Where is the Robot Revolution in Circuit Assembly?

Okay, all my PCB assembly pals out there.  Here’s a question for you…where is the Robot Revolution in circuits assembly?  What processes have been disrupted or completely over-taken by robots?

Think back 20 years to any surface mount (SMT) line you worked around or sold. Whether you saw one at a large OEM like Motorola, Lucent, Alcatel, Nokia, Ericsson or at contract manufacturers like Sanmina, Flextronics, Solectron or Jabil – they had the same basic building blocks, such as…

  • Bare Board Loader or Conveyor module
  • Solder Paste Stencil Printer (with 2D paste inspection)
  • Inspection Conveyor
  • Component Placement (chips, fine pitch, even odd-form)
  • Inspection Conveyor
  • Reflow Oven
  • Automated Optical Inspection (sometimes elsewhere in the SMT line)
  • End of Line Conveyor

Are these all still present today? Yes. So what’s changed and are “…robots taking over?”

Well, today’s SMT lines are faster (higher placements per hour), solder paste inspection (closed-loop) is better and AOI is improved. We still have SMT technicians to attend to the equipment.  We have faster line change-over, end-to-end component traceability, better factory floor MIS tools (software), RFID tracking, paper-less work orders and more.  When every process is humming, there should be a higher first pass yield.

Perhaps one could calculate that there are fewer SMT technicians or engineers per board assembled per year, or per component placed, and I would HOPE that is the case as efficiencies increase to fend off the competition (lower cost of goods), beat the bottom line profit from last year (financials), or whatever business metric is important to you.

One could make the case that in the Through Hole (PTH or THT) realm, that selective soldering has disrupted the hold of wave soldering on PTH parts. Selective soldering certainly HAS displaced workers.  Some PCB assembly operations have idled or sold their wave soldering systems.  Others just don’t use them as often.  I’ve seen the size of Rework & Touch-Up areas drop, but they are still present.

One large potential disrupter is solder paste jetting versus stencil printing. It’s newer but is not yet widely adopted.  Removal of the need for hard tooling (the stainless steel stencil) enables lower N.R.E. costs, faster change-over and the ability to implement change orders (ECO/ECN) on the fly in parallel to the placement files.

The promise of the next-generation equipment technology or material science break-through is always present. These “next-gen” equipment and material promises were present when I started selling circuit board conveyor systems and are still dangling out there today.  I’m glad they are part of the conversation to help challenge the status quo and to give sales professionals something to talk about besides old news!

But fear not, it doesn’t appear the robots are taking over SMT assembly! I just wonder if that’s what the horse-drawn buggy makers said a little before Henry Ford blew their doors off!  What say you?

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