Automate R&D

April 12, 2011
The Time and Effort Required to Automate R&D Can Be Significant
By Andre By

Traditionally, many companies have been unable to justify the cost of using automation equipment for R&D because the realized labor savings have been relatively low compared with the acquisition cost of the automation equipment. Thus, R&D and product development typically have been implemented using manual manufacturing methods, with the resultant manufacturing processes then migrated to production operations using semi-automated or fully automated equipment.

The time and effort required for this migration can be significant, resulting in substantially more time and effort for production ramp of new and modified products. Given the short product lifecycles in many high-tech applications, this extended calendar time can jeopardize product success.

Using the same flexible automation equipment platforms from R&D through production ramp allows manufacturers to speed up product introduction because process recipes and interchangeable fixturing can transfer to production quickly—in days instead of weeks or months. Though purchasing manufacturing equipment for R&D could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in some cases, the added cost is typically quite small compared with the millions of dollars of business and market opportunity gains that can come from the shorter production ramp.

Another advantage to this approach is that R&D staffs don't have to implement the manufacturing processes twice. This is especially important when the manufacturing ramp is in a facility across the world from where initial process and product development is implemented.

Critical Elements

There are several key factors that make building flexible machines more practical and effective, including using the same control software across machines. The control software should include uniform support for defining process sequencing with multiple recipes so they can be copied easily from the R&D machines to the production machines with little or no modification.

Machines also should use the same interchangeable fixturing. This replicates the effectiveness of shared control software by using kinematic couplings and common electrical connection features in the machine design for both R&D and production machines. This will support fast fixture changeover so that fixturing developed and validated on the R&D machines will install readily on production machines with minimal process revalidation.

Use an open-architecture approach for motion stages and motion control. Match the needs of your processes to the stages you select—from moderate to high-precision motion stages to meet your precision automation requirements, and servo motion control or stepper motor control and pneumatic actuation for less demanding applications.

Machines should use the same processing subsystems and instrumentation. Select sensors and instrumentation to include in your automation solutions to best meet a given application's needs. This includes everything from optical and electronic instruments, force transducers, flow transducers and temperature transducers.

The use of machine vision enables flexible automation solutions that are highly reconfigurable and minimizes the need to replace or modify mechanical fixturing. Automation guided by machine vision can find and measure features on objects to determine their position and orientation to automatically pick and place them, inspect them to verify proper dimensions or detect defects, or determine the correct motion path for automated processing.

Rapid Process Migration

Investing in flexible automation systems with uniform machine designs can streamline and speed process migration across a global supply chain, freeing up costly time and resources by eliminating the need for revalidation and repeated refinement on different machines. This is particularly true for manufacturers with challenging product line switchovers.

Andre By is chief technical officer at Automation Engineering (AEi, in Wilmington, Mass., which makes flexible automation systems for a range of assembly, alignment and inspection applications.