-tapers, auto-blockers, Satisloh Orbit Generators and Duo-Flex polishers; Opto-tech polishers, an auto-detape/deblocker and a transport robot for alloy and blocks in the surfacing department for full cut-to-polish production.

•  Crest stripping machines, SCL dip coaters, Essemtec cure ovens and Satisloh box coaters in the AR department.

•  MEI TBA Bisphera, Doublers and Racer edgers, plus Focovision lens analyzers (TBA capabilities eliminated the need for blocking lenses and therefore deblocking) in the finishing department.

Driving Acceptance by Lab Staff:  “Employees were made aware that this automation would not threaten their employment—it would simply allow them to learn new tasks and positions,” said Konstanzer. “When employees see the evolution of technology in their area, it can be exciting—but only if communicated positively and in advance. Of course there are the few that don't believe the message; however, they soon come around when they find their jobs are secure and that automation makes their tasks easier.”

Results: For Costco Optical Labs, automation has opened the door to a continuous improvement journey in “Lean Manufacturing.” It has also reduced waste and eliminated many non-value added steps in the process, allowing the lab to redistribute labor during considerable growth, which equates to a large savings and higher employee morale through the addition of new skills.

“The quality of our product has improved, and with it, our first-time yield,” said Konstanzer. “With these improvements, our turnaround time has been significantly decreased to the delight of the customer. Overall, automation has played one of the largest parts in remaining on the cutting edge of a very competitive industry. By taking the manual labor out of the equation, it has given us the time and opportunity to focus more on the training of our employees and development of future leaders.”

21st Century Optics

Overview: 21st Century Optics is a 30,000-square-foot lab based in Long Island City, NY, that employs 110 people and produces approximately 17,000 lenses per week.

Motivation to Automate:  Starting in 2012, 21st Century Optics embarked on a three- to five-year journey to automate both its digital surfacing and finishing departments. 21st Century Optics is an Essilor Partner Lab. Due to the demands and needs of the greater New York market, the lab wanted to be on the forefront of new technologies and innovation. It also wanted to serve the needs and expectations of the marketplace through the best technologies available.

“We wanted to give our customers better consistency and better quality, and to be more competitive in the marketplace,” said Loic Anne, the lab’s General Manager. “Customer demands in the New York metro market are unique. Speed and quality are critical—everyone wants everything yesterday—or in a ‘New York Minute.’”

Automation Transition At-a-Glance: The lab automated the surfacing department with two new Satisloh VFT Orbit systems, and outfitted the finishing department with two Santinelli/Nidek AES-2200 robotic edging systems, each containing two SE-9090-Supra edgers. These changes were phased in over a three- to-five-year period in order to ensure proper training for technicians and minimal disruptions in production—always with the objective of maintaining consistent quality and service levels for customers.

Driving Acceptance by Lab Staff: “Change is always a difficult proposition for people,” said Anne. “Because of this fact, we chose to engage our staff before, during and after the transition in order to involve them in the process and thereby get both their buy-in as well as their critical feedback.”

Due to the sophistication of the technologies, automation training was a challenge. However, the lab viewed the transition as an opportunity to step-up the level of their employees, effectively creating more qualified and technical positions within the laboratory. These positions required advanced skill-sets in terms of maintenance, calibration and robotics. 

Results: “Since we began automating our laboratory, we definitely have a better consistency in the quality of work we are providing to our customers and also in our hourly production capacity,” said Anne. “In addition, the expertise of our employees has stepped up with more qualified and technical duties, such as calibration, maintenance other important details.”

Because an investment in automation is significant, the return on investment is not necessarily immediate. 21st Century Optics accepted this fact because automation was an investment in the future of the laboratory, enabling this organization to stay competitive in the marketplace and invest in the satisfaction of its customers. Down the road, 21st Century Optics would like to automate final inspection (like many European labs).

“Today, thanks to automation, we can literally and metaphorically deliver on our commitment to offer better speed, quality and consistency to our customers,” said Anne. “We pride ourselves on being a lab that’s easy to do business with, and in a competitive landscape like New York, that’s a huge value to our customers. We understand New York and New Yorkers, and with automation, we’re able to put our money where our mouth is.” 

FEA Industries

Overview: Occupying approximately 36,000 square feet, FEA Industries is a full-service lab based in Morton, Pa., with 59 employees in manufacturing and shipping, plus another 17 employees in customer service, sales and administrative staff. This lab produces between 9,000 and 12,500 jobs per week.

Motivation to Automate: FEA Industries’ decision to shift to automation was driven largely by its transition to free-form processing. Over the past four years, this lab has spent more than $7 million on new technology, gradually adding more and more robotics to the production processes as their needs have grown. This has resulted in more than $5 million in savings on labor and spoilage alone.

“One primary reason we added automation was to drive reliability in the process. Another reason was to minimize staffing. Three years ago we had 120 employees. Now we have 75 and can do triple the volume,” said Bill Heffner, the lab’s Director of Marketing, IT and Sales. “Take running a generator, for example. Did we really need to have a person there to open the machine, insert a lens, wait until it’s done, take the lens out and repeat? Simple tasks like these can be easily automated. We knew that saving money on people was not the main reason to automate. Reliability and consistency were. When competing in today’s market, factors such as turnaround and dependability are key.”

Current Automation Solutions:  Today, FEA Industries has automation throughout the lab. The bulk of their automated surfacing equipment comes from Schneider Optical Machines, which includes generating, polishing, engraving, de-blocking, de-taping, and lens cleaning (installation currently in progress). This is complimented by automated taping, blocking, and lens marking from Optotech. Finally, their automated inspection machinery is provided by A&R.

“Most of the automation in our lab deals with maintaining consistent work flow, which helps maximize our machine production time,” explained Heffner. “Being able to automate processes makes it much easier to run longer hours, since it requires fewer people to get out more work. This is especially useful for overnight shifts, when it’s difficult to get workers. The ease of use of the machinery also makes it much easier to cross-train staff, which again helps you maintain consistent output levels.”

Another critical part of FEA Industries’ automation solution is the software that drives it. Using a heavily customized version of Optifacts, FEA can easily prioritize jobs, handle delays, manage remakes and many other administrative tasks. “The faster these things can get done, the faster we can respond to our customers’ needs,” said Heffner. “For example, we’ve made it possible for customers to place, modify and cancel orders online—all without needing to speak with someone in customer service. This has been especially useful when customers have needed to place an order when our phones are closed or when they’ve needed to cancel an order. If they couldn’t do it online, they’d have to wait until the phones were open on Monday.”

Driving Acceptance by Lab Staff: While automation definitely causes a culture shift in the way employees work, automated labs still need people to maintain machines, clear errors and fix issues that arise. In fact, Heffner said his lab ended up needing fewer workers with a higher skill level so they could troubleshoot error messages with the machine, clear problems and do maintenance. “Fortunately, most automated equipment is fairly simple for an operator to get going again,” said Heffner. “Even if they don’t know how to fix a specific error with a job, they can still recover it and keep going, keeping the ‘problem job’ for someone with more specific knowledge to fix.”

Results: “Automating the lab has given us not only a boost in the amount of work we can produce, but also the consistency in what we produce,” Heffner said. “That consistency is critical for reliable turnaround times, as well as happy customers.”

Walman Optical Service Center

Overview: The expansion of Walman’s Optical Service Center in Brooklyn Park, Minn., was completed and fully operational in May of 2011. This state-of-the-art, 50,000-square-foot facility operates 24/7, applying the industry’s most advanced digital surfacing and A-R coating technologies to support 31 branch offices in 19 states. The lab employs 150 people (with seasonal fluctuations) and produces about 26,000 jobs per week.

Motivation to Automate:  Walman wanted to remain competitive with off-shore production, while reducing its cost-per-lens, and to improve quality and turnaround time of finished products.

Automation Transition At-a-Glance:  The transition started in 2010 and reached a major milestone in 2015 with the addition of an automated digital surfacing line containing 10 digital generators, four automated laser marketing systems and 15 soft lap polishers, all interfaced with an automated conveyor system.

“Our initial project was a large integration of equipment onto the automated conveyor line, which can be expanded over time to accommodate expected growth,” explained Chris Bowers, Operations Manager. “We also kept our toric cell running during the transition to allow enough time to transition to the digital process and to ease the company’s move to digital processing.”

Current Automation Solutions:  Today, the Walman Optical Service Center also uses an automated conveyor system that interfaces all automated systems and a centralized swarf management system managing 13 generators, which orchestrates cooling and efficient removal of waste from the coolant stream.

Driving Acceptance by Lab Staff:   For the Walman Optical Service Center, gaining total staff buy-in took about six months. “Training became a process of teaching and learning new skill sets that were not previously used in the facility,” said Bowers. “Ultimately, we achieved our training goals through the development of written work instructions, on-the-job training and written preventive maintenance documents. Cross-training the operators three-deep took approximately a year until we were comfortable that we had backup personnel for all functions.”

SIDEBAR: Top Tips on Training

When it comes to integrating automation technology, minimal training doesn’t cut it. Employees need to understand every facet of the automation process fully and completely. Consider these staff training tips:

Be prepared to maintain and troubleshoot the automation equipment yourself. That usually means higher-skilled staff with deeper knowledge of how the machine works.

Create “standard operating procedures” with pictures and instructions for each stage, using simple, clear and direct language.

Prioritize employee engagement. Create “workshop groups” in which supervisors and employees define their workstations (including layout, materials needed, standard operating procedures) to increase personal ownership.

Don’t quit. Training and cross-training should be ongoing.

When new machinery is installed, have the vendor conduct employee training. This is well worth the additional expense.

Send your maintenance technicians to the equipment manufacturer’s facility for more in-depth training on all aspects of the new technology. They’ll come back knowing how to take the machine apart and put it back together, along with deeper knowledge on problem diagnosis.

When vendors come in to perform preventive maintenance, let your techs shadow them.

Train staff members on “Lean Principles and Leadership,” (visit: https://www.lean.org/).

SIDEBAR: Dollars and Sense: Considering Automation Costs

In these times of tight budgets, automation needs to make sense for an organization, based on factors like volume, error rates, labor costs, growth predictions, ROI and more. While the financial analysis for every laboratory will be different, here’s some general guidance:

Smart conveyors are similarly priced, regardless of vendor. Transport between machinery is the easiest way to deliver ROI in a high-volume situation.

Automated generators to produce digital progressives can cost more than $200,000, and polishers to match are about the same. If a lab chooses to stay with conventional designs, the generators and manual finers/polishers are much less expensive.

Return on investment is typically less than three years (often closer to one to two years).

Fully automated solutions that include smart conveyors connected to PLCs and lots of equipment can often cost millions. Smaller labs can automate less expensively with gravity conveyors and small initial changes, which can still deliver an immediate return.

To prepare for a financial discussion around automation, you need to know several things: What’s your budget? How many jobs per day? How much space do you have to work with?


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Labtalk-November/December 2017