Labs in the Fast Lane

By By Brian P. Dunleavy

Labs have a need for speed. And several companies are helping them meet it—one way or another.

Equipment manufacturers continue to raise the bar with high-throughput, high-efficiency processing systems, and many labs have found success by incorporating these technologies into their production areas. Some of their experiences are chronicled in the cover story for this issue.

However, it’s several unique endeavors to build labs for speed that will be the focus here. These initiatives include Satisloh’s Lab 4.0/MetroLab initiative, Shamir Optical’s InoTime project and Schneider Optical Machinery’s NanoLab.

Satisloh’s Process-Based Approach

According to Andy Huthoefer, Head of Marketing and Product Management, Satisloh North America currently offers two solutions for speed: Lab 4.0, for large, industrial-scale wholesale laboratories, and MetroLab, for smaller labs that serve local customers. Although Satisloh blockers, generators, polishers and edgers, among other equipment, are the linchpin of these programs, he emphasized that the key to their success lies in the “process,” as well as the effective use of automation and intelligent software whenever possible.

For Lab 4.0, for example, the starting point for the approach is the company’s Manufacturing Execution System (MES-360) software, which is designed to effectively control and optimize the production process in a larger lab setting. Equipment and various stages of the process is organized into “pods”—for example, there is a bank of generators, a bank of polishers and so on—connected by conveyors. MES-360 essentially guides each job through the process, anticipating bottlenecks by identifying machines that (perhaps due to maintenance issues, etc.) are not fully operational and sending lenses to other machines in the pod. MES-360 also provides lab managers with data on all of the machines in the lab so they can see why a machine may not be fully operational in a given moment and address any issues.

Several Satisloh machines are also designed specifically for the high-speed environment, most notably the company’s Alloy-Replacement Technology (ART)-based blocking and de-blocking systems, which use universal, re-usable organic blocks and a UV-curable adhesive (rather than alloy) and tape. The alloy-free approach means there is no cooling time, which cuts roughly 30 minutes per job from the process. In addition to offering what it bills as the “world’s fastest” generator, the VFT-orbit 2, the company is currently rolling out its Express AR coating system, which automates the handling of coating jobs, thus reducing loading times. Express AR only coats the backside of each lens as well (using lenses that have been pre-coated on the frontside) to further cut down on time. The system also benefits from the use of ART technology because lenses can be coated while still on the block (alloy blocks would get too hot and damage lenses), allowing for robotic automation of traditionally manual steps throughout the coating room. While robots have a tough time handling lenses of various shapes and sizes, they can easily handle blocked lenses on standardized ART blocks. The Metro Lab system offers many of these same technologies for smaller labs, without the automated handling of lenses between steps.

Huthoefer noted that in a typical Lab 4.0 facility producing 2,500 jobs during a 20-hour period (an average of 125 jobs per hour), up to 35 percent of the lab’s work can be produced within four hours (complete job from start to finish), which enables the lab to offer express service.

“You can’t fast track every job in the lab like this, but you can do it with a substantial portion of the work,” he said. “The key really is the control system, the MES-360, which enables you to get jobs to where you want them to be because it knows about every machine’s status in the lab. If, for example, your AR coating room is unable to take on any new jobs at a given moment, for whatever reason, the system automatically switches to producing jobs that don’t need AR coating. That helps you get jobs through the lab as fast possible.”

Shamir’s Race Against Time

Shamir Optical has its own “speed” solution, and it involves not just state-of-the-art technology but business innovation as well.

Launched in 2014, the InoTime project uses customized, high-tech lens processing equipment to outfit a dedicated production line housed in an optical lab setting. As part of the initiative, the lens manufacturer partners with leading distributors or ECPs in major metropolitan areas—there are currently seven InoTime locations worldwide, including a facility in New York, with at least two additional sites to be launched this year—to offer same-day and/or next-day service on premium products, according to Mark Becker, VP, Marketing and Strategic Partnerships, Shamir Insight.

All lenses are digitally surfaced single-vision or progressives with top-tier AR and/or mirror coatings. Photochromics and polarized lenses are also available. All jobs processed via InoTime can be completed (and fitted into the patient’s desired frame) in less than 90 minutes, thanks to the company’s custom pre-AR/mirror-coated, pre-blocked and hard-coated blanks. Prices for the partner ECPs are comparable to those offered by full-service labs.

“There’s definitely a need in the marketplace, but how it’s used really depends on how ECPs position the service,” Becker explained. “For the most part, we’ve found that ECPs are positioning this as a premium service. In other countries, ECPs position it to every consumer without limitation. In the U.S., ECPs selectively position it based on a customer’s expressed need.”

In addition to using high-speed processing equipment, and specialized lens blanks, InoTime has also experimented with innovative delivery systems, trying everything from a network of courier services in local markets (hence their focus on major metropolitan areas) to dedicated messenger’s and even the use of drones. In the U.S., Shamir Optical has set up an InoTime facility in partnership with regional labs; however, Becker emphasized that they aren’t looking to take business away from lab partners, but only to work with select (high-volume) ECPs in a given market for an add-on service (customer ECPs are invoiced by the host labs). To date, most InoTime production lines are averaging roughly 75 jobs per day, but the technology is “scalable,” Becker said, and the company envisions producing up to 200 jobs per day at certain sites. A dedicated web site for the New York InoTime has been set up at https://inotimelens.com/.

“As a company, we believe fast, reliable and convenient service is the future,” Becker noted. “It’s about developing the right technology and working with the right partner to make it happen.”

For Schneider, It’s Nanoseconds

Schneider’s Nano Line has a tagline that reads: “Little space, big business.” And indeed, that is just the niche it’s designed to fill.

The Nano Line includes a manual blocker (the CB Nano), generators (HSC nano X and XP), polishers (CCP nano and nano 2), a spin coater (SHC nano), a rapid response coater for rush AR jobs (RPT nano), an automated dip coater (DHC 20) and a thin-film coater (EBC 600). All are designed to offer a high throughput in a small footprint.

“The Nano Line allows smaller labs and retailers to have the same capabilities and quality as the larger labs, but without a large footprint,” said Kevin Cross, Vice President Sales, North America, Schneider Optical Machines Inc. “It’s truly a game changer for those looking to offer their customers the highest-quality lenses, smallest production footprint and rapid response.

According to Cross, the Nano Line can surface lenses in an hour or less. Despite its small size, it offers the same “flexibility” that the Schneider’s Sprint and Modulo Line systems provide large facilities, “with no compromise on geometry range or lens quality.” A pre-configured bundle of lab management software, lens design software and consumables allows for smooth and consistent lens production and enables users to easily overcome the hurdles common when launching a lens production facility.

“The goal is to level the playing field for small labs and retailers,” Cross explained. “Schneider does not sacrifice lens quality to achieve small space production and lower costs.”

Coburn’s Focus on the “NXT” Job

Coburn Technologies has a full lane of equipment for high-speed processing that includes its Cobalt NX/NXT generators, Cobalt DP polishers, Duality lens de-taper and cleaner and Velocity automated spin coater. All of these products are designed to help labs produce jobs at a higher speed to offer optimal service to their customers.

Cobalt NX is designed for processing for all indices of lenses, and offers auto-calibration for more efficient and faster processing, on-board engraving, interrupted cut (eliminating the need for a granulator) and cold-mist/dry cut for efficient waste management. The NXT, meanwhile, is the company’s large-format free-form generator. It is automation ready, and also offers on-board engraving and automated calibration. Most importantly, NXT also offers higher throughput, allowing labs to process jobs faster.

Generators aside, though, Coburn bills the Velocity spin coater as its key “differentiator” in the high-speed space. Velocity is a fully automated, industrial hard coating system that offers the highest throughput of any coater on the market while also delivering high-quality yields. The automation system features a multi-stage, pre-cleaning system as well as lens handling from the job tray. Following pre-cleaning, lenses pass through a secondary cleaning system, then coating and curing before finally returning to the job tray. All of this is accomplished without operator involvement—meaning hands-free.

“Since we are in so many retail establishments,” explained Alex Incera, President, Coburn Technologies, “developing equipment that offers quick turnaround has been part of our DNA since we began serving in the optical community.”

OptoTech Gets Smart

Finally, OptoTech has developed the smartLab store concept specifically for optical retailers, startups and smaller wholesale labs to deliver high-quality prescription lenses to their customers in less time, with minimal space requirements. To achieve this, the company has combined machines offering the highest production stability and quality with full-fledged CNC controllers. Its generator FLASH store uses the proven milling and turning technology of its FLASH series, and its polisher EasyTwin comes up with a high-quality tool changer as well as state-of-the-art multi-tool technology. And, its OME 80 store offers semi-visible engravings for all lens materials. With two spindles, the ESM Twin-A milling machine can simultaneously process two digital lenses, and its CNC-controller yields an output of more than 150 jobs per hour. Meanwhile, the digital surfacing-turning machine FLASH Twin-A is equipped with two “fast tools” spindles so that it can also simultaneously process two digital lenses, enabling it to yield 120 jobs per hour. Finally, to complement the Twin-A machines, OptoTech developed the new digital surfacing polisher ASP 80 Twin-A, which is designed for fully automatic, high-speed polishing of two toric/atoric or backside progressive lenses simultaneously. It also has an integrated, fully automatic cleaning station and an optimized handling for uninterrupted polishing and highest throughput. To make lens processing easier, all Twin-A machines are equipped with a 15-inch touch screen and Windows 7-based Opto-Lab software.

Most notably, on the surfacing side, blockers and even tapers are not required with smartLab store, thanks to the OptoTech’s blockless Grünpfeil Technology. With this platform, once the lens power is calculated, the job goes straight to the generator with a specific holder to begin processing. This process is designed to significantly reduce waste and speed production times.

Jeff D. Grumbling, CEO, OptoTech, noted that “environmental friendliness is a growing concern for Rx lens manufacturers. With our Grünpfeil Technology we are offering the only true green production concept to satisfy our customers’ needs.”

In addition, according to Grumbling, the store line is capable of processing all lens types and plastic materials. Each machine can be operated individually, giving operators the flexibility needed for the daily production. And, as the smartLab store is offered in a “modular machine concept,” he added, the production line can be easily expanded as a facility’s volume grows. smartLab is fully compatible with all lab management and lens design software packages to ensure a smooth production.


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