The Automation Revolution

By Karen Appold
You’ve heard vendors say it over and over—automating your lab will improve workflow and performance and increase efficiency.

But is it true? And what about smaller labs? Can they benefit from automation also?

We checked in with some labs that have incorporated various forms of automation into the production process to get the real answer. Here’s what they had to say.

Workflow and Efficiency

When asked to explain the benefits of automation to his lab, Adam Cherry, president and owner, Cherry Optical, Inc., Green Bay, Wis., doesn’t hesitate.

“Whenever I add a new piece of automation, I instantly see the advantages,” he says. “Automation allows for a constant flow of operations. We have systematically built in automation to allow us to grow.”

“We manufacture a wide variety of lens types and styles, which adds to the lab’s complexity,” adds Jon Nordman, director of operations, Walman Optical—Optical Service Center, Brooklyn Park, Minn. “Automation allows us to consistently mass produce a customized product.”

Cherry Optical produces 850 jobs per day, and the lab recently underwent a major overhaul that essentially automated roughly 85 percent of its processing facility. Part of that project involved installing automated de-stackers and stackers into the production line.

“Automated de-stackers or stackers… are more compact and allow us to queue up jobs in front of different automated machines,” Cherry explains. In addition, they save floor space and free up operators to work on value-added tasks. Cherry emphasizes, however, that a lab employee still needs to load and unload jobs.

Walman Optical, which manufactures more than 5,000 jobs per day, says its manufacturing execution system allows the company to monitor machine usage rates and errors in real time, which decreases equipment downtime. The lab’s automated inspection equipment also provides complete mapping of lenses.

“We monitor spoilage rates closely and constantly make adjustments to keep spoilage low,” says Gerid Villella, digital/office supervisor, Walman Optical—Optical Service Center.

“This enables us to track production issues back to a specific machine that is responsible for an error,” adds Sherri Henkemeyer, quality control and continuous improvement manager, Walman Optical—Optical Service Center. “This helps us to quickly correct issues with the production process.”

Overall, at minimum, Cherry estimates that most automated equipment increases production speed by 25 percent.

“The longer span of time that an automated piece of equipment runs, the more efficient it becomes over what an individual can do,” he explains. For instance, even though a laboratory optician can manually surface-block up to 60 jobs in an hour—the same amount as Schneider’s automated CCU Modulo system, for the sake of comparison—employees need to take breaks for various reasons, while the automated machine works non-stop.

“With a fully automated surface taper, our inventory team can keep working on picking lenses, unpacking lenses, prioritizing orders, and getting orders into production while the machine continually tapes lenses,” Cherry says of his Optotech’s OTT 80 CNC-A. “This eliminates the need for someone to do the repetitive task of handling lenses and pressing a button. The gain in efficiency of this simple step is outstanding.”

Reduced Overhead

Because Cherry Optical continues to grow, it hasn’t eliminated staff positions, even while incorporating automated equipment. But it hasn’t had to increase its staff size, either. “That is the biggest advantage of automation,” Cherry says. “With the right automation, you might be able to complete twice the number of jobs with the same number of employees. Without automation we would need to employ about thirty percent more people, which would be very expensive.”

Many of the manual jobs Cherry replaced with automation were simple repetitive tasks. “After automating an employee’s manual position, we use that person’s skills elsewhere or train them for a more highly skilled position,” Cherry says. These could range from processing techniques that still need to be done by hand, machine maintenance, analyzing job data, troubleshooting errors, programming or operating machines, or cross training to work within different departments.

Consequently, instead of paying staff members $8 to $10 per hour, more highly skilled employees command $15 to $18 per hour. Cherry finds that this a win-win for both the employee and company. “There’s a different mentality between an $8 and an $18 per hour employee,” he says. “Skilled employees are more dependable, more loyal to the company, and have less turnover. They look at what they do as a profession and a career, not just a job. And when they have that mentality, they take more pride in what they do, which is reflected in the product that they make.”

Walman Optical hasn’t reduced headcount either as a result of adding automation. “But we have increased the plant’s capacity to coincide with growth without adding any additional employees,” Henkemeyer says. “We have been able to redirect existing labor to other needed areas as our daily job count increases. Less advanced training is needed with automation because machine programming controls variables and standardized work instructions define consistent process steps.”

And, contrary to popular belief, automation does not mean “more expensive.” In his experience, Cherry has found that the cost is about the same for manual and automated equipment when considering purchase and maintenance costs.

“Although automated equipment is more expensive than manually loaded equipment, you’ll get approximately twenty-five percent more capacity and efficiency out of it,” he says. “So even though automated equipment will cost more upfront, it starts to save you substantial amounts of money from the onset.”

In addition, you’ll need fewer pieces of automated equipment than manual machines. Cherry estimates that for every four pieces of automated equipment, you might need five or six pieces of manual equipment to achieve the same amount of work. “The upfront costs are marginal compared to the long-term cost savings,” he says.

Indeed, Nordman says automation has decreased Walman Optical’s cost per lens significantly. “Overall our automated systems have allowed us better control over spoilage, higher productivity, and real time control over equipment and processes,” he says.

Smaller Labs

And what about smaller labs? Are there benefits to automating these facilities? Brian Goldstone, president, Express Lens Lab, Inc., Fountain Valley, Calif., says “yes.” Express Lens Lab, Inc., has installed semi-automated equipment in its surface and edging departments. However, the lab has not implemented robotic loading.

“As long as the automation is well calibrated and working well, it can improve workflow and accuracy and allows labs with a small number of staff members to repurpose employees in areas where automation is not available or possible,” he explains. “However, the cost of robotic loading is too expensive and does not justify the savings. But as demand for robotic loading increases, and the technology improves, the costs will decrease making it more affordable and justifiable for independent wholesale labs.”

Goldstone believes that smaller, independent labs should consider automation and/or robotics to the extent that their budgets allow. “Proceed with caution, given the changing climate of lab orders resulting from more third-party insurance companies processing their own lab orders,” he notes. “That takes opportunities away from independent labs and limits their growth potential.”

When considering automation, Goldstone believes that a lab should base its decision on product mix rather than the number of jobs per day that it produces. “A lower-volume lab that consistently produces a higher mix of challenging materials and costly designs would have a greater need for automated equipment compared to a high-volume lab that primarily produces simple, budget-orientated orders,” he explains. ■


How They’ve Automated

Here’s a list of the automated machines the labs interviewed for this story have installed:

Cherry Optical

Optotech OTT 80 CNC-A—auto surface taper

Schneider CCU Modulo—surface blocker

Schneider HSC Smart A, Smart XP, Modulo XT—digital generators

Schneider CCL Modulo—laser engraver

Schneider DBA—automated surface

Schneider TSA—automated surface

FISA CS20 – automated ultrasonic lens cleaner

Ultra Optics 44R—automated backside UV hard-coating

A&R MBV—automated Rx verification & finish blocking

MEI 641-A—automated milling/edging

Essilor SBSM—automated backside thermal hard-coating

8 stacker/de-stackers—tray handling

Walman Optical—Optical Service Center

2 Opto-tech Autoblockers

13 digital generators—Satisloh Orbit 2, Satisloh Orbit 1, Schneider Masters

10 automated polishers—Schneider CCP-103, Satisloh DuoFlex, Satisloh MultiFlex

4 lasers—Satisloh LensMark III

Express Lens Labs

Optimal Optic Service, Gerber Coburn, Satisloh, National Optronics, and Ultra Optics


Labtalk November/December 2018