How Far Does It Make Sense to Automate?

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For an EMS provider, it is a given that the front-end board assembly process needs to be automated. Regarding the back-end final assembly process, however, the situation is often less clear. There are often many advantages to automating the final assembly process, but how far does it make sense to automate? Is a fully automated process better than a semi-automated, or partially manual process?

Advantages of Automation

Let’s start by reviewing some of the advantages of an automated final assembly process. First of all, an automated process is much more repeatable and will thus allow a much higher quality level to be attained. Today’s requirements for the assembly of automotive-grade electronics require a hands-off approach to handling, with robots and automated handling preferred by most tier 1 customers and OEMs.

In addition to improvements in quality, we can expect a reduction in the total cost of a project—assuming that the volumes are relatively high. Savings come from a reduction in the cost of non-quality, which includes the cost of analysis, inspection, scrap, education, training, field returns and loss of reputation. Furthermore, an automated solution frequently takes up less floor space than a manual process. Flexible automation can be designed to be utilized for multiple programs thus reducing the cost per individual project further. Finally, with the ability to provide an automated final assembly process, an EMS provider can typically attract higher value-add projects that it otherwise would not have been considered for.

Personally, I do not think that automation will lead to a mass displacement of human workers. There will always be new goods that need to be manufactured. The stations that will be automated first will be those where more critical process steps are executed, allowing production operators to fill in the gaps where automation is not needed or cannot be justified. There will always be new goods with shapes, materials, or even in quantities, where automation will not be possible nor practical. The more equipment we put in place on our production lines, the more designers, technicians, programmers and integrators will be needed.

Almost half of the world’s global manufacturing output came from Asia in 2013. Somebody once asked me if I thought that Asian electronics manufacturers are heading for full automation or partial automation. I think such considerations will be made by project rather than by geography. High-volume manufacturing of high-quality products will see more automation than projects with lower volume requirements, higher mixes or lower quality requirements.

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Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of SMT Magazine.


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