International soft contact lens materials manufacturer
makes a clear case for increased productivity and profits through automation.
From its ultra-modern research, development and manufacturing facilities in Sarasota, Florida, Benz Research and Development, founded by Patrick H. Benz, Ph.D., has been at the forefront of developing break-through manufacturing technologies and materials for the ophthalmic industry for 23 years. Today, Benz Research and Development is known internationally for its focus on providing high quality, cutting-edge, and patented materials to contact lens and IOL (Intraocular Lens) manufacturers. Benz R&D manufactures some 35 high quality, high performance contact lens and IOL products. It holds over 13 U.S. patents including the development and patent on the first, and still the only, dimensionally stable soft contact lens material, known as "Benz-G” material that remains 100% saturated on the eye.
The key ingredients for success in the manufacturing of materials for soft contact lenses, as well as the custom manufacturing of the lenses themselves, are precision and productivity ...precision in the micron tolerances needed to produce highly complex geometries with ultra-smooth surfaces, and productivity , to increase per-person yield levels. The precision aspects have been successfully addressed through the fusion of a powerful proprietary automation program, advanced capabilities of modern CNC lathes and optical blocking. In terms of productivity, most labs today have reached their limit when it comes to finished lenses per-person.
Understanding that a major change was needed to increase the "finished lens per-person” productivity, Benz R&D had the foresight and vision 10 years ago to implement robotics and a comprehensive automation program into their manufacturing process. Rixan/Mitsubishi robots were not only integrated into Benz’s own manufacturing process, but also into their new, second generation ILM-2 (Integrated Lens Manufacturing) Process . The ILM-2 Process is really a compact spin-off of Benz’s unique state-of-the-art automated manufacturing capabilities; a complete manufacturing cell that can fit into a 10’ x 10’ space.
Rather than having their people continue the repetitive and boring job of feeding parts, trying to keep expensive CNC lathes, milling and optical blocking machines busy all working hours, and having to manage trays of parts and orders as they go through the manufacturing process, Benz R & D decided in the early 1990’s to integrate robotics into the process. And the results have been nothing short of phenomenal.
Currently, Benz R & D runs three fully automated production cells for manufacturing IOLs (intraocular lens). Cell 1 : consists of two, 4-axis lathes, one mill and one Mitsubishi 6-axis robot. Cell 2 : features two Optical Blockers (developed and patented worldwide by Benz R&D to deliver micron accurate radius measurement and concentric blocking) and a 6-axis Mitsubishi robot. Cell 3 : has three, 4-axis lathes and one Mitsubishi 6-axis robot. Prior to adding robotics to their production cells, Benz had six operators for support, including feeding parts into the cutting lathes in the three separate production cells.
Coupling the ILM system with the Mitsubishi 6-axis robots in the production cells, to handle feeding parts to the lathes and optical blockers, allows productivity to increase to a level where one operator can produce over 40,000 lenses per year, which is 4 times the industry average. In the IOL industry, a "quality lab” using similar CNC lathes in manual mode and/or with some lathe automation, will produce about 10,000 lenses per operator per year
Each blank part is mounted on a bar-coded mandrel. As the robot loads and unloads the parts, appropriate data is sent to each machine as the barcode is read telling the lathe or milling machine exactly what needs to be done to that specific part. With these types of efficiencies, the manufacturing process remains the same for one order of 300 lenses of the same power, or 300 different orders each with a different power.
There are no plastic trays or paperwork following the order through the system, only the mandrel with the bar code. The robots move the part with speed, precision and accuracy, and all tolerances are maintained throughout the process.
Mark A. Schreiber, Manager of Automation and Mechanical Design for Benz R&D, and the management of the company, decided to go with Mitsubishi robots from Rixan Associates, the exclusive North American Distributor for Mitsubishi Electric robots and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries robots. The result?
"Our Rixan/Mitsubishi Robots have been running continuously 5 days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day for the past 9 years which is absolutely incredible. Talk about dependability and ROI!"
-Mark A. Schreiber
Benz Research and Development
Manager-Automation and Mechanical Design
"I can’t say enough about Rixan Associates and our Mitsubishi robots, and how they have positively and consistently impacted productivity levels,” said Schreiber. "We have five Mitsubishi robots in-house and they are extremely robust, consistent and trouble-free. Our longest running Mitsubishi robot has been going strong for 9 years and is still running in Switzerland. Our remaining Mitsubishi robots have been running five days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day from four to seven years. We turn them on, let them go, keep them lubricated according to specs and they just keep running and running with little or no maintenance. The hands/grippers handle millions of parts per year, continuously loading and unloading the CNC lathes, and we have never had a hand not open or close when it was supposed to in almost ten years of use. That’s reliability!"
Schreiber also said, "We have an extremely high confidence level in Rixan and the Mitsubishi robots. When we first got them, Rixan provided comprehensive free training for our people and their support structure was excellent. Following training, we had the usual ‘start-up’ bugs to work out but they were mostly on our end. Rixan was always there to answer any questions and give us tips on how to make things run smoother. When we first got the Mitsubishi robots, we would check about every tenth part for quality and consistency. Now, we put so much trust in these robots that we check parts maybe once a day and we are still able to maintain quality and consistency day in and day out.”
"The Rixan/Mitsubishi robots give us the flexibility and consistency we need,” Schreiber added. When coupled to the proprietary ILM automation program, written in C language, "we can easily and quickly re-configure the robots to accommodate changes within a production cell.” We like to call what they do enhanced pick n’ place because the robot, using the ILM automation software, can be programmed to be intuitive so it gets ready for its next series of tasks or events. As per the commands provided by the automation PC (A/PC), we can mix up the moves the robot makes. In addition to going through a normal progression of Steps or positions 1-2-3-4-5-6 in order, we can program the robot so that it goes from position 1 to position 4 back to position 3 and then onto position 6, etc. It gives us much flexibility within the production cell.
"While the robot is continuously loading and unloading materials from the feed track into the lathe, a ‘pre-fetch’ feature, allows the lathe to communicate with the automation program, signal the material is in its final stages of cutting, and instruct the robot to retrieve the part and go to a "pre-fetch” stand-by position and insert another into the lathe or optical blocking machine.
Schreiber went on to say, "Our employees have really embraced the use of robotics and automation. They have been freed up from doing repetitive loading and unloading of the machines to handle more important tasks. Prior to installing the Rixan/Mitsubishi robots, one employee commented that the loading and unloading of parts into the lathes was about as exciting as pounding rocks. It has helped their self-esteem to be placed in a position to do more important tasks, and they really have taken ownership of ‘their’ robots. They are very protective of them and really do understand and appreciate their capabilities."
"Rather than offshore outsourcing, United States manufacturers need to set a hard and fast course for not just automation , but ‘multi-tasking automation’ using automation programming to increase productivity and to compete globally."
- Patrick H. Benz, Ph.D.
Benz Research and Development
One of the latest accomplishments of Benz R & D is the introduction of the ILM-2 or the "Integrated Lens Manufacturing” cell 2, which is a fully-integrated soft contact lens manufacturing cell. It consists of a 6-axis Mitsubishi robot, an Optical Blocker, a DAC ALM-OTT lathe, and a DAC 4-axis lathe plus input and output tracks for handling materials and high priority orders entering the production cycle. No machine operators are used in the ILM process. The productivity gains result in approximately three times as many finished soft contact lenses per person as the normal process.
"Comments we have heard from custom lens manufacturers who have come to see the ILM in action range from ‘absolutely fascinating’ to ‘ultra high-tech.’ The use of 6-axis robots instead of operators is definitely foreign to these manufacturers; however, spending just one day learning how to easily program and run the robots quickly removes any uncertainty.
Dr. Benz also commented, "I truly believe that ‘hands-on’ robotic training should be mandatory in our Engineering undergrad programs in order to prepare students for the ever-changing world in manufacturing. After implementing robotics and automation 10 years ago, and seeing what a tremendous difference in growth and output it has made, it amazes me that the U.S. still lags behind several other major industrialized countries in the use of robotics and automation software. Using robotics and automation here in our own country is a more viable option, both for the financial health of companies as well as our economy, than sending manufacturing jobs overseas.”
"Our Mitsubishi robots have paid for themselves over and over again. Our business continues to see substantial growth. Our people are happy. It all works together for success and growth.” Dr. Benz also quipped, "Our experience with the Rixan and Mitsubishi robots has been very positive. They are reliable, precise, fast and don’t have inherent ‘human’ situations like sick days, vacation days or low production days!”
While full automation with integrated order entry, lens design, blocking and part handling is only a distant dream for most laboratories, Benz Research and Development continues to be visionaries and leaders in breakthrough materials and technologies using robotics and automation, and clearly making this dream a reality.
For more information on the complete line of Rixan/Mitsubishi robots, contact Rixan Associates at (937) 438-3005 or visit the Rixan/Mitsubishi Robotics website at www.rixan.com For more information on Benz Research and Development, contact Patrick H. Benz at (941) 758-8256 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.