Taking up the slack

Taking up the slackWith the market shifting away from technology and towards cost per placement, manufacturers are pushing equipmentsuppliers to improve their efficiencies. Richard Wilson reports
These may be difficult times for electronics manufacturers, but when it comes to ordering new production equipment, firms are not making life easy for systems suppliers.
Manufacturers have become accustomed to screwing down their suppliers to improve efficiencies and it is inevitable that this also applies to their production equipment suppliers. After all, when a manufacturer is committing ?20,000 to a rework station, not to mention the ?200,000 you could be paying for a new surface mount component placer, they want to be sure the money is being invested wisely.
Manufacturing efficiency is the key as Steve Lloyd, sales and marketing manager at contract manufacturer GSPKElectronics, puts it: “We buy and sell manufacturing hours. We don’t buy components to make a profit, but to allow us to buy and sell hours.” And the same rule can be applied to the purchase of production equipment.
Modular manufacturing cells, line optimisation, zero defect manufacturing and machine footprint size are some of the parameters which manufacturers now put at the top of their specification list as a matter of course.
“The market has shifted away from the technology and is now looking for cost per placement,”says a spokesman for component placement machine supplier Quad Europe.
Component handling capabilities such as surface mount and ball grid arrays (BGAs) are now taken as a given and manufacturers have become obsessive about maximising component throughput and minimising rework and line down-time delays.
Because of the relatively large number of suppliers in a market that has only recently seen signs of rationalisation it is still a buyer’s market.
“The shoe is very definitely on the customer’s foot,” comments Richard Booth, sales director at Speedline Europe.
This means that suppliers are having to work harder for the business and the emerging strength of the contract manufacturers in this market is not making the task any easier.
“Subcontractors are very price-orientated,” says Booth, who gives as an example a situation where the contractor will ask the supplier to install production equipment in the factory in order to show a potential customer before they win the business. “In effect we only get paid when they get the manufacturing business. We are acting a bit like a bank,” adds Booth.
This illustrates how far equipment suppliers are being expected to go in order to win business.
Another approach they are taking is to propose new production techniques which are designed to improve line throughput for example. One proposal being put forward by a number of equipment suppliers is that of dual track surface mount component placement lines.
For a mobile phone maker churning out handsets like there is no tomorrow this could effectively double manufacturing throughput with only a marginal increase in the footprint of the line.
“The drive for improving manufacturing efficiency has changed machine design,”says Ray Bruce, general manager of the surface mount division of Siemens UK. “For example, the dual-track approach came from one particular customer.”
But as Speedline’s Booth points out this requires a major up front investment by the manufacturer and as yet many are still trying to decide whether they can afford to make the dual-track move. “Inevitably it will require them to invest in a complete new line,” says Booth. “But like ourselves many equipment suppliers have or will soon have dual-track systems and manufacturers are seriously looking at it as an option.”
Another way to tackle inefficiencies in the manufacturing process is to reduce the waste and time delays resulting from sub-standard boards. The reworking of failed boards can be automated but the main approach is the use of computer-controlled inspection and line monitoring systems. “The aim,”says Stan Edwards of Panasonic Factory Automation, “is to identify problems such as component placement errors and pick-up faults and stop them at source.”
Some of the biggest savings are to be made in the most labour-intensive aspects of the production process. Peter Chan director of PMJ, which supplies odd-form and leaded component placement equipment, “With end-of-line operator costs as high as ?1,000 a month manufacturers are looking to cut cost in manual labour,” says Chan, who points out that a single machine could replace as many as 40 operators.

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