Automation integration opportunities in electronics manufacturing

Friday November 15, 2013
Written by Girish Wable
During the past few years, automation in general and robotics in particular have become favourite buzz words in the electronics manufacturing industry. Several large electronics manufacturers have expressed renewed interest in expanding the use of these technologies in their factories, even in regions with low labour rates. Today, automation in electronics manufacturing is on the rise, and automation integration — combining various automated and manual assembly steps — is playing a critical role.

A brief history

Automation is not new to electronics manufacturing. One example is the sustained market success of the semiconductor industry using a lights-out manufacturing environment, wherein a factory is fully operated by machines and robotics without the need of humans on-site. Some other examples include the production of smart electronics using automated injection moulding, and the decorative coating of housings and enclosures.

Discrete processes common in the electronics manufacturing industry have been slowly but steadily getting on board the automation bandwagon. These include fabrication of printed circuit boards, placement of electronic components (active and passive), inspection, test equipment, and test software and packaging.

As production volumes for electronics products like cellular phones grew, some of the mechanical assembly steps became automated; however, as several recent product teardowns and market reports have shown, key components of these products still require significant manual assembly. Most of the recent discussions concerning automation in electronics manufacturing have focused on reducing this dependence on manual intervention for mundane and repetitive tasks, and moving the need for human dexterity and adaptive skills to other more critical processes.

Economic drivers for automation
As a fundamental law of economics, product demand drives increased supply or, alternatively, an increase in price. The objective is to ultimately improve customer value and maintain shareholder interests, whether its through improved margins or through better penetration of brand presence.

In the cell phone industry, the use of microelectronics to transition from manual to semi-automated processes fueled the change from through-hole assembly and wave soldering technology to surface mount technology (SMT). This helped increase the supply of consumer electronics while maintaining a balance among product availability, customer demand and price level. The evolution of assembly automation also supported component innovation that enabled ever smaller packaging. Adoption of advanced component technologies further fueled innovation in products, making them more desirable for customers and driving further demand. This demand was fulfilled by further increasing automation deployment in electronics manufacturing.

Initially, SMT drove automation in solder paste printing, followed closely by automation of component placement. The new factory physics established by the implementation of automated processes subsequently drove manufacturing and operations engineers to provide solutions for workflow bottlenecks. These bottlenecks were generated and then solved as automation solutions migrated along the manufacturing line from placement to printers to testing to complex assembly and to final inspection.

By making innovative products ubiquitous through the use of discrete automation steps (from manufacturing to marketing), successful cell phone manufacturers were able to extend product portfolios to offer a variety of options for consumers with different ranges of disposable incomes. This business model offers additional potential for revenue capture as automation becomes more pervasive in the manufacturing of these products. Thus the automation of discrete steps showcased its ability to drive the expansion of markets with varying economic conditions, as well as eased the transition to low-cost regions for manufacturing.

Three phases of automation

The progression of automation in electronics manufacturing can be discussed in terms of discrete phases comprising three main topics: manufacturing, test and business systems.

The phases — main stream, deployed and growing, and emerging — refer to the maturity level of the technology, as well as its state of adoption by electronics manufacturing services suppliers.

Evolving manufacturing strategies have leveraged automation within each phase and have defined individual roadmaps. These roadmaps in turn have aligned the necessary resources and human capital to realize technical advancements. Due to the broad applicability of these technology platforms, some of these technology development activities have co-existed across the phases.

Integrating adaptable automation technologies

Several common product platforms assembled by electronics manufacturing services providers (e.g., computers, displays, smartphones and tablets) that use automation equipment for SMT assembly are being integrated into other products, such as single-use or portable medical devices that historically did not contain significant electronic functionality. These medical products were among the first adopters of ultra-high-speed automated manufacturing. Other products that are manufactured using high frequency automation technologies include paper, drugs and disposable medical consumables. Automation of discrete processes in almost all of these cases helps bring the cost of manufacturing down or improve efficiency. However, the new wave of integrated automation will enable new functionality into products. Functionality that requires separate products today, such as imaging or detecting, communication and drug or procedure delivery, will all be integrated into a single product. Such products can achieve the popularity of smartphones by not only making them desirable with improved features, but also making them ubiquitously available by high volume production using integrated automation.  

Therefore, in the future, some suggest that manufacturers who leverage complex combinations of manual and automation processes — such as those used to assemble automobiles, appliances and furniture — may give rise to a new wave of integrated automation technology platforms. This wave will accelerate the proliferation of adaptable automation platforms that will initially require humans to work side-by-side with robots. Integrating robotics within automation technology platforms can also create new jobs in diverse manufacturing industries.

The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) recently announced the publication of its updated research study titled “Positive Impact of Industrial Robots on Employment.” The study found that more than two million jobs will be created in the next eight years because of robotics in industry.

“Our study proves that robots create jobs,” said Gudrun Litzenberger, general secretary of IFR. “It is a matter of fact that productivity and competiveness are indispensable for a manufacturing enterprise to be successful on the global market. Robotics and automation are the solution. Certain jobs may be reduced by robotics and automation, but the study highlights that consequently many more jobs are created.”

As improved solutions emerge, the manual operations will be continually driven up the value chain, with machines performing most, if not all, repetitive work. These solutions will be based on advanced automation technologies and methodologies developed at academic institutions and manufacturing centres of excellence, and should be rapidly adopted and integrated in real-world manufacturing. This, in turn, should grant design engineers the freedom to produce products with novel form-and-fit with significantly increased functionality compared to current products. Adoption of integrated automation in early stages of design will allow unprecedented rapid scale, making these products available to both established and emerging economies. All this may experience a longer adoption cycle unless the road mapping of all the discrete technologies is crafted with a holistic view.

A future roadmap for integrated automation
The vision of factories using 3D printers integrated with robotics and automation to manufacture complex products like hearts, kidneys and lungs will only be realized if technologists are provided a roadmap that highlights the gaps that must be overcome.

The individual technology development topics within automation, such as ad-hoc sensor systems, ultra-high-speed assembly software/hardware architectures, modularization, wireless communication protocols and handling sizes, have benefitted from their own roadmaps.

The advent of additive, 3D or printable manufacturing has added a unique dimension to how we should look at automation. Automation has been used to manufacture parts and assemble standard but identical products in very high volume, which have brought economies of scale to improve exposure of the product to various markets. The additive printing technology enables for the manufacture of customized parts, potentially capable to produce at “point of use” or “point of sale” where they could be used as is or be assembled into a functional final product. The same systems are predicted to have the ability to mass-produce unique parts in high volume in factories. Such a manufacturing system could potentially need a very custom or adaptive automation solution in order to be really effective. These systems could be integrated into automation platforms alongside components manufactured on different types of manufacturing platforms to deliver the products in the future.

Is it then time to have an integrated roadmap for automation? Yes, automation is becoming more common in manufacturing environments and continues to act as a conduit and link among a number of diverse industries, including pharmaceutical, food and packaging, that use unique manufacturing processes common to other industries (e.g., automotive, electronics, appliances). Using a systems engineering approach (i.e., review of and linkage between existing roadmaps to generate an integrated roadmap) to prepare an automation roadmap continues to be mentioned as a critical need to enable acceleration of this new wave of integrated automation.  

A roadmap provides tangible benefits such as industry alignment on the voice-of-the-customer, identification of technical problems, consensus-based decision-making, risk mitigation, maximizing resource deployment efficiency, standardization and enabling a shorter time-to-market.

The advantages of a roadmap can facilitate a new wave of growth for integrated automation. Moreover, this roadmap could give rise to the “factory of the future,” enabling the assembly of electronics and other functional components on equipment and assembly platforms using an integrated methodology.

The automation solutions of tomorrow will not only consistently accomplish what is expected, but also will be designed to adapt to the unexpected. The companies leading the growth of diversified manufacturing have been most successful when adopting the philosophy of integrated automation. An integrated roadmap, driven by industry organizations involved in both electronics manufacturing and automation, with participation from leading companies involved in electronics-based products manufacturing, will be able to craft a vision for streamlined paths. Today is the appropriate time to generate the framework for an automation roadmap that assesses past trends, attempts to predict future trends and establishes a new model for integrated automation in electronic manufacturing.  

Girish Wable is the technology manager in the Advanced Technology group at Jabil Inc.

References
1: Clayton, Gary. E., Economics: Principles and Practices, ISBN-13 9780078747649
Glencoe/McGraw-Hill (2007).
2: Wable, G & Gamota, D: “Manufacturing Platforms for Medical Products”, “Innovations in Electronics in Manufacturing for Medical Devices,” IPC, June 12, 2013

 

 

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