THE MODERN LAB: Assessing the Impact of Integrated Systems

Equipping a prescription lab used to be like ordering from an ala carte menu. Labs might buy a generator from one manufacturer, a polisher and blocker from another, an edger from a third vendor, and then try to tie them together with a software system from yet another supplier. Mix and match was the rule. As a result, labs often produced uneven results. Throughput rates and yields could vary widely within the same lab on a daily or even hourly basis.

The increasing globalization of the optical industry over the past decade has prompted labs to improve quality and consistency and reduce labor and other production costs. To meet the challenges of globalization, which has upped the demand for more effective production sites, makers of lens processing equipment have shifted their focus away from single machine optimization toward global system solutions.

The paradigm change from single machine optimization toward global system solutions, and from pre-planned job routing to condition based in-situ routing, has begun. The need for fully integrated lens production systems, which intelligently interlink all elements—machines, measurement systems, conveyors and accessories—arises.

“To meet the demands for higher cost effectiveness, there were formerly only two ways to go: either reduce labor costs or invest in a faster machine,” explained Kurt Atchison, president of Schneider Optical Machines, the North American arm of Schneider, a leading designer and producer of integrated lens processing systems based in Germany. “The reduction of labor costs requires a higher degree of automation or off-shoring, whereas faster production requires an investment with new, even faster, equipment.

“However, there are limitations with both methods. On one side, the speed of the machines may not increase to a level that allows for significantly quicker production that alleviates the pressure for more throughput at the same time,” he continued. “On the other side, the general thinking of automation in terms of connecting machines by conveyors may help but will not solve problems in the future, because utilization is not really optimized. We call the latter ‘line solutions’ which were introduced in the early 2000s.

“To offer solutions for the demands of today and the future alike, the line solution is not enough,” Atchison said. “This was the reason we developed the Modulo line, which focuses not on a mechanical conveyor connection of single machines, but on the entire production integrating all machine units. It’s a system approach, where all the machines work together as one self-organizing system.

“The idea is to introduce ‘collaboration’ of the different machines to allow more lens output at the same investment cost. This is a completely different way of lab organization, not following traditional, strictly directional production setups but a new architecture with smart machines intelligently managing and optimizing the production flow themselves.”

Modulo is a platform system, comprising machinery, intelligent logistics and monitoring/communication systems. The latter is crucial for an integrated system such as Modulo, not only machine to machine communication, but on a user level as well. Because it’s a “smart” system, Modulo informs the user about its status and needs, and issues warnings when it requires immediate attention. Schneider’s Modulo Control Center, the first MES system tailored to the needs of the ophthalmic industry, handles these functions.

National Vision’s lab in Salt Lake City, Utah, relies on the Modulo system and benefits significantly from its monitoring capabilities.

“With the Schneider machines, you can see what the flow rate is to the generators, or whether the polish temperatures are being maintained within certain parameters. That’s not something people were able to know before, let alone be able to monitor,” said Herb Jennings, lab director.

“I can look at flow rate, the amount of water and cutting fluid that is going across the diamonds on every one of my machines. There’s a graph I can pull up in 10 seconds in each machine that tells me if I’m getting the right flow from the pumps. From a processing conditions standpoint, that’s a level of minutiae I never had before.

“The system also let me know we had three occurrences of low pressure this week. We can troubleshoot from that standpoint. Those are kinds of processing, data-type things, that an integrated shop allows you to keep much tighter controls on than ever before.”

Schneider’s Modulo Control Center lets Jennings and his technical team know exactly when a particular machine needs servicing.

“If polisher number 12 needs some soft pads replaced on the cylinder, the machine will flag you in real time,” he explained. “It will tell you the machine is still operating, but it needs pads, or the machine has stopped operating because there are no pads left that can do the job.

“The supervisor just glances over, and all he has to do is call on his walkie-talkie to the shepherd that’s responsible for those polishers and say ‘Hey, you’re getting low on pads on polisher 12.’ That’s real time, and the machines never had to go down. That’s just an example of how the technology, minute by minute, helps us be more efficient.”

Jennings was trained in Lean Manufacturing prior to being in the optical industry, and applies those principles to continuously improve operations within the Salt Lake City lab.

“In my world, the definition of bad is variation,” he said. “You try to eliminate variation in the manufacturing process in every way as much as you can. Being able to monitor these processing conditions very finitely allows us to eliminate variation. The principles have been around for a while, but the technology is now catching up with the principles, so we can put into practice, to a greater degree, the principles that we’ve all wanted to do for awhile.”

Although most labs these days have “smart” machines, being able to integrate the information from the LMS system, to the conveyor system, to the specific individual machine conditions, to machine group characteristics, and performance norms is what is new and exciting, according to Jennings.

“Coupled with the principles of lean manufacturing and statistical process control, it brings us into the 21st century of optical manufacturing in my opinion. The integration that Schneider has achieved is truly outstanding from my perspective,” he said.

Satisloh, another key player in the lens production technology, has also adopted an integrated approach to designing and producing lens processing systems.

“Satisloh takes a coordinated systems approach to its optical manufacturing solutions,” noted Andy Huthoefer, head of marketing and global after-market operations for Satisloh North America. “All components—machines, software, consumables and conveyors—are interconnected and designed to work perfectly together as elements of a finely tuned system.

MES-360, Satisloh’s manufacturing execution system, controls all elements giving labs real-time transparency about their manufacturing operation. It enables continuous improvement of machine utilization, breakage tracking, troubleshooting and proactive scheduling to eliminate bottlenecks before they even occur. Satisloh machines are engineered to provide the maximum level of information to MES-360, optimizing its effectiveness.

ART, Satisloh’s environmentally-friendly, alloy-free blocking technology, ties all lens manufacturing processes together. Every Satisloh machine works seamlessly with ART, which stands for Alloy Replacement Technology. Unlike alloy-based systems, ART enables lenses to remain blocked, even during AR coating. This enables automation of the entire lens production process, including coating, since machines and robots can easily and automatically handle standardized ART blocks.

“Satisloh machines are optimized to work together. For example, the VFT-orbit 2 generator’s turning process is tuned to provide the ideal lens surface for the Multi-FLEX’s polishing. Together, they provide the highest possible lens quality and equipment productivity. Furthermore, Satisloh consumables are perfectly matched with Satisloh machines. Extensive process development and testing maximize yields, quality and throughput while minimizing cost per lens when Satisloh machines, consumables and processes are used together.

Walman Optical, the industry’s largest independent wholesale laboratory company, is a Satisloh customer. Over the past decade, Walman has gradually implemented a systems approach to lens production that has improved the workflow throughout its far-flung network of labs.

“When I started with Walman eight years ago, we were in the beginning stages of creating a hub and spoke system,” recalled Bryan Schueler, Walman’s vice president and general manager, describing how Walman’s Optical Service Center in Minneapolis, Minn. supplies Walman finishing labs across the country.

“Today, our central system has the intelligence to manage everything from inventory to taping to blocking, from cooling to generating. It’s a continuous flow process from end to end. The system knows what the job is and what the material is.

“There is intelligence inherent in LMS (Lab Management System) too. It lets us know the frame shape, which affects how the lens is being ground, and how the digital design gets placed, which is also impacted by the prescription.” Only the AR coating process still requires the human touch, Schueler said.

Schueler said utilizing an integrated system effectively requires employees to be cross-trained so they are aware of the work that is occurring both upstream and downstream of them. Employees are also trained in Lean Manufacturing and SWI (Standard Work Instruction) techniques.

“That’s improved our turnaround time and our consistency over the past few years,” he noted. “Our redo rates are at an all-time low, and we’ve got better quality across the board. These controls help us keep costs down. As a result, we had no price increases this year. It all goes to help the customers.”