Mixed Technologies Converge - Changing the Assembly Scene

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By Ian deSouza

Commercial markets for pervasive high-tech products dominate the electronics scene and are forcing assemblers to respond to the miniaturization and convergence of diverse technologies. As a result, traditional electronics assembly boundaries are collapsing, and the assembly process can no longer be categorized at the component, board and final assembly levels.

Until recently, component and board assembly were the key areas for automation. Final assembly did not surface as a primary initiative. Typically, companies used manual assembly with low-skilled labor. Where automation has been applied, it generally is hard-tooled or dedicated for products build in high volume with a long product life. Emerging technologies that allow for more functions to be incorporated in a small package and increased customer demand for products tailored to specific requirements, have made automated final assembly a critical part of the process. The distinction between various levels of assembly blurs as manufacturers work to meet the demands of the marketplace.

To meet the increased demands of providing complex consumer products to global customers, electronics manufacturing companies require flexible automation systems that lower manufacturing costs, increase production capacity, reduce time- to-market and elevate quality standards.

Manufacturers strive to reduce or consolidate the levels of packaging, which leads to blurred assembly levels. Automotive assemblies that reside in harsh environments, such as engine compartments, incorporate high levels of mixed technology and assembly processes. The product housing is no longer used as a simple shell that contains the semiconductor and PCB. It is an integral part of the assembly that allows for integration of many styles of connectors, signal lines and discrete components within the housing itself. This has resulted in lower-level processes, such as connector place and solder, now performed through wire bonding at the final assembly level. These products require assembly operations beyond component pick-and-place, driving equipment suppliers to offer a total-line solution. That solution must incorporate modular automated workcells with a flexible common architecture that can be re-configured easily to meet changing market demands.

A typical automotive sensor or control module would require that the common machine platform meet many processes, such as standard component pick-and-place, sub-assembly pick-and-place, dispensing, inspection, screw-driving, product identification marking and product test. Multiple processes may be performed on the same machine cell. This platform strategy also would allow for real-time process verification, such as dispensing weight check, laser height check, vision inspection and product test. Powerful tools for automated product changeover, product verification, process validation and product traceability will be critical for these platforms to deliver a cost-effective return. Therefore, host communications also will be critical.

Using the common platform approach for product assembly has many benefits. It lets manufacturers maximize capital equipment usage by redeploying, reprogramming or reconfiguring the machine cells while adjusting capacity to meet market demands. Other benefits include shortened delivery lead times, efficient use of shop-floor real estate, standardized training efforts, maintenance and spare parts.>

Faced with demands to perform a range of diverse assembly processes, assemblers will look for complete solutions to these challenges, instead of focusing on individual machine capabilities. Assemblers also look to equipment suppliers to provide the process knowledge they need, as well as flexible platforms that can be reconfigured rapidly with process- and third-party options. Suppliers must be flexible when integrating all requests into their machine cells.

The convergence of technology is changing the assembly scene - traditional levels of packaging are no longer clearly defined, and automation of the total process is required to meet these new challenges. Manufacturers are searching for suppliers who can play a powerful role in developing the infrastructure and provide cost effective assembly cells that incorporate the attributes of reusability, modularity and improved process control.

Major equipment suppliers in this new market will be those who have invested in the ability to implement and support a range of automation: the total solution philosophy taken to a new level. The common platform assembly cell is critical to this vision, as assemblers respond to the challenges brought about by the continued blurring of packaging levels.


Ian deSouza, president, Universal Instruments Corporation, may be contacted at desouza@uic.com.


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