Suppliers of sophisticated process automation equipment for the semiconductor manufacturing industry face unique times.
The protracted downturn in that the industry is forcing custom tool builders and their vendors to scrutinize costs. Yet technological advances continue to provide real market opportunities for all of us, all the while increasing the pressure to reduce time-to-market.
The desire to gain competitive advantage through technological innovation pushes vendors to release products early and drives designers to take risks with new technologies. Inevitably, friction develops when products that contain a bug or two are specified for use in a project with an overly aggressive schedule.
What are the warning signs that such problems are going to occur, and, more importantly, what can either side do to mitigate such issues? A recent project we executed provides some interesting perspective on how both sides can work together to achieve common goals.
As a company focused on providing turnkey, custom automation equipment solutions, DWFritz Automation routinely balances the creative endeavors of the engineering department with the realities of manufacturing on a deadline. Using quality, off-the-shelf components helps, but this requires constant education from the vendors.
As the complexity of a component increases, so does the learning curve associated with its use. Relying on documentation (online or printed) and phone support to master a critical new technology and still support rigorous time-to-market goals is becoming unrealistic.
Onsite vendor support of machine builders by a qualified application engineer is becoming a necessity, but who will be responsible for absorbing the extra cost? If the machine builder and the vendor collaborate to work through issues together, the advantages to both parties can easily justify the sharing of this expense.
To take advantage of a unique opportunity we were offered, DWFritz Automation built a technology display machine for the 2002 Rockwell Automation Fair in Anaheim, Calif. The "Puzzle Master" showcases the advantages of integrating precision motion, vision, and wafer-handling systems onto a single PC control platform, in this case Allen-Bradley's SoftLogix5800 controller.
Our mission was to go from concept development to operational machine on the floor at the fair in less than 100 days. In addition to a compressed schedule, the precision motion system, vision system, and control software had never before been integrated together in a single machine.
To be successful, the project needed to be a collaborative effort from beginning to end. During the concept development stage, we engaged vendors to finalize the design concept, identify and specify the required hardware, software, and labor, and to create a mutually acceptable delivery schedule.
Early on, both Rockwell Automation and vision system supplier Cognex each committed an application engineer to support the project, including multiple visits to DWFritz Automation to support system design, integration, and test. The value of having these engineers closely involved in the project was immediately apparent. We quickly saw both the capabilities and limitations of the hardware and software being used and, more importantly, their impact on the proposed design. The response time to technical questions and issues was also significantly reduced. Having engineers from all three companies onsite at the same time during integration and test helped to develop camaraderie and a common sense of purpose.
Despite a handful of challenging problems, personnel from all three companies put forth many long nights of effort in the closing days of the project to bring about a successful conclusion.
Was it worth it? What was gained? For DWFritz Automation, successfully integrating precision motion, vision, and wafer handling systems--core technologies of the semiconductor industry--into a single control platform for a new application in less than 100 days is a wonderful demonstration of our capabilities as a custom equipment manufacturer.
As we pursue new business opportunities resulting from the demonstration of this rapid prototyping capability, our goal will be to leverage the use of the technology we implemented during this project.
From the vendors' perspectives, demonstrating how their products can enable such a rapid development cycle is a key objective, and both Rockwell Automation and Cognex got a real-world opportunity to work with a motivated, experienced integrator to refine their product offerings.
The ultimate goal for all is to continue the development of a functional automation platform for the semiconductor tool manufacturing industry (process, inspection, metrology, packaging) that satisfies the reduced time-to-market constraints we are all facing.
In this space in May, we'll discuss customer needs and expectations for rapid prototyping, and present our view on how the technology, not just the specific components, helps achieve our objectives.
Joe Butz is business development manager for DWFritz Automation, Portland, Ore., a custom machine and automation systems design/build firm. Learn more about the company at www.dwfritz.com.