RLab, formerly Rochester Optical, has always believed in putting its best foot forward for its customers, its people and the planet. So, in June 2020, when the lab experienced a main water line break that flooded its 30,000 square foot facility and damaged millions in equipment and infrastructure, leaders already knew they were facing a complete rebuild. But they took it one step further—viewing the challenge as a tremendous opportunity to transform its entire operations, and ultimately, achieve an aggressive goal to reach a zero-carbon footprint.

Their Challenge: Rebounding From a Massive Flood

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the devastating water line break nearly wiped out all of Rochester Optical’s operations. Lab equipment that once engineered the latest optical solutions were suddenly inoperable. Facilities that once welcomed clients and customers to meet their vision care needs and experience new optical virtual reality (VR) technologies were no longer able to invite people through their doors.

Initially, the lab called in professional remediation specialists, machine vendors and every imaginable support team in hopes of resuming operations as soon as possible. But despite their best efforts, some equipment never restarted and others continued to degrade over time, resulting in less reliability and more quality issues. Lab leaders quickly learned that many of their assets had degraded past the point of no return.

Rochester Optical had no choice but to replace some equipment to stay semi-operational. But after several months of working with not-enough equipment in a loosely held-together facility, leaders decided to make a bold move. In 2020, they chose to rebrand as RLab, and in early fall 2021, made a commitment to completely rebuild the lab from scratch—but this time, with a whole new vision for sustainability.

Their Commitment: More Sustainable Manufacturing
RLab’s dedication to sustainability starts at the top—a strong reflection of CEO Patrick Ho’s personal philosophy. “Every resource on this earth are gifts from God—and we’ve been tasked to be good stewards of His creation,” said Ho.

“Therefore it’s our duty and responsibility to embrace and restore the environment that has been taken for granted. Our commitment to recycling; consuming sustainably and using renewable resources; reducing our carbon footprint, restoring and regenerating nature—these are all part of our declaration of gratitude that yield benefits now and for generations to come.”

Driven by Ho’s whole-hearted commitment, the company has always paid a significant amount of attention to recycling and waste reduction. “We’ve had electric car delivery vehicles since 2018 and provided free charging stations on most of our buildings to encourage EV adoption for neighborhood residents,” explained Greg Novak, COO. “But we now had the opportunity to consider our equipment and infrastructure decisions and incorporate sustainability with renewable energy into our plan design.

“We always believed that those were good things for the planet and for our employees, but now we came to believe they would be good things for our clients and their customers, too,” he added. “For people who care about sustainability, it matters deeply. We want our clients to be able to tell their customers that they work with an environmentally responsible lab that cares about the future of our planet,” Novak said.

With that in mind, RLab sought to carefully design its infrastructure and select all-new equipment that would transform operations from end to end—with a mission to lead the way in building a viable, clean and green optical lab with a zero-carbon footprint.

Their Transformation: No Stone Left Unturned
Once RLab leaders made the decision to rebuild, they started asking the right questions: Should we stay in the same location? How much more should we automate? Which LMS would be best and how should we integrate it? At every point, these big questions were carefully considered with three goals in mind—sustainable manufacturing, carbon footprint and speed to resume operations.

“From that point on, as we made decisions about infrastructure, power, machine tools, HVAC, water, air, sewage and waste, sustainability was always part of the discussion and selection criteria,” said Novak.

RLab’s transformation started with infrastructure. The lab ultimately decided to move to a new location, which was gutted and retrofitted to meet the company’s sustainability goals.

New insulation was replaced in the walls and ceilings to reduce energy use and cost, and new plumbing was installed. Low heat emitting LED lighting, HVAC and all other electrical systems were connected to high efficiency, low resistance electrical switch gears and wiring. In addition, RLab employed high-efficiency heat pump technology that uses electricity to heat and cool its facilities.

“This technology is traditionally less cost effective, but because we get 25 percent of our power from renewable hydroelectric energy from the Niagara River and more from the nuclear power, we gain on the sustainability, non-carbon side,” said Novak. “We also removed all carbon-producing equipment from the building, and removed all space heaters and natural gas hot water heaters.”

A massive transformation like this comes with weighty tradeoffs—finding the right balance between desired outcomes, capacity, throughput, quality, capability, capital cost, cost per unit, sustainability and physical footprint. Novak admits this wasn’t easy.

“Two of our primary constraints were physical footprint and speed,” he said. “We were limited by the available space in the new building, and we wanted to resume operations as soon as possible so we could better support customers.”

In terms of equipment, it was nearly a complete turnover. (See sidebar below.) “With very few exceptions, we replaced 100 percent of the lab equipment that had not already been replaced post-flood,” said Novak. However, due to timing and availability issues, RLab had to get creative with the installation process.

“In some cases, we had the opportunity to pre-install portions of the new lab in our old facility,” explained Novak. “That allowed us to qualify and optimize operations ahead of the final installation in the new lab—effectively cutting months of installation and qualification time off the back end of the new installation.”

For example, the lab got one entire OptoTech automated surfacing line up and running in its old location qualified for all lens designs, as well as one Schneider QS edger installed, fully qualified and running while they installed automation in the new lab. Both of these major critical systems were running as anticipated in the initial specifications, which gave RLab leaders confidence to integrate these technologies into the new facility.

Of course, a project of this magnitude is never without its setbacks. For RLab, supply chain issues caused delays in many of the equipment installs in the new facility. And except for the equipment already replaced post-flood, RLab is currently running only half of its new line due to lack of power transfer component availability. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic turns a page in history, the new RLab facility anticipates these final steps will be resolved soon.

“Throughout our rebuild process, the COVID pandemic has overwhelmed everything,” said Novak. “From hiring to supply chain issues to availability of components to buying our crew lunch, there was always something missing. The great news is that the machine vendors have been truly brilliant in always finding a way, innovating, reengineering, being super helpful and creative. They deserve a medal.

“As this project came to a close in September, we are so proud of our efforts, and what this means for restoring the planet, even if it’s just in our little corner of vision care with a sustainable edge,” Novak said.

Their Result: Sustainability Success in Less Than a Year
After 12 months of impressive work, RLab opened its doors again in September, this time as a revolutionized vision care facility. And its sustainability results truly are impressive, including:

• A zero-carbon footprint—Inside the facility, new infrastructure and equipment leaves behind absolutely no carbon traces. Outside the facility, RLab uses only electric vehicles for product delivery.

• Sustainably controlled temperatures—New insulation and electrical systems and increased R-values save energy while a waste heat recovery system saves up to 200,000 BTUs per hour of waste heat to control and maintain indoor temperatures.

Consumes at least 25 percent renewable energy—The new RLab uses a heat pump recovery system that’s three times more efficient than traditional electrical heating, and comes from renewable sources like the Niagara River.

Captures 58 percent of heat exhausted air—Enlisting an energy recovery ventilator for air exchange, when air is removed from the building and exchanged with outside air.

Uses a “Lean” conveyor system—Compared to traditional systems of equal size, the lab’s lean conveyor system requires 1.2 million kwhs less energy annually.

No solid waste—The new RLab facility pours no solid waste into the waste stream.

But RLab’s work is not yet done. Although the lab opened and started operating with these new infrastructure and equipment changes, the team agrees there’s always more to be done to leave a lasting green impression.

In the future, RLab plans to:

• Install rooftop solar panels and energy storage systems to expand renewable sources.

• Use radiation-reflecting roof paint to reduce heat absorption.

• Add additional exterior wall insulation to increase energy efficiency and raise the R-value of the facility… and more.

“We hope to become an example of what’s possible, and we think that also means not slowing down,” said Novak. “RLab will continue to invest in our clients and our planet by restoring it in the little ways that we can, because we know that every effort matters. We hope that words like ‘sustainable’ and ‘renewable’ become part of the common language in the optical industry.”

In aggressively following their mission to take care of the planet and its people, RLab has established a groundbreaking building and vision care practice that is sure to leave a positive influence on future generations of eyecare facilities and beyond.