A vivid world

Posted on 4 Aug 2011 by The Manufacturer

The new, colourful branding of CooperVision reflects the contact lens manufacturer’s commitment to bring a ‘refreshing perspective’ to its marketplace. Ruari McCallion is given an insight.

CooperVision’s branding stands out somewhat in its marketplace – contact lenses.

Contact lenses are medical devices and the convention in the industry has been that from a communications perspective, subdued colours and imagery are the norm – in fact, everything is blue,” says Heath Clash, communications manager, EMEA, for CooperVision. “Part of our brand promise is that no two eyes, no two days and no two patients are the same. We have breadth and depth in our range of contact lenses; we wanted to communicate this philosophy and the outstanding products on offer“. However branding is not just about the face the company shows to the world – it’s about the internal processes that deliver the foundation of customer and consumer perception: quality products, delivered at the right time, to the right place and at the right price.

CooperVision is one of the three largest contact lens manufacturers in the world. It is the leader in some of its markets but, overall, it is third in the global market which leads it to try harder, across a range of activities.

It is the leader in the development of third-generation of silicone hydrogel soft contact lenses; it has been working on improving its processes with an almost fanatical zeal; it has a structured product development process that is totally focused on advancement; with a huge amount of work to further improve the manufacturing processes and performance; it has put a lot of work into its warehousing and distribution systems to enable it to balance availability and breadth of range against inventory control.

An Italian idea

While the Italian genius Leonardo da Vinci may have come up with the original idea for contact lenses, back in 1508 (Codex of the eye, Manual D, in case you were wondering), it would be several hundred years before the technology to develop and manufacture them became a reality. A German ophthalmologist named Adolf Fick is credited with creating the very first practical contact lenses, from blown glass – and as long ago as the late 19th century. They were large – they covered most of the visible portion of the eye – and heavy, and could only be worn for a maximum of two hours or so.

Corneal lenses, which cover just the cornea and are the size we are familiar with today, first appeared in 1949. Initially the materials were made from rigid plastics and termed hard lenses, but soon innovation lead to the development of softer lenses materials that consisted of both plastic and water, termed hydrogel lenses; which first hit the market in the 1960s. It is estimated that, today, around 125 million people worldwide now wear contact lenses. They have become part of everyday life and they have seen almost as much development and innovation in the last 50 years as computers in the same time period.

Wearers today have the options of hard lenses, hydrogel lenses and more recently silicone hydrogel lenses, with the latter allowing significantly more oxygen permeation than conventional hydrogel lenses due to additional oxygen transmission gained from having a silicone content. Disposable lenses have made major inroads into the marketplace – but there is something of a dichotomy, or contradiction, in the business. Contact lenses are highly sophisticated pieces of technology and, as medical devices, they are strictly regulated; however, they compete in a volume market where price is a key factor – which means they have some characteristics of a commodity. Squaring this circle, technology versus commoditisation and easy availability versus high precision, is something that CooperVision has got rather good at. Two third-generation silicone hydrogel lenses, technically known as Comfilcon A and Enfilcon A and marketed as Biofinity and Avaira, respectively, were both invented by CooperVision.

Innovation and expectation

“It certainly does present a challenge“, says Andrew Sedgwick, CooperVision president, EMEA. “I’m not sure that commoditisation is the right word, though. There is a need for ever-increasing improvement in production and development and that has lately come through material advances, rather than lens design. On the other hand, the market is very competitive. There are three or maybe four companies worldwide at the cutting edge. The competition drives innovation but it also means that we have to be careful with costs; any premium that can be commanded in the market tends to be short-lived.” Getting a lens from the idea to the user’s eye is a challenging process. CooperVision has a very structured approach to technological development, as Neil Goodenough, UK R&D Director, described.

“We have over 100 people globally, of whom a high proportion are PhDs. My team here in the UK numbers 27. We have a range of lens-making capabilities and we can actually make lenses from raw materials through to the finished product in our R&D facilities. We have the ability to conceptualise an idea and test it on one of our pilot lines in our R&D facility until we have something ready to industrialise. This allows us to replicate every aspect of production to the smallest detail. The vast majority of new lens designs come through the R&D group, including all new formulations.”

The ideas factory

“We have very complex systems and tools for analysis, above and beyond the capabilities of manufacturing” Goodenough says. “We are interested in understanding how reactions occur; manufacturing is more about whether the product is of the right quality. We have the capacity to make our own high precision tooling; the starting blocks lenses are made from.” The CooperVision R&D Group is the team that developed the technology of thirdgeneration silicone hydrogel soft lenses.

For the last 20 years, contact lens manufacture has been largely about soft hydrogel lenses. They are comfortable, but there are some limiting factors.

Prolonged ownership and wearing can make the lenses more prone to, tear film contaminant build up, e.g. lipids and proteins. That can be addressed, to a significant extent, by the shorter and shorter periods that lenses are used. Consequently, the ownership period has come down from years to six months, then monthly and now to daily disposables.

CooperVision R&D
Over 15,000 sq feet dedicated to pure R&D in the UK alone.

“When the eye closes for prolonged periods, it is mildly starved of oxygen” he explains. This is because the lid acts as a barrier to the cornea and similarly all lenses will influence, by design, how much oxygen the cornea will see. “CooperVision’s third generation silicone hydrogel lenses are designed to allow five times more oxygen through than their predecessors and that is much healthier for the patient.” Even healthier than the company expected; when they were launched onto the market, opticians started reporting that they were seeing healthier eyes (no redness) and it was the increased oxygen permeability that was responsible.

When CooperVision came to the silicone hydrogel market, however, it was a little late – others had got there first.

The benefits of late arrival

“It turned out to be one of our key strengths,” says Goodenough. When the company arrived in the market, two companies were already there and a third was about to launch so there was little room to manoeuvre to develop a distinguishing product. “One of the problems with silicone hydrogel lenses, when they came out of the mould, was that they were un-wetting. They were like the bonnet of a car after it had been freshly waxed, while we actually wanted a smooth surface with good lubricity.” We believe that the competition had gotten around that by surface-treating the lenses. “We had to find a different way and did so by making an effort to really understand the chemistry. What we developed were lenses that are intrinsically wetting, straight out of the mould. We call them third-generation lenses.” They are super-lubricious, highly oxygen-permeable, and CooperVision got there by exceptional innovation.

“The first third-generation lens we launched was Biofinity, manufactured here in the UK, which we produced around 2006 – and it has been phenomenally successful,” he explains. “We went from zero to approximately 80 million lenses/year in sales in a very short period of time. Because of the way we manufacture Biofinity and the lens properties out of the mould, we had to develop a number of new process steps for both the equipment and manufacturing.”

Patients are the virtue

A key element in the success the company has enjoyed is that it is genuinely patient-driven. It is easy for R&D groups, in general, to get so involved with the fascinations of the science that the ultimate objective can be lost sight of. But CooperVision’s R&D group is clearly focused.

“Our vice-president, Arthur Back, was a Research Optometrist himself and so we are very patient-driven,” says Goodenough. “He drives us to deliver the best possible lens from the patient’s point of view – and that’s exactly the way we should look at it.” When the company comes up with a new lens idea, it benchmarks it against the current best on the market, with the goal to at least match and, preferably, exceed it.

Precision manufacture of mould tooling for contact lens manufacture
Precision manufacture of mould tooling for contact lens manufacture

Casting off

A soft contact lens is frequently made by using two plastic moulds. A small amount of liquid lens formulation is dispensed onto a concave mould surface and the nature of the formulation will dictate lens properties. The two moulds are then sandwiched together and the lens then goes through curing, where the liquid formulation polymerises and creates a solid lens from the formulation. The moulds are then opened, the lens is removed.

“Typically, the lens removal process is effectively destructive to the moulds” Goodenough explains. “The moulds (or casting cups as they are often referred to) are made in clean rooms using injection moulding with tools that look like highly-polished steel, but these are in fact produced using high precision lathes, which can cut without any need for polishing. The used plastic from the moulds does not go to landfill. It is high-quality recycled feedstock, which is taken by a local recycling company and re-used to make traffic cones, pencils and cups, for example.

“Each cavity in a moulding tool carries tooling – termed inserts- formed with the prescription of the patient,” he continues. “There are a lot of different optical corrections available. The majority of patients are myopic – they are short-sighted – or hyperopic – long sighted – and we have about 70 different SKUs (stock-keeping units) for any one material range that cater for these power correction needs.

The second most prevalent vision correction is for astigmatism, where they eye becomes rugby ball shaped rather than round. People can have that in combination with myopia or hyperopia and for that particular type of lens (called a Toric lens), we have about 4500 SKUs in a single material type alone. Presbyopia (poor visual acuity due to lack of accommodation in the eye) is a condition that people get later in life when they find they need reading glasses, for example.

We have, typically, 450 different SKUs for that. When you look at different material types we market and multiply that with the basic SKU range, you find we have SKU ranges in the region of 30,000 for cast moulded products.

By comparison, a typical supermarket will have around 15,000 SKUs. Here, we also make to order, for which we partially mould a thick lens and then lathe the necessary correction onto the lens. Add those in and the SKU range becomes huge e.g. 500,000.” That can be a problem for inventory control, packaging and distribution – of which more will be discussed later. “We make lenses for everyone – no-one’s sight is ‘not worth it’ for us; we are a one-stop shop.” Once the lens is removed out of the mould it is inspected – every lens is inspected, either by machine in the high-volume areas, or by human eye for lower volume areas, – and put into a blister pack with a dose of saline, sterilised and sent to the customer.” The focus of CooperVision’s R&D in recent years has been around silicone hydrogels, which are helping to build market share, but there is still a high demand for standard hydrogels.

“Material performance is better with silicone hydrogels, but they are more expensive to make than conventional hydrogels, in time we will drive down costs on all our third generation silicone hydrogel products,” says Goodenough. Over the past halfdozen years, CooperVision has been developing around two new products a year. “We have developed several different daily disposables, and we are currently working on lenses to slow the progression of myopia.” That research is potentially of great interest in the Far East, where the progression of myopia continues far beyond what is common in the West. Generally, new product development falls under one of two headings: advanced contact lens materials or advanced designs.

The clear path to development

“The starting point in the development process is pretty similar, whatever the product. We undertake market research, gap analysis and collect market intelligence,” he continues. “We assess whether the project aligns with our strategic goals, set its direction, assign resources and perform a risk analysis.

We assess whether it is a ‘must-have’, ‘need to have’ or ‘nice to have’, as well as assessing whether we are trailblazing and will be first to market with it. We profile the risk – is delivery guaranteed? There is a realisation in this business that we will sometimes start a project that may not have a high guarantee of delivery; so long as people are aware of that, we have managed expectations – and we always aim to succeed and when we do succeed, it’s great!” Research and Development is divided into four areas: projects, which have a horizon of up to two years; programs, which look three years ahead; new technologies, which reach further, to five years; and ‘venture funding’, which goes beyond five years. Any new product development project has four main partners – R&D; Advanced Manufacturing Technology (AMT); Manufacturing and it almost goes with out saying Marketing.

Leadership depends on where the project is in its development. Initially, it will be R&D but development teams are all cross-functional. The new material or initial process feasibility phase, as well as lens design, are led by R&D. AMT leads on process industrialisation; and manufacturing takes pole position in continuous improvement and ultimate ownership.

Meat and think

“As the Advanced Manufacturing Technology team we often feel as if we are the meat in the sandwich between R&D and manufacturing. It’s sometimes challenging but it gives us a great perspective, from R&D and small runs through to manufacturing, where we produce millions of lenses,” says Stephen English, global director of AMT. “From the start of any given project, AMT and manufacturing are involved with R&D. As a collaborative team we meet to run through the formulation and through the bespoke process steps required to deliver the particular product. We come into the project and work closely with R&D and look at industrialising that element of the process, ensuring robustness and repeatability of the product. It is analogous to Six Sigma processes – noise reduction, yield improvement, et cetera – and enables us to ramp up to full industrial production.” AMT runs a stage-gate methodology, with seven stages and clear milestones. “We have a list of things in the stage gate process that we need to achieve before we move on.” This cross functional structure of the development process was adopted around 2004.

The approach enables the team to overcome problems of isolation and nuances of quality and delivery by working closely together through every stage, within the company and outside organisations, such as equipment vendors. AMT typically takes the lead, after the project has developed a formulation that is acceptable and the manufacturing equipment and processes are being constructed to allow the project to progress to acceptance testing. Manufacturing engineers give additional input and so the design is accepted from all parties. Perhaps strangely, simulation is not a major component in our project workload and is typically introduced only on complex projects.

“We have previously worked with a company called System Navigator and we use simulation when we need to present to the executive team to explain the project’s complexities – an Excel macro may not mean anything to those not intimately involved,” says English. “A visual simulation may explain things much better but we don’t use it just for the sake of it.” The project governance system deployed in the UK is the same as that used in the USA.

“We have very good project governance and by following the same methodology, we ensure we’re all singing from the same hymn sheet.”

When a project is delivered, it then passes over to Manufacturing, who then go on to produce the high volume lenses needed to satisfy our customers.

Improving the vision

“A particular success we have enjoyed over the past three to four years has been our focus on business improvement planning,” says Kevin Barrett, managing director of UK Manufacturing. He is tasked with producing enough lenses to ensure that customers get what they need and when they need it. “We create a detailed improvement plan every year and measure and monitor it against previous years. The improvement plan gives everyone a clear focus on ‘the vital few important things, that will dictate the ongoing success of our operation’.” CooperVision has a number of specific objectives in 2011, including: to develop the manufacturing operation as a Centre of excellence for lens making; to exceed the budget commitment by focusing on business improvement and Lean manufacturing; and to establish a stronger business processes and business infrastructure.

“It is not just about being good at making lenses; it’s about the knowledge of making lenses and becoming expert in every aspect of lens making. It’s a two-stage process: to become Lean in manufacturing terms and for our knowledge to improve significantly over the years,” says Barrett. “We have become very good at executing our projects and improvements, so we have become a very efficient organisation. For the future, we can continue to work on efficiency and develop a more focused process and a suitable infrastructure. But our first objective, to become effective, means we are already good at what we do; in the future we will concentrate more on becoming efficient, which is becoming better at how we do things.” CooperVision has an established improvement planning process. The improvement framework, including techniques such as Lean tools and Six Sigma processes, is deployed throughout the whole organisation.

Sharing the objective

“What was vital was to get senior and middle management to understand what business improvement is about,” he says. “As a result we have actually moved away from ‘Lean’ and ‘Six Sigma’ terminology and created our own Continuous Improvement framework. The framework incorporates both lean and six sigma and takes the best from both to match our specific needs: it’s the CooperVision improvement program.” The process involves both ‘leading’ and ‘supporting’ teams and activities and Barrett says that there was, in the past, a misplaced belief in ‘leaders not giving direction’, only asking if support was needed. “Our job as leaders is to provide guidance and leadership. As a business, we determine objectives centrally, based on market opportunities – not what we think we should do internally. We ensure our people know what we need to do and ask them what support they need to make that happen.” That means that some ideas and opinions may be rejected, however when that occurs we do that with respect and explain the reasons why – but it is not afraid to make decisions and to move forward.

“From a business perspective, the achievement I am most proud of is our ability to make silicone hydrogel lens in volume and to high quality standards,” he says. “It was a long and difficult journey to learn to make silicone lenses and using Lean manufacturing and improvement techniques to understand the processes we use to manufacture them.

We have achieved a significant (but confidential) percentage increase in output – and, in doing so, we have improved productivity of the manufacturing line dramatically. We are becoming very successful in what we are tasked to do – to manufacture product at the right price.” On the other hand the softer side of the business improvement process has not been ignored.

“We have a culture where people understand what they are here to do,” Barrett explains. That assertion blends with communications manager Heath Clash’s observation that brand values ‘come from within’ – that personnel have to be involved and that it is not just about the public image. “We have increased the level of involvement and we now have an organisation that is clearer, has more direction and more focus on improvement and efficiency. What we do is not always open to discussion; how we do it, is. We like to deploy authority to make decisions – and accountability – to the lowest level, and we back our teams up.” One of those responsible for delivering the objectives is John Cole, senior engineering manager, who was appointed to look after elements of the technical function and is responsible for continuous improvement techniques and structural problem solving.

Manufacturing, in process quality assurance measures
Manufacturing, in process quality assurance measures
Progressive insights

“In the past, we had a steering committee without any particular responsibility and about two years ago we decided that we needed clear management responsibility in the area,” he says. “We have been using Six Sigma techniques for about four years, when we began following the DMAIC (define, measure, analyse, improve, control) process to resolve certain issues, in two specific projects.” The company partnered with Catalyst, a consultancy company, to coach CooperVision in using the tools – and in developing a ‘common language’ to aid understanding; CooperVision has grown by takeovers, as well as organically, which added a layer of potential difficulty to the normal experience of different departments failing to understand each other. A green belt project was started and a change management programme incorporated skilled people who were not, at the time, necessarily in leadership positions, which all helped to strengthen the development of crossfunctional teams.

“Seven of our engineers undertook an advanced green belt programme and we took the green belt programme into the workplace,” he says. “We wanted to demonstrate that these are not just ‘techie tools’, that they are a useful way of working out how to deal with issues.” Like many – if not all – organisations, the company had a history of fire fighting, of dealing with symptoms rather than problem causes. The Six Sigma-based programme helped it to improve its success in identifying root causes. It has seen positive results and has proven that it can afford to persevere.

“A few cases stand out,” says Cole. “We have achieved significant savings on downtime in automated lines. We took the time to stop, deployed the methodology and worked with our vendors to identify and resolve the issues we were encountering. We simulated a lens manufacturing line that was on order and improvement was apparent from as soon as it was installed.” Line simulation was able to identify variations in downtime by shift, which led to identification of who was doing things slightly differently.

“We brought different cross-functional teams together from various shifts, identified the best way of working and standardised it.” While the terminology of Six Sigma may not be high-profile within CooperVision, its tools continue to be deployed – and the network is building.

The UK operation has a black belt in place, as does the Puerto Rico sister plant. A yellow belt course is planned as the company establishes its internal structured problem solving hierarchy.

CooperVision at a glance

Locations: Southampton, Hampshire
Contact details: Delta Park, Concorde Way, Segensworth North, Fareham, Hampshire, PO15 5RL
Established: 1976 in the UK
Turnover: $1.2billion
Employees (number of): 2000 in UK
Key markets: Global contact lenses
Key products: Biofinity, Proclear, Avaira & Biomedics
Key customers: Opticians & Optical chains
Domestic/export sales ratio: 20 (domestic):80 (export)
Key people: Andrew Sedgwick (President EMEA), Kevin Barrett (MD UK Manufacturing), Neil Goodenough (UK R&D Director)
Points of interest/interesting fact about CooperVision: Global leaders in Toric contact lens sales (lenses which compensate for astigmatism)

Focused improvement

“We use the process to develop product leadership teams and an environment of kaizen (continuous improvement) in the work area,” Cole explains. “A key point is that, where the business champion has the pain of the project, he supports it very well.” There is an ideas management process in place, named ‘Bright Spark’, in the hydrogels business unit and the technical support function, which is devoted to the engineering workforce and allows the people on the shop floor to identify issues on a daily basis. There are visual references to continuous improvements all over the factory, including progress storyboards, and the company’s magazine highlights wins. Weekly core briefings ensure that information is disseminated across the company and the visual impact of a 5S program has been further recognised with a Four Star Award from the British Safety Council. As Heath Clash said, the branding comes from within the company, its practices, culture and attitudes.

However, after all the technicalities, product development, improvement in manufacturing processes and everything else, the business of CooperVision is getting contact lenses onto people’s eyes. The task of managing the inventory and ensuring the delivery of the right products, at the right time and to the right place, falls to operations director John Worster, whose responsibilities include packaging and distribution.

“We produce, package and distribute in excess of 500 million lenses a year,” he says. “We are currently holding more than 100 million lenses in stock and, for us, managing that variety of SKU’s is a challenge.” I don’t think that anyone would be in disagreement there – but a question is immediately prompted by those numbers: if CooperVision is focused on Lean improvements and boosting efficiency, how come the company is holding so much stock?

Stocks and shares

“First, next-day delivery is important,” he replies. “Pullthrough from packaging takes a couple of days. For packaging machines, like any process flow, setup time is a significant element. It is not practical to be packing one lens for one customer.” While CooperVision’s main customer base is opticians and eye care chains, it both delivers to its customers and supplies lenses direct to consumers on behalf of them – so there is an element of ‘single packing’. “We supply in relative bulk to distributors and our own network, as well as supplying the local market direct to homes, opticians and chains – so there is a variation in picking. For the domestic market, I could be packing two lenses, one lens – very small quantities. To package to demand is unrealistic within the next-day timeframe, and it is very inefficient.

Further, what gives us competitive advantage is the breadth and depth of our range.” In essence, then, the company has to balance the clear attractors of minimising inventory against the cost of doing so, in both financial and service terms. As explained earlier, there are a lot of SKUs being held.

“Our stockholding varies from a few days on fast-moving lines to many months on the extreme ends of the range,” says Worster. “I will typically have 12,000 ‘unlabelled’ SKUs,” they are actually labelled, for identification, but they are in blank, unbranded packages, “and packaging takes the total up to 70,000-plus.” They become ‘labelled when they are packed and assigned. “We convert the lenses to finished goods as late as possible.” Management of the 10,000 square metre warehouse is highly automated, with pick-to-light machinery and a design that has helped to boost efficiency and effectiveness.

“Over the past two years, we have reduced our stock significantly, through planning and flow-through in sensible batch sizes,” he says. “We have adopted Lean techniques in looking at how product flows through the machines, we have a continuous improvement process, we use mapping, SMED (single minute exchange of dies) techniques and we have purchased some simple software that measures OEE (operational equipment effectiveness) on our machines.

Taking all those efforts together, we have been able to raise our OEE dramatically, reduced distribution costs and improved operational effectiveness.” CooperVision has seen its volume grow by about 15 percent a year but it hasn’t had to move into new warehouse premises. Its efforts have enabled it to effectively increase capacity by 40 per cent, with no extra space.

“Ultimately, it’s about how we add value for our customers,” says Andrew Sedgwick. “It’s about how we differentiate ourselves by providing additional value and services that our customers require. Product is critical and innovation is important as part of that and the rate of change has increased dramatically over the last 10 years – but customers expect that. It is about what we can do for our customers that goes further, which includes home delivery, maybe providing different packaging formats for customers’ delivery systems, or to support their brand. We are currently number three, we want to get to number two, and that is what we are striving towards.”