Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The APEX Question: How Much Money Can I Save?

Cost is the main theme at APEX this year, which is no surprise. The electronics manufacturing industry doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and everyone is seeing the decline in global spending and production. Suppliers are designing systems for assemblers that are both low investment up front — we’ve seen entry-level machines showcased at the booths more than new high-end ones — and low cost of ownership (COO), meaning the operational costs cut out inefficiencies or long downtimes, high energy use, and other undesirable side effects of electronics manufacturing. Shopfloor management software that enables truly lean production is getting a lot of attention at APEX. As one exhibitor put it, attendees are asking “How much is the machine? And how much will it cost me to run it?” With capital equipment spending dwindling, vendors must get the answers to both of those questions right.

Sunstone Circuits and partners National Instruments, Digi-Key, and Screaming Circuits gathered at the show to discuss their ECOsystem product, which brings PCBs from design through sourcing and manufacturing in one cohesive supply chain. Design for manufacturing (DfM) was the theme at JTAG Technologies’ booth as well, where they discussed the possibilities of utilizing boundary scan from first prototype through PCB test through in-field service to cut down prototype iterations, make service less invasive, and increase yield. JTAG refers to this as DfTALES, which means design for test, assembly, logistics, engineering, and service.

The manufacturing execution software (MES) suite from Valor also incorporates DfM, along with machine integration and inventory management to detect and call out inefficient or out-of-spec processes. Valor just surpassed the 800 customer mark globally. Juki debuted a shop-floor management software program, Intelligent Shop-floor Solutions (IS), to complement its component placement and selective soldering machines at the show. Aegis released the third revision to its Version 7 manufacturing operations software (MOS), called R3. This also is designed to cut costs through maintaining peak efficiency and streamlining operations in everything from screen print to thru-hole insertion to box build. Without a main computer interface, and with operators interacting with the MOS suite verbally, R3 targets a less skilled, less trained workforce on the line, cutting out that monetary burden.

Aegis’s R3 system was recently selected by Sanmina-SCI to go into about 20 facilities globally. Sanmina has installed the system in a handful of assembly plants and approved it for company-wide deployment. Maximizing the effectiveness of equipment and people saves users from investing in new machines, which likely isn’t an option for many assemblers in 2009.

Equipment providers can found innovative ways to cut costs as well. Aqueous Technologies, which recently acquired the Austin American Technologies MicroJet defluxers, pointed out that the in-line defluxers stagger the force, or energy, of the wash to remove flux intelligently rather than blasting it with cleaning solution indiscriminately. This means the machine requires a smaller motor, less energy draw on the factory floor, and therefore a smaller footprint. Aqueous also redesigned its Zero-Ion cleanliness tester and in doing so reduced the purchase price.

Inspection system manufacturer Koh Young brought its lower-priced machines to the show, KY8030 series, which typically target manufacturers in China. With a primarily North American attendance base at APEX, this seems like a shift to more cost-conscious purchasing at domestic manufacturers.

Essemtec showed a full suite of screen printers, component placement systems and reflow oven at APEX, but they were also promoting the company’s stability, with a fully owned manufacturing plant in Switzerland and no debt/good credit. One has to believe this reassuring tone is prompted by the bankruptcies and shaky footing of major companies all over the world, such as the “Big 3” U.S. auto makers.

Siemens introduced the Siplace CPP MultiStar placement head, which switches on-the-fly between high-speed and pick-and-place modes. It effectively eliminates the need for both a chipshooter and an end-of-line pick-and-place machine, performing the tasks of both. Placement “silos” that lack this range slow the production line down and have the added burdens of machine downtime, underutilization, maintenance, etc. The MultiStar head’s flexibility brings it beyond the silo model, yet maintains the accuracy found in dedicated machines.

Solder recovery systems supplier EVS International highlighted the COO advantage of investing in a dross recovery system. Users can cut solder purchasing by 40% in some cases, representing a huge savings in consumables. The system also brings dross management in-house, eliminating a step in the EMS/OEM supply chain that was not controllable by the manufacturers.

CeTaQ Americas, which manufactures machine calibration equipment, emphasized the importance of running in-spec and at top efficiency in an era of tight profit margins. Keeping a paste printing machine at its best level of performance will extend the system’s usefulness and lifetime, delaying investment in new capital equipment. CeTaQ offers all of its equipment as a service as well as for purchase.

Inovaxe also highlighted lean as a way to save money and reduce costs at the assembly house. Inventory management is central to this philosophy. The company showcased its software as a service (SaaS) options, which allow users to track incoming and in-process inventory, eliminate spoilage, and protect sensitive components like moisture-sensitive devices (MSDs). In 2009, manufacturers must find ways to cut out non-value-added time, making each job as profitable as possible.

Human effort can be the largest consumer of non-value-add time, and Europlacer highlighted its camera-based footprint programmer on the inneo placement platform as an example of technology replacing human effort. Parts profiles are obtained via a camera and programming in the inneo system, freeing up operators who would otherwise be drawing in the parts. This also enables more job changeover and more job runs with less downtime.

Cost is by no means the only story coming out of APEX this year. Emerging markets, such as photovoltaics manufacturing, are becoming a complementary focus for some assemblers, and equipment and materials providers are supporting this change. Counterfeit electronics are a hugely important topic, and many new products, from advanced labels by Polyonics Inc. to XRF analyzers by RMD, are coming out to combat the problem. Inspection remains an evolving realm, with some players exiting and others getting more involved in this sector. And the industry can still have fun in bad economic times, as evidenced by the informally dubbed APEX band, which gathered toward the close of Day 1 to play a few songs.

SMT will continue to cover the trends from the show floor at APEX on our Website and in our e-newsletters and issues following the show.

Meredith Courtemanche, managing editor

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