Taking the Human Out of Hand Soldering: Is it a Must?
At NEPCON 2015 in Shanghai, I stopped by the WKK booth where Japan Unix (represented by WKK in China) was displaying its new robotic soldering technology. Japan Unix’s robotic soldering module is fully automated—there is no need for a human operator. With automation a key focus on driving labor cost down and the need for reproducible quality, automated hand soldering systems are certainly a smart focus. In this interview, General Manager Hirofumi Kono explains why this new technology makes so much sense.
Barry Matties: Is the idea that this technology could replace hand soldering?
Hirofumi Kono: Yes. We have been working with this kind of machine and technology for more than 35 years. When we started robotic soldering in the 1970s, it was only with a one-cylinder system. In the early ’80s, we started implementing a six-axis robotic base model.
Matties: So it's faster and more accurate than humans?
Kono: The advantage of robotics is the soldering speed. An advanced operator might be faster because of his or her skill, but compared to a beginner operator, robotics is faster. Also, technicians calculate at an average speed. Robots can calculate the throughput much easier and the accuracy is much better than the operator, because robots always go to the same position. With the vision sensor on this model you can check the position to make sure it solders correctly.
Matties: What would make somebody come in and buy this today? If I have experienced technicians doing the hand soldering, and they're faster than robots, what's the biggest advantage then?
Kono: The advantage is that labor costs are increasing in some countries. The technician is costing more and more, but the soldering machine is only a one-time investment. With the operator, you have to hire and train continuously. Side by side, the machine’s speed is not much faster than that of an experienced operator, but the average speeds over time are higher than personal operators. In the long term it is faster and cheaper.
Matties: But is it faster per piece?
Kono: Per piece, especially with less quantity or a single board for R&D, an experienced operator is much faster. Robotic soldering systems can copy an advanced technician’s know-how, but cannot duplicate a technician’s skill. The best soldering performance for single pieces is by an advanced technician.
Matties: I see what you are saying. The average would be faster because this can work 24 hours a day without breaks.
Kono: It depends on the model.
Matties: In some countries, it would take a long time to get a return on investment, right? That must be a difficult sell for you in places like China, for example.
Kono: In China, labor costs are getting higher. Also, it’s very difficult to hire factory workers these days. Most EMS companies want to use the same machine in every country, not only in China, but India, Mexico, Vietnam, Indonesia, etc. They cannot control the skills of technicians in all these countries. If they use this one machine, they can control the quality in each country. This option is much more cost-effective than hand soldering.
Matties: One machine replaces how many operators?
Kono: One machine might cover at least three operators in one day, but it depends on the configuration and the component.
Matties: Is there any advantage to having a human physically looking at this versus the machine? If I had a human doing the hand soldering, will they recognize some of the problems that the machine may not detect? Because with the human, you have experience; with the machine, you do not.
Kono: Experience differs between every technician. No two technicians do everything the same. But with robotics, even a hundred robots can make the same circuit board with the same soldering condition and quality. But if you hire a hundred operators, even if they are experienced technicians, the hundred circuit boards will have differences and won’t be the same.
Matties: Can you use anybody's solder wire with your systems?
Matties: Good, so that's not a variable or a roadblock. The footprint is rather small and you can just line these up. For loading the boards, I would assume it's all optically aligned for the start position?
Kono: Yes, loading and unloading is done by an operator. But this operator can just load the board and press the start switch, which is less cost because even a newcomer or beginner can perform this action. If the customer wants to have something like a more integrated system, we also have both a robotic conveyor system and laser soldering system.
Matties: Does the laser offer more precision?
Kono: It offers more precision and much less maintenance time. With the soldering iron, you have to clean the iron tip about every six hours, so you need to keep checking the iron to maintain good soldering quality. Also, when you solder a lot of points, the iron tips have to be replaced periodically.
Matties: I see the laser system is a conveyorized system as well, which is nice. The laser basically lasts forever, right?
Kono: You just need to change the solder wire and clean up optics.
Matties: I think the return on investment must be faster because you no longer need the operator to load the board.
Kono: Also, the soldering time for the laser is much faster.
Matties: In terms of performance against hand soldering, is this by far superior? Is the accuracy always 100%?
Kono: Yes, through our vision system accuracy is 100%.
Matties: Are you capturing data that can be fed back to a database?
Kono: They can track the performance of every single board that comes through.
Matties: This unit—or either one of these units—seems good for any industry, right? It's generic. So for somebody who is really concerned about quality throughput, this would be a better solution for them.
Kono: Yes. Most of our customers for the laser are in the automotive industry. They want the same quality and the same condition everywhere. A Japanese company we supply to has, besides their factory in Japan, factories in the U.S., Mexico, and Europe, which all produce the same design of automotive electronics. They have to have the same condition in each country. In this case, the personal operators cannot keep the same quality from place to place. This is the key of robotics.
Matties: It's very impressive. How long has this been available and how many units do you have in the market?
Kono: We’ve been working on this for more than 15 years. We started robotics 35 years ago and after 20 years we found that lasers can achieve soldering and we made our own system. We have more than 800 units and we are building all of them in Japan.
Matties: Speaking of Japan, how is Japan’s economy?
Kono: Business has been growing, especially in automotive and consumer electronics. In some industries it is not yet a hit. It is still a bit expensive for the investment.
Matties: Congratulations. How many you would like to have in the market? What's your goal?
Kono: We’d like to have 10 times more. We also offer a less expensive option. Originally, we put the original technology's know-how software inside of our robotics. Now, you can find robotics just about anywhere. So we sell our feeder or controller modules separately so our customers can integrate them into any kind of robotics to build their own robotic soldering system. This is a much lower cost to get a machine similar to ours.
Matties: Can they control it remotely from a computer at their desk or do they have to be nearby?
Kono: The answer is both. Somebody can be sitting at their computer monitoring the process.
Matties: This has been an interesting discussion. Thank you very much.
Kono: Thank you, Barry.