A few years ago, I saw my first robot. Actually, it was not a whole robot, just an arm.
But this robotic arm, located in the huge new VSPOne lab in Folsom, Calif., was impressive. It was bright yellow, made of steel and protruded about 10 feet up from the floor, where it sat amidst a tower of metal cages.
The arm was part of an “automated material handling solution” developed by the Daifuku/Wynright company and was being used to pick lenses from inventory and pair them with frames. This system eliminated the waiting time that can occur when an account physically mails in the frames to the lab, enabling the lab to start processing the job sooner.
Picking stock in a lab was a job that used to be done by a person. But it’s a perfect job for a robot, because a robot can be programmed to follow simple instructions and wouldn’t get bored. And robots need people to program them, which creates jobs, so there is a quid pro quo, at least to some extent.
Robots have been working in optical labs for years, moving job trays, loading generators and edgers, and performing other repetitive tasks. But will robots be able to do other types of jobs in optical labs, as well as in eyecare practices and retail stores? If so, which jobs are most vulnerable, and how soon will they be affected? These pressing questions are being asked not just by optical industry employees, but by workers in virtually every industry and field today.
I haven’t seen any data about the impact of robotics on the optical workforce, so I’ll venture a guess. I’d imagine that ophthalmic dispensers will be among the last to be threatened by robots. That’s because dispensers need to use their personal judgment to advise patients and customers which is the best eyewear for them. As experienced dispensers know, it takes years to develop the eye (pun intended) to be able to select the right frame and lens combination for each patient. Being a great dispenser requires a sophisticated sense of aesthetics and design, not to mention the technical skills to properly fit glasses. Robots can do some of this, but to create what dispensing expert Dr. Palmer Cook calls “patient pleasing eyewear,” only a human will do.
• Andrew Karp
Group Editor, Lenses and Technology