Boston-based Automated Engineering Inc. (AEi) may be a little-known part of Mycronic for most SMT customers, but for the fast-growing automotive electronics industry, AEi’s compact solutions are critical to producing millions of advanced camera sensor modules per year.
THE RISE OF VEHICLE AUTOMATION. One look in the cab of any modern car will tell you where the industry is heading: from intelligent cruise control to lane assist and collision avoidance systems, automated controls are proliferating. The capabilities of these systems are increasing rapidly, and all are powered by advanced camera and sensor systems.
Unlike many of today’s “vision cameras”, which display images to support drivers’ decisions, these new types of vehicle automation systems rely heavily on what are often called sensing cameras, which use sophisticated image-processing algorithms that are specifically designed to support the decision-making of the car’s own software. Today these decisions involve relatively straightforward tasks such as collision warnings and active braking, but their capabilities are quickly evolving.
With the help of sensing camera modules, the industry is rapidly approaching next generation driver assistance and driverless vehicle systems. This is where AEi’s products play a critical role, enabling flexible mass production of camera modules with industry leading Active Alignment Assembly and Test equipment and manufacturing solutions for its customers.
High-volume precision assembly
The technology behind active alignment may be complex, but the principle is fairly simple. To assemble a camera module, a sophisticated automated assembly process is needed to first activate the sensor, align and focus a lens to the sensor to measure optical characteristics through a series of images, and then lock the module into place with adhesives .– all with extreme control and precision. A. single speck of dust or misalignment of a few microns, and the vehicle’s entire safety critical system can be compromised.
The machine that enables this, the Camera Module Assembly and Test system, or CMAT, performs all of the multiple axis alignment process steps as well as component surface preparation, epoxy dispensing, pre-curing and test. All of this is performed within the machine’s compact 1 x 1.5-meter footprint. A Final Functional Test (FFT) system, a derivative of the CMAT that measures the optical performance of the fully cured camera module assembly, is also often included in a complete assembly line to ensure outgoing product quality.
“Our machines are essentially mini-factories,” explains Steven Michaud, President at AEi. “There’s a plasma surface-activation module, a dispense module, an align module, a test module and so on – with a total cycle time short enough for the demands of high volume automotive production. The intelligence involved in coordinating and optimizing these processes is what really makes us unique. These are some very high-precision algorithms that enable everything from process design and alignment, to data optimization.”
A lifetime of high performance
The result is a highly precise and robust camera or sensor that remains accurate despite the lifetime of environmental stresses a vehicle needs to withstand. “Our customers need to ensure that the quality of the camera can hold up to high and low temperature extremes and harsh road conditions,” says Michaud. “So, material processing is key. Alignment is key. Cleanliness is key. Quality of assembly is key. They need to predict and ensure the same quality in all of the variables. Active alignment is critical to holding all this together.”
For every new camera we develop a process together with the customer, covering dispensing, alignment, anticipating adhesive shrinkage during curing, etc. We develop all of this and work through the entire mass production period. We like to think of ourselves as an extension of our customer’s own design and process optimization capabilities.”
On the forefront of electronics assembly
AEi was acquired by Mycronic in 2016 as part of a strategic diversification program into an adjacent application in automotive electronics assembly. As a technology pioneer and the world’s number-one supplier of high performance camera assembly systems, AEi was already a well-positioned partner to most of the largest automotive electronics manufacturers.
Today the company has a leading position in a fast-growing market driven by advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) and autonomous driving (AD) penetration within the automotive industry.
The MYSmart series and Mycronic’s jet printing technologies make it possible to solve any dispensing or conformal coating challenge. Now Mycronic is establishing multiple application centers worldwide to help customers make the most of them.
New application centers worldwide
With a larger global installed base of MYSmart and MY700 jet printing and dispensing systems, Mycronic is taking the next step in bringing its hands-on expertise closer to customers by establishing multiple new application centers for dispensing and coating in the US, Europe and Asia.
The centers offer customers a complete service offering, from prototyping and process development to automation and software integration.
Creating tomorrow’s opportunities
Mycronic’s new application centers are designed to function as a practical interface between Mycronic and its customers, across industry sectors and among industry partners.
“At a typical technical seminar for coating,” says Koppens, “we bring together several leading manufacturers of coating and dispensing fluids and inspection systems to explore future demands in electronics protection. To find new ways to help our customers get more from our systems, we really need to collaborate and stay at the forefront of new applications.”
“Show us your application. We’ll help solve it.”
To date, the new centers have handled dozens of customer projects, with many more in the pipeline for 2019. From advanced process control and traceability systems for automotive electronics manufacturers to new adhesive fluid trials for consumer electronics.
"We really have the chance to better understand our customers’ production environments and set up the right process to get them off to the best possible start. So if you’re looking into ways to improve your process, show us your application. We’ll help you solve it,” Koppens explains.
Several process improvements benefiting the customer
A number of process improvements have already resulted from several customer collaborations. “One example is a pre-heat buffer conveyor,” explains Koppens, “which we developed for a customer primarily to reduce energy consumption in the dispenser. By pre-heating the board up to ninety degrees, it also ensures a more stable process with a shorter cycle time.”
Another service offering that has experienced strong customer demand is application development, where specialists from Mycronic help to optimize a particular board design for the dispense application, to reduce cycle times or to minimize production costs.
Rising demand for dispensing and coating
Mechanical integrity is increasingly crucial for today’s electronics. Whether it’s electric toothbrushes, car electronics or wearable devices, more and more devices are exposed to moisture, impact, thermal stress and other harsh environments. Dispensing and coating systems are therefore essential to ensuring longer lasting, high-quality products.
The need for precise and selective protective coating is quickly expanding into a wide range of board designs and manufacturing environments. “In Europe and the US, conformal coating is growing more important for all kinds of automotive, aerospace and medical electronics,” explains Koppens. “In Asia we see a lot more focus on smartphones, cameras and other consumer electronics – typical high-volume applications.”
When it comes to dispensing, some of the growing challenges are driven by a wider mix of components, higher component density, and a general demand for more robust finished products.
“Underfill, for example, is crucial for BGAs, since an epoxy underfill gives better strength, resistance to thermal stress, and protects against moisture and other contaminants,” says Koppens. “And powerboards, which tend to have a lot of large and tall components, usually need high-viscosity silicones to improve mechanical strength.”
All of these applications require high-precision dispensing systems that can accommodate a variety of fluids while being flexible enough to integrate into existing production systems.
Solving solder defects
Solder paste deposits represent yet another rising quality challenge for electronics manufacturers. With Vi TECHNOLOGY inspection systems as part of the Mycronic family, it has now been verified that 70–75 % of failures in electronics production are due to the stencil print process used by most facilities. These stencil processes are particularly limited when it comes to handling large variations in solder paste deposits.
With the dual-head MY700 Jet Printer and Jet Dispenser, the advantages of jet printing can be leveraged in production environments of any scale.
The MYSmart series goes global
The introduction of the MYSmart dispensing series also marked a significant expansion of Mycronic customers’ capabilities into any type of electronics assembly processes, offering a complete portfolio of tabletop and inline dispense solutions, together with a versatile conformal coating system.
First launched in 2017, the series incorporates a portfolio of core technologies used by leading global automotive, aerospace and consumer electronics, upgraded with high-end standardized features for the global market. Standard features across the range include precision robotics, high-accuracy laser detection systems, automated calibration routines, high-speed jetting and more.
Debating whether to upgrade from racks and shelves to an intelligent material handling system? With the help of SMD Towers, one Florida-based electronics manufacturer shows how smarter material handling not only cuts kitting times and repetitive manual work – it can also significantly increase production volume.
GABLES ENGINEERING, founded in 1946, has a deep history in aviation electronics. An industry leader in avionics controls, with customers including Boeing and Airbus, the company’s custom control panels can be found on virtually every major commercial aircraft model produced in the last 70 years.
Big inventory, big challenges
To promise customers short design-to-production cycles with an expansive product mix, material handling was a constant challenge.
“When we started SMT manufacturing at this site,” says Clarence Nichols, SMT Supervisor at Gables Engineering, “we placed our parts on shelves and in drawers. It was really difficult to locate parts.” In addition to requiring a four-person kitting staff, the manual storage system gave little insight into the location, stock levels or traceability of parts. Manual documentation was time-consuming, and with such a large stock of parts, discrepancies in inventory counts were inevitable. Only an annual inventory audit would reveal eventual overstock and waste.
A successful trial
As part of a continuous effort to define future developments in the industry, the engineers at Gables would regularly visit the major SMT trade shows in search of evolving technologies. It was here they identified a promising alternative for their material handling issues. “One year we visited APEX and were introduced to the SMD Tower,” says Nichols. The assembly team decided to give the new system a try. Those towers are a lifesaver when it comes to inventory.
As soon as the team began labeling reels, programming jobs and assembling kits, the benefits became obvious. “We started with one tower and saw immediately how it made our process more efficient,” says Nichols. Time spent locating parts and gathering kits dropped sharply, “so we began installing more of them. Today we have seven towers and are considering upgrading a few of them to the new SMD Tower 8000”, explains Nichols, referring to the latest SMD Tower model that stores up to 1,148 reels within just a 1.5-square-meter footprint.
Tracking parts like never before
In particular, Nichols explains, the system’s software features have enabled an unprecedented level of stock accuracy. “The combination of the SMD Tower and the MYCenter software gives us real-time tracking of our inventory and the location of all our parts. So instead of doing annual inventory audits like before, we can just go into the system, print out the total number of parts left, and make adjustments.”
Turning to more valuable work
“The system is so efficient that we were able to cut down on kitting staff,” says Nichols. “If I had four people pulling parts before, now I’ve gotten it down to two. This means the other two can be doing something more valuable.
Although the time savings are clear, the real question confronting many manufacturers remains: How much can a component handling system really increase production? In short, how does it drive revenue growth? Posed with this question, Nichols concludes, “I would say it led to a significant increase in production capacity.”