Top to Bottom Automation

Paul Ponder
Maui Jim Rx Lab

Peoria, Ill.

Automation drives the Maui Jim Rx lab. In fact, the entire surfacing and finishing process at the Peoria, Illinois facility is automated.

This significant investment in technology has resulted in faster throughput, less employee handling, reduced breakage and redo’s and improved service and quality, according to Paul Ponder, who serves as vice president, global Rx manufacturing for the Hawaiian-themed sunglass brand.

“Once we pull the Visionstar order ticket, we can literally put trays at the front of the line, and they don’t need to be touched by an employee, all the way through surfacing and finishing, until they come out of the MEI edgers,” said Ponder, adding that the surfacing lens waste removal is also automated.

“The rule of thumb in the Maui Jim lab is I don’t have people carrying stacks of trays,” he continued. “The tray goes on the conveyor belt on the front of the line. Once they put the lenses in the trays it’s first in, first out, no matter what material is or what type of prescription it is or what coating application it is. Everything goes on the line as it’s received. The only place we batch and have stacks of trays is in our AR facility. That’s because we’re doing so many different types of coatings. We’re doing bi-gradients in different colors, we doing solid mirrors in different colors, we’re doing AR, so we have to batch accordingly for these different requirements.”

The Maui Jim Peoria lab went through extensive re-engineering over the past years to become fully automated. The current facility was built in 2006 and 2007 and was a conventional lab at that time. Once it transitioned to a fully digital processing lab, the layout of the lab changed completely, as new equipment, conveyor systems and new processes were incorporated.

Not surprisingly, automation has enabled Maui Jim to maintain a slim workforce for the amount of daily production, even though the volume of jobs has grown exponentially. “When I came here in 2006, were doing about 150 jobs a day, and now we’re doing 2,000 jobs a day,” said Ponder. “We have added very little staff to accommodate that.”

Maintaining a high level of automation means continually updating and upgrading technology. Among the systems and equipment the Maui Jim lab has installed recently is an Satisloh HC6 filter system; Schneider autoblockers, auto deblockers and auto detapers; Satisloh DLX 1200 AR coaters with automated fan masks; a Flexlink conveyor system; a kardveyor inventory and stock picking system, a recycling system; Velocity Spin Optical Lens Coaters and Duality lens cleaners, both from Coburn Technologies. Ponder said the Coburn equipment in particular has made a difference in production.

“We purchased two Velocity machines and put them in our automated line, and they work great,” he said. Within the last 18 months we integrated a couple of Duality machines into the automation, and it eliminates all handling from employees. We are deblocking automatically and tape stripping through Schneider, then going right into the Duality Lens cleaning machines, then to the Velocity hard coaters and right over to the edgers. It’s flawless. For the investment and real estate it takes up, it worked out very well for us.”

Maui Jim has also invested in lab management systems that produce the data necessary to feed production information to the lab’s managers throughout the work day. “There are monitors on all four walls in the lab where breakage and redo information is posted in real time. All the supervisors and team leads as well as the manager and director can see exactly how many jobs are being shipped and how many jobs are in-house.”

Ponder said turn time in the Maui Jim lab has consistently improved over the years, and with the automation the lab can surface, finish, AR and mirror coat and shipped all orders the same day.


Making Automation a Priority

Chuck Bohler
Robertson Optical Laboratories

Atlanta, Ga. and Columbia, S.C.

Optical labs have always been a capital-intensive businesses, but never more so than today. The cost of digital systems and equipment, much of it automated, requires substantial investments by labs that need to have the latest technology in order to remain competitive.

A case in point is Robertson Optical, which over the past year has increased its investment in technology by at least 75 percent, according to general manager Chuck Bohler. “We put in a whole digital surfacing line, with conveyors,” he noted. After looking at surfacing equipment from several vendors, Bohler settled on Optotech because the company offered “more automation for similar amounts of money” and an 18-month warranty.

“One of the things we really like is their IQ-Star, which is an octagonal shaped tower that stacks as many as 106 jobs waiting for cooling, then sorts them and sends them out on the conveyor line. Then the IQ server software, which is part of the package we purchased, sends them out to either the Optotech Flash or Schneider generators that are waiting to run lenses.

Over the past three years, Robertson also acquired other big ticket items, including a new hard coating system, AR coaters, inspection and quality control equipment, and an air compressor. Bohler said the investments that have generated the best return so far are the digital surfacing equipment and the AR coaters, which included an ion source.

Bohler cited several main factors that drove Robertson’s investment decisions: 1) old technology needed replacing; 2) accuracy of the Rx; 3) tremendous growth of backside lab brand progressive lenses; 4) the need to produce higher quality AR coatings; 5) increased labor costs.

Robertson’s investment in its workforce grew 15 over the past year, “because of the technical/mechanical knowledge needed for new lab employees and customer service people that are better trained in IT,” Bohler said.

Like most labs today, Robertson has made automation a priority. The lab has automated a number of key functions, including digital generating, stacking/destacking, digital polishing and laser engraving. A smart conveyor joins all the automated equipment and a lab server direct trays to the proper equipment.

“Automation has enabled us to continue production when employees are out sick or on vacation,” Bohler noted.

He observed that big labs aren’t the only ones that can benefit from automation. “Automation makes sense at nearly every level of volume, he said. Even a 200 job-a-day lab could benefit from a basic level of automation. Edging systems have automated a number of processes in a small footprint. Any new lab should be considering digital surfacing and possibly some level of automation from the start.”

Bohler said automation is also appropriate for the skill set that many lab workers bring to the job today. “The current labor force is more in tune to the computerized, less hands-on surfacing methods that automation brings to the lab.”

Bohler believes that even at highly automated labs, the human touch is still important in some aspects of lens processing. “Blocking is still manual. We’re still using a taper from PSI, but we don’t have it automated with conveyor belts. We still have a person there.

“After generating, the swarf management is still manual,” said Bohler, adding, “I’d love to automate that with a briquette machine.”

Although there are plenty of automated lensmeters on the market, Robertson Optical still relies primarily on a manual model. “I grew up on a model 70 B&L vertometer,” Bohler said. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s still tops. With the automated equipment, the level of trust just isn’t there right now. So we actually have humans that are actually inspecting the lenses for power, axis, pits, bubbles, scratches and alignment.”


Adding Capacity for New Business

John McManus
Black Lab Optical

Phoenix, Ariz.

Having just opened in 2016, Black Lab Optical, an independently owned facility in Phoenix, isn’t fully automated yet—but is considering installing a fully automated production line later this year or early next, according to COO John McManus. Indeed, McManus sees the potential move to full automation as a natural continuation of the young lab’s growth. Black Lab recently added a second shift and with one full production line—with the addition of a second EZ Fit No Block robotic edger from MEI Systems in the spring—it’s producing roughly 190 jobs per day. In fact, that second edger has fueled some of that growth.

“Adding robotic edgers has opened up new businesses for us,” said McManus, whose lab also already has an in-house AR coating system. “We have a safety contract now because we can process those jobs with this equipment. We have group practices coming to us and in order to service them you have to have the capacity.”

This return on investment is particularly important for smaller labs such as Black Lab, given that today’s newer, robotic edgers can cost as much as $100,000, with all of the extra features and accessories. Older-line systems are available at roughly one-third of that price.

“The technology has changed dramatically over my time in the industry,” said McManus. “I use the analogy of moving from an old V8 Cadillac to a Ferrari. Compared to today’s technology, the edgers we have used for years are simplistic and you have to do the blocking by hand. And then there are consumables you have to purchase to use them. Newer finishing systems are far superior to what we had before, and what we’ve seen is that, with them, we can increase production time, improve accuracy and reduce breakage.”

For McManus, upgrading production technology has been a constant process since the lab opened three years ago. Black Lab shifted from older, manually operated generators to automated systems from Opto-Tech 18 months after it opened, and McManus is already looking at going fully automated, once the lab reaches what he calls the “sweet spot” of 350 to 500 jobs per day. One area he said labs often overlook as they make this transition is infrastructure.

“You need space to install a fully automated production line, and you need to have the power”—as in electricity—“to run the equipment,” he added. “That means, the capacity to go three-phrase, 440-volt, and the ability to go up or down on transformers.”

In addition, as most new systems run on compressed air, having the capability to produce it is obviously vital as well.

“We’re already working with some of the most sophisticated equipment in the world, and that will only continue,” McManus noted. “I opened and started with older technology and then upgraded all of the lab equipment after 18 months. And I’m not done.”