BUSINESS: Labs Lab Experts Agree: Automation Is Essential, But Not for Everything Why the Human Element Shouldn’t Be Completely Removed By Julie Bos / Contributing Editor Thursday, August 4, 2022 1:00 AM In today’s optical labs, automation is making it possible to perform everyday tasks more precisely and efficiently than any human could ever hope to do. Yet while automation is important, it’s not everything. In fact, there’s a strong case to be made for why the human element should never be completely removed from a lab’s operations. What are today’s labs doing and why? To help answer a few questions about non-automated functions in the laboratory, we spoke to three lab leaders, who shared their perspectives on why it’s important to keep a human element in their laboratories—not only for now but for the foreseeable future. X. Keith Grossman Co-Founder Simplify Optics Valencia, California For background, how much of your lab is currently automated? Our lab is automated in surface and finish departments from nearly start to finish. In surface, we are automated from generator to de-blocking. In finish, we utilize block-less edging so we are automated through the blocking, spotting and edging processes. Which functions in your lab are most difficult to automate? Currently, there are several areas where we are not automated. In our anti-reflective (AR) coating department, we load all runs in our vacuum chambers manually. In the finish department, we still tint and mount lenses manually. In our quality control (QC) department, we still visually inspect every job throughout the process manually and utilize little automation. In pre-production, we still manually trace every frame that we receive. Why are they so difficult (or impossible) to automate? Tinting and mounting are difficult to automate because these positions still require artisans due to the variety of frames sent to us from our offices and the assortment of tint colors/shades that are requested. Also, there isn’t any technology currently available to automate these processes. In AR coating, there are a couple of companies working on processes to assist in loading vacuum coaters, but they are relatively new and not yet truly tested in the industry. And as far as I’m aware, there are no automated frame tracers but this might be another area for future automation. Which functions can people do better than automated systems? Tinting, mounting, and quality control are the three areas where I still believe people can do a better job than automation. Matching tints is still an art, and it requires a special talent. This function becomes especially challenging when you remember that we are tinting many different lens materials and working with several different hard coatings. Additionally, mounting the variety of frames that we receive is one of the most challenging things all labs still perform. Mounting the lens is challenging, but you still must align the frame, tighten all hinges, eliminate stress from the periphery of the lens, avoid stripping the screws, and do all this while not scratching the lens. And regarding quality control, there are automated machines that can assist the quality control process to verify prescription, but I still believe a human eye is needed on every job before it’s sent out to a customer. We are not merely producing a medical device that requires accurate optics, but we are also producing a work of art that requires cosmetics to satisfy the patient. Actual humans are superior to automation in this regard. What about surface blocking? In this area, we still manually block all our lenses. While there are several automation systems available, we are currently evaluating throughput, accuracy, sustainability and reliability of each manufacturer. Do you anticipate automating any of these processes in the near-term future? No, we have no immediate plans to automate any of these processes. While I have seen some exciting developments in several of these areas, I feel comfortable with my current process which assures we’ll produce consistent quality for many more years. Keith Heckenkemper Co-Owner rxotulsa Tulsa, Oklahoma For background, how much of your lab is currently automated? We are completely automated in surface including taper, blockers, generators, lasers and polishers. Several of these items are not on a continuous feed; they are fed through de-stackers and stackers. From there, jobs are sorted by hand and routed to anti-reflective coating or one of three MEI edgers. In edging, about 95 percent of our jobs are automatically loaded from a stacker then power verified, blocked and edged (including drilling). On the back end of our process, we have an automated station verifier to ensure we did not miss any steps of production. In addition, we automatically generate invoices by scanning the final barcode ticket. That is the current extent of our automation. Anything that happens after edging is not automated. That includes mounting of lenses in the frames, all cosmetic tints, final inspection, final cleanup and the shipping and handling—all of those functions are skilled positions and are performed manually. Why have you chosen not to adopt some of those functions? In regard to initial setup, I know that some labs have implemented automation to place lenses in inventory, pick lenses for production or even to remove lenses from their box. But those are things we have chosen not to adopt, either due to money or space. Which functions in your lab are most difficult (or impossible) to automate? Tinting is one function that’s impossible to automate because there’s a good deal of subjectivity involved. What’s “pink” to one person may not be pink enough for someone else. So that really requires some human-level decision-making. And the mounting process requires someone to make sure the frame is straight and aligned, and that lined bifocals aren’t crooked. There are some automated machines that can do that, but they are either very slow or very expensive. AR coating inspection is another function that’s difficult to automate. After a lens goes through the coating machine, someone needs to do a physical inspection to be sure there are no drips, tints or imperfections before it goes into the oven to cure. And before the lens goes into the AR vacuum, someone must ensure the lens is perfectly clean to ensure the AR coating has long-term durability. Do you anticipate automating any processes in the near-term future? For mounting, I don’t know of any system that can automate the physical mounting of the lens in the frame or the mounting of a rimless drill—I think that’s the last frontier for automation. But it would be a huge process improvement, and we would definitely buy one if it ever became available. What functions are you committed to not automating? There are several areas where we could automate, but still choose not to. For example, we could easily automate certain customer service functions like auto-directing phone calls or replying to emails. But we still choose to answer the phones and speak to people personally. Automation here may be more efficient, but from my perspective, having live conversations and being responsive is extremely important. We love having those connection points that automation simply cannot provide. Tom Pfeiffer CEO Sportifeye Optics Duarte, California For background, how much of your lab is currently automated? Roughly 40 percent of our lab processes have some form of automation. For our mass production projects, we are working on planning solid automation methods that can ensure outstanding results. However, a good portion of our business is highly complex work including high prescriptions with high wraps and sophisticated edging. We are tapping into an unattended and perhaps even neglected area in the optical industry. High Rx and high wrap is a combination that challenges the industry as we know it. Here at Sportifeye, we are ready for this challenge. From our experience, the methods of operation we have implemented demand the direct involvement of our talent to produce the very best. As we strive toward increasing automation, our target market involves very unique and intricate orders making automation that much more of a challenge and significant expense. Which aspects of your work are most challenging to automate? Some of the most challenging orders to automate are those that push the standards and boundaries in the optical industry. These jobs require an optimum level of expertise and craftsmanship. We’re proud to say that we have the very best in optical manufacturing equipment, but many of our non-automated steps and procedures still require the skill of our experienced lab technicians. At Sportifeye, we are consistently exploring opportunities to automate as we look for ways to improve efficiencies, but we recognize that many stages of our production line are better served by the hands and eyes of our skilled technicians. Which aspects of your work are most challenging to automate? Mounting lenses is one process that we see as being very difficult, if not impossible to automate. The dexterity of human hands is still needed to manipulate the intricacies of high wrap frames, safety eyewear and detailed bevels. Cosmetic inspection to the degree necessary to satisfy our customers’ needs would also be very difficult and expensive to implement. Tinting, while possible to automate for certain colors and densities, would also prove challenging to find an automated, labor-free solution.