(Image: ©Blaz Kure)
Automation by Wikipedia definition means “the use of various control systems for operating equipment such as machinery (for our interest would mean printing or placement equipment), processes in factories and other applications with minimal or reduced human intervention”. The keyword here is minimal or reduced human intervention.
Of course, all of us understand and appreciate the most important drivers for automation is ultimately for better quality, accuracy and labour. Personally, I see the beauty of automation in the possibility to have the assurance of quality and accuracy.
For those of us who have seen how the SMT market developed from the through-hole technology, I am very sure most of us couldn’t imagine ourselves going back to those days when most components are leaded and having rejects so often, resulting in missing shipment to our customers. In my previous capacity as an account engineer with a subcontracting house, I was in the frontline to face my customers. I really dreaded those days when I have to hold frequent meetings with the Process and Quality department to troubleshoot what went wrong in the production and thereby implement corrective actions.
In fact during those days, we do have some form of traceability, not automatically but manual records. We had to trace back to which batch of production it was, which day of the production, which shift of the production, which production line and which operator. What it meant for the operator was scolding by the supervisor and penalty BUT what it meant for the company was delay in shipment, complaint from customer, additional rework required, overtime to catch up with the lost time, and for me, I needed to think of how to explain to my customer to make it sound reasonable and not too ridiculous!!!!
One of my most vivid impressions was when we have wrong orientation of connectors inserted in a batch of power boards. Cartons of PCBAs were returned to us for rework. We implemented the use of transparency print of the PCB design for visual inspection prior to reflow, highlighting the correct orientation of the connectors in different colours. Simple tools but it worked after repeated checks.
During then, it dawned on me why can’t the operators see the correct orientation of the connectors. It was good when eventually connector suppliers made connectors with unique pin orientation, allowing for a more foolproof way to the problem.
With more components evolving into surface mount design, we see fewer operators in the SMT production line. The possibility of the operators manually inserting components wrongly reduces but the problem manifests in a different way. We have to deal with a different set of problems. We will continue to wish for the dependency on operators to be kept to the minimal.
The continuous need to innovate to make the production system more automated is even more urgent than in the past. Why? We are having more and more electronics in all the different products that we use today. We can no longer live without the creature comfort that we have today. The trend is only in the increasing direction and not the other way.
Not to mention the rising labour cost in many countries in recent years, further justifying the investment for more automation.