Precision Automation Meets Advanced Product Demand

Submitted by Corey Foster || Valin Corporation
on Thu, 09/10/2015
As electronics and technologies designed by product engineers become smaller and more intricate, manufacturing engineers are running into new challenges in automating manufacturing processes.

The challenges of manufacturing new products extend beyond the capabilities of precise motion control mechanics to include the control of environmental factors, such as vibration and temperature.

The processes needed to meet the standards of modern manufacturing are so exact that motion control systems must constantly remain ahead of the curve.

Automation System Classifications

As both consumer and commercial technologies become more compact, and need for the technology demands that they be produced at larger scales, automation and motion control becomes a manufacturing necessity.

However, only certain automation systems are capable of producing the desired results. This is especially true in the electronics industry, but also applies to medical device manufacturers.

Several automation systems cannot accommodate the level of precision required to manufacture today’s electrical devices. Pneumatics is a long-standing, common and relatively inexpensive technology that doesn’t have the precision capability for new and demanding applications.

Hydraulics uses oil instead of air, but is used primarily for high-thrust and mobile industrial applications. Air leaks in pneumatics and oil leaks in hydraulics also makes them undesirable and inefficient technologies.

Electromechanics, which use electromagnetic motors to generate thrust or torque, paired with mechanics to provide linear motion, are common solutions for the current generation of small electronics and medical devices.

Electromechanical solutions can achieve micron-level precisions with repeatability into the fractional-micron range.

Pushing the Envelope

Below the micron range, a piezoelectric motor can be used to manipulate electricity to make materials “twitch,” thereby making motion in very small increments. This is ideal for small motion, but is limited by reasonable stroke lengths since moving a meter, for example, would take this technology a relatively long time.

These systems are also limited by the load size. However, pairing this technology with a well-designed system can allow a manufacturing engineer to reach the 50 nm range in repeatability.

With design engineers of newer products requiring precisions into the one nanometer range, an entirely new set of problems has emerged. At the sub-micron level, not to mention the nanometer level, factors such as temperature and vibration become very important.

For example, a one meter long piece of steel will expand 11.5 microns through a 1°C temperature change. Just to measure at the sub-micron level accurately, one must use a temperature-controlled room with a special calibrated measuring tool called an interferometer.

An example of this is a facility with a room built on a separate foundation to avoid disturbances from forklifts and other vibration-inducing movement.

When manipulating objects at the nanometer level, even a person stepping nearby will upset the results.

Managing Expectations

As product designers imagine the next generation of awe-inspiring gadgets, and design engineers bring them to fruition, companies will have no other choice than to invest in the next level of cutting-edge automation. However, in some instances, design engineers’ visionary ideas are ultimately hindered by the reality of manufacturing limitations.

For this reason, it is important for product designers to manage expectations and possess a moderate level of insight into the manufacturing processes.

Another issue with increased precision is the shortcuts that are occasionally taken on products or automation systems, which can result in higher expenses and lower-quality products.

For example, a worldwide contract manufacturer on the cutting edge of automation technology may accept a contract for a new product that requires a process upgrade to include environmental control. At this point they have two options.

The first is to manufacture the product with the existing configuration and produce a lower-quality result with an increased risk of defect. The second is to upgrade the facility to include a separate room with controlled vibration, which increases manufacturing process precision.

In this instance, an initial investment in an upgraded system will prove much more beneficial than using outdated technology.

As technology continues to develop into smaller and more intricate forms, manufacturers must turn to the latest methods of precision automation to meet the demands of these advanced products.

Product designers must also be aware of the capabilities of manufacturing automation systems and work within those limitations to avoid any defects in the final product.

Article featured in Product Design & Development Magazine.
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