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Feature Articles

Advances in Machine Vision, Robotics Reshape Global Electronics Market

by Winn Hardin, Contributing Editor - AIA

Integration is the name of the game in today’s machine vision market. And, according to industry experts, few industries benefit more from tight integration between vision system and motion control than the electronics industry.

The latest generations of cell phones, for example, are benefiting from tight integration of machine vision and robotic assembly, according to Terry Hannon, Chief Business Development and Strategy Officer at Pleasanton, California-based Adept Technology, Inc. “That’s what it’s all about,” he says. “Once you have the seamless package in place and that tight level of integration [between robot and vision system], then you have a very, very good product.”

Some companies struggle to fully integrate robotics and machine vision for advanced electronic assemblies, Hannon says, because they are trying to solve the issue by cobbling together a host of third-party solutions. As a result, it can be difficult to get control of the situation, to own and manage the overall solution. “What we’ve done is keep all of that under one roof. We don’t make our own cameras, obviously. But we very, very closely integrate the cameras we use with our control electronics and then with a refined software package system that folds over the whole tool and the whole application.”

With proper integration, a vision-controlled robotic workcell can produce more products while still meeting accuracy and repeatability specifications for vision-guided assembly of circuit boards—specifications that grow more stringent with every consecutive generation of electronic product. It is this holistic approach to a vision-guided robotic workcell integration, Hannon says, that allows Adept to achieve “refinement on the fly,” where the vision system refines the robot path in real time as it approaches the target while maintaining maximum speed.

Helping Cameras Talk to One Another

Another example of the growing need for tighter integration is the electronics industry’s increasing use of multi-camera vision systems. As components shrink in size, boards grow more densely populated, and a single-camera view is rarely sufficient to inspect an electronic circuit board, according to Stephanie Vinger, Vice President of Sales at Bologna, Italy-based Datalogic.

Datalogic, whose machine vision unit has served industry for decades through its PPT Vision (Minneapolis, Minnesota) acquisition, lately has been doing brisk business in its programmable multi-camera solutions. The price point and performance are of course important, says Vinger, but the seamless integration of the solutions—where a single hardware and software platform can communicate with multiple cameras and the cameras can talk to each other—is in high demand among electronic producers.

For example, Datalogic runs the same software on its smart cameras as it does on its MX series of embedded processors for multi-camera systems, giving users greater flexibility to move from one platform to the other should throughput or applications change over time. “If they find they need to change to a multi-camera processor, they don’t have to start the programming effort from scratch,” Vinger says. “They can transfer the existing program from the camera to the processor and vice versa.”

All of which translates to a powerful product for Datalogic. “We don’t put ourselves in the PC-based custom software category,” Vinger continues, “but we’re delivering the power and the communications, I/O, and networking abilities usually reserved for PC host systems.”

New Jobs for Skilled Workforces

Continued automation in electronics is helping to change the market in significant ways. In 2011, citing rising labor costs and the need to improve efficiency, Terry Gou, the founder and chairman of Taipei, Taiwan-based Foxconn, announced plans to replace some of the company’s workforce with one million robots within three years. Foxconn, the world’s largest manufacturer of computer components, assembles the Apple iPhone and other consumer favorites. The robots will take over simple, routine tasks, including spraying, welding, and assembling, Gou said.

Robots have long played a role in the manufacture of electronics, and that role is increasing thanks to a convergence of rising labor costs, increasing need for highly accurate and repeatable electronic manufacturing, and advances in machine vision and robotic technology.

The transition to a more robot-centric labor force on the factory floor will have important consequences. It will allow manual labor to move to more high-value-added jobs, says Adept’s Hannon. Foxconn expects that the addition of a larger robot workforce will create more opportunities for China’s growing number of engineering and technical graduates. In developing markets, automation will create more opportunities for re-shoring many industries closer to developed regions of the world, including North and Central America.

Recently, General Electric moved production of washing machines, refrigerators, and heats to a factory in Kentucky, which had nearly closed not long before. Google will be making its new media streamer, the Nexus Q, in San Jose. Airbus, the European airplane manufacturer, has announced plans to open a factory in Alabama. For skilled workers, Airbus CEO Fabrice Brégier said last year, “China is no longer a low-cost country.”

Re-shoring is a growing trend, but don’t expect the end of outsourcing to China anytime soon. The companies known to be moving or returning manufacturing to the U.S. number only in the dozens, and many of the bigger companies doing so are still sending considerably more work abroad than they are re-shoring.

“People will continue to outsource parts in China,” says Hannon. “It’s not only about labor; it’s also about the local supply chain. This is extremely well-developed in China, and it’s still low cost.”

 

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