The True Impact of Automation

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Automation is a relative term. To many, manufacturing automation implies the reduction of cost and a guarantee of repeatability. SMT machines are in themselves automated processes, as opposed to the manual placement of materials, but the automation in the SMT process as a whole can be extended. The feedback from inspection of SMT placements can automate the adjustment of placement parameters to improve quality. Determination of operational parameters together with an intelligent maintenance regime is critical.

Extended automation, however, often leads to processes that are dedicated to specific tasks, and they need significant change to accommodate different products. This is not a welcome feature because the market continues to demand greater flexibility, and it has significantly limited the adoption of automation to date. A breakthrough opportunity may exist with the increase in effectiveness of software and electronics, where we are likely to see a rise in the use of more sophisticated robots, which are easier to program, easier to maintain, and are almost as flexible as current manual operations. Will this be the end of the manual operator, or is there more to the story?

When it comes to automation in PCB electronics manufacturing, a lot should have been learned already from the SMT processes. These are, after all, fully automated machines, following a programmed sequence of operations. In fact, three valuable lessons should have been picked up on by now--my three laws of automation.

Three Laws of Automation

The first lesson is related to optimization versus flexibility. From the earliest days of SMT, the race was on to make machines that can place smaller parts faster, and more reliably. The performance of SMT machines has been measured in terms of, for example, the cost per SMT placement or the number of SMT placements per square metre of floor-space per month. The theoretical placement rates of SMT machines are almost impossible to realise, however, because constraints imposed by the PCB size and design layout, together with the number of different materials needed at each machine, mean that, for much of the time, the machines are performing movements beyond their minimum cycle time.Read the full article here.Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of SMT Magazine.


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