How Does Software Automation Empower the PCB Assembly Process?

What you’ll learn:

  • Software automation in PCB assembly.
  • Advantages and disadvantages of software automation in PCB assembly.

The PCB assembly (PCBA) process is becoming more complex with evolving market trends such as IoT, augmented- and virtual-reality devices, and cloud applications. As such, PCBA contract manufacturers are exploring new ways to streamline and control their manufacturing processes. Today’s compact and miniature products can be mass-produced and assembled only by automating the entire PCB fabrication process.

Automation brings with it many advantages like reduced cost, better quality, faster circuit assembly, and minimization of manual errors. Also, an automated assembly line can sort components, place components on the bare PCB, inspect assembled boards, perform functional tests, and package the final product for deployment.

The Automation Ecosystem

Usually, the word “automation” elicits a picture of robotics in the PCB assembly line. But a contract manufacturer may have multiple setups to support automation in various stages of PCB assembly, including:

  • Sorting and placing components in assigned bins.
  • Labeling the components for correct identification.
  • Pick-and-place machine for SMT components.
  • Component soldering in reflow ovens and wave solder units.
  • Isolating individual boards from the panel and routing for inspection.
  • Visual inspection of streamlined bare boards using optical machines.
  • In-circuit test to verify board manufacturing quality.
  • Functional testing of “Inspection-Pass” boards.

In the PCBA process, materials and boards are shifted continuously from one location to another. First, materials are moved in for assembling, inspection, and testing. Then boards are moved out for packing and shipment. This is typically automated using conveyor belts. The manufacturing facility must include automation for the identification and tracking of raw materials, components, and assembled boards. Packing and storage of final products also are organized to handle mass production successfully.

Industrial automation includes computers, robots, advanced machinery, control systems, and software to run all of the processes with the least effort and best productivity. A software-automation system in the PCB assembly process provides several advantages and empowers the creation of a smart factory that can convert the available data into meaningful insights. The analyzed data can be further utilized to effectively meet the market demands.

Advantages of Software Automation for PCBA

  • Increased productivity: The software-automation solution enables a continuous bulk production of PCBs with minimum downtime. It speeds up the discrete processes and improves line productivity.
  • Reduced cost: One of the best benefits of using software automation is that it lowers PCB production cost. The introduction of technical solutions like smart machinery, robotics, and AI support can significantly increase the production yield and improve the company’s profit.
  • Safe workplace: The deployment of robots and machines to function in hazardous conditions and eliminating human interaction in accident-prone areas can turn the assembly floor into a safe workshop. The reduced human exposure to harsh conditions will likely improve staff efficiency, too.
  • Improved quality: Reducing human interaction in the intricate segments of the production line — handling of miniature components, thorough inspection, etc. — can significantly reduce faults and damage in the PCB assembly. This improves consistency and product quality.
  • Flexible to upgrade: Software automation offers the advantage of reprogramming and updating the automation process according to the changing requirements and feedback. This feature is a huge benefit in the increasingly changing demands of the market.
  • Allows for traceability and data aggregation: With the introduction of the software-automation process in PCB assembly, the vast data available on the shop floor can be aggregated and used to make strategic decisions. It also supports the traceability of components, bare boards, assembled boards, etc., and reduces possible wastage.
  • Continuous monitoring and quick correction: The latest industrial automation includes advanced machinery with high-grade sensors. They provide continuous data of all running processes and enable early detection of any possible failures. Appropriate corrective measures can be taken immediately, and the debug time will be reduced.

These advantages can empower the PCBA process to achieve higher productivity and profit.

Fixed, Programmable, and Software Automation

Fixed or hard automation has been a part of the PCBA process for a long time. It’s best suited for repeating a single process that may not require any modifications. An automated conveyer belt is a typical example used for moving assembly parts or finished products.

Programmable automation, which can accomplish several functions, is instructed by a computer code. Programmable logic controllers and machine-vision-based quality-control systems used for PCB inspection are examples of programmable automation techniques.

Flexible or automation software is designed to interconnect and control the process with necessary feedback. Robots and configurable material-handling systems are examples of the software automation used in the PCB assembly industry. Further, the automation software can be installed and controlled by a local server, which is known as on-premises industrial automation. Recently, cloud-based industrial automation is trending, where the software is run on a solution provider’s server.

The Industry 4.0 Solution

Industry 4.0, aka the fourth revolution in the global manufacturing business, is a performance solution. It provides substantial improvement in all manufacturing processes, starting from material procurement, supply-chain management, product design, assembly, and delivery with real-time monitoring of all the systems.

Interconnectivity, automation, IoT, and real-time data analytics are main focuses of Industry 4.0, and they offer offering advantages of revenue growth, risk reduction, and ensuring a competitive edge in this space. Software automation is one of the vital requirements for successful implementation of the Industry 4.0 solution in the PCBA industry.

IoT devices include sensors, computing devices, and software technologies to interconnect and exchange data. Being an integral part of the Industry 4.0 solution, these devices play a significant role in industrial automation. Hence, industrial IoT (IIoT) is an extended feature of IoT devices used in different manufacturing sectors for automation purposes.

PCBA service providers are also expected to ramp up their facilities according to the latest technological trends. Choosing either a fixed or flexible automation method depends on the assembly requirements. But the latest technological innovations highlight the importance of software automation in the PCB assembly process. Contract manufacturers that adapt to such digital transformation via software automation stand at the forefront of the PCB market.

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