By Stevan Dobrasevic, Director, Product Marketing, Bright Machines
As speakers have evolved from music players to multi-faceted smart devices, including the voice user interfaces of a growing legion of digital assistants, their presence at home and work has grown. Audio devices of all shapes and sizes, built by a variety of manufacturers, are everywhere.
A recent report from Mordor Intelligence values the Bluetooth speaker market alone at $6.49 billion in 2019 and projects it to reach $48.52 billion by 2025, growing at a whopping 40% CAGR. That’s a lot of customer orders for a growing array of audio devices!
That’s also a lot of soldering.
Soldering is one of the common steps in the manufacture of most audio devices. Not surprisingly this skill, specifically soldering and trimming tinsel wire during speaker assembly, has typically been done by hand.
Yet dependence on manual labor in assembly of speakers, woofers, subwoofers, and tweeters brings with it safety and quality concerns. It also doesn’t scale well. In the 2020s, with labor costs projected to rise, having to hire more employees to increase throughput isn’t the math most manufacturers want to bank on.
For these reasons, some manufacturers made an early turn to automating their assembly. But first-generation automation offerings proved to be expensive, inflexible, and could take a year or longer to implement. These solutions didn’t anticipate, or accommodate, the proliferation of device types and product SKUs that has typified this audio device revolution.
In other words, manual labor remains the primary means of assembly on these factory floors.
A New Equation for Increasing Throughput: Intelligent Automation
A new wave of automation is changing that. Today’s manufacturing automation solutions combine flexible hardware and intelligent software, meaning one robotic cell can handle multiple SKUs at the touch of a button, changing from one product “recipe,” or set of instructions, to another in a matter of seconds.
An audio device manufacturer with 20 product SKUs is finding that versatility particularly appealing and useful. Until last year, the company had relied on four employees to perform all the prepping, soldering, and trimming for its woofer assemblies. The group regularly produced 500 woofer assemblies per hour, 4,000 per 8-hour shift, and 1 million per year – all manually.
Sensing an opportunity for improvement, the company successfully transitioned to a soldering and trimming process augmented by intelligent automation. Deploying a Bright Machines Microfactory, the manufacturer found it could produce the same number of woofers with half the labor. Not only did this save money, but it increased safety – the soldering and trimming was now performed in a safe cell by a robotic arm. It also increased quality: the robotic arm, coupled with machine vision, dramatically lowered woofer assembly defects.
The efficiency of the automated solution has put the manufacturer in an excellent position to increase capacity and reduce cost. While a single robotic cell, fed by two employees, produced the same number of units per 8-hour shift as the manual output of four employees, adding a second cell – and with it a second two-person team – provides a path to producing 8,000 units per shift. A 100% increase.
The microfactory also provides a low-cost option for high throughput. Historically, the manufacturer could meet demand by adding shifts. The same is true using the microfactory, but with better results. With four employees over 1, 2, or 3 shifts, the cost of soldering and trimming tinsel wires during woofer assembly is constant at $0.16 per woofer. But because only one robotic cell is needed over the same 3 shifts, compared to a total of 12 human operators (4 per shift), the cost per woofer assembly fell to $0.09, a 44% reduction over the manual process.
Learning New Tricks
While the use of microfactories in audio device manufacturing empowers businesses to cut cost, increase throughput, or toggle between the two based on business conditions, it also provides the flexibility to tackle new assembly tasks.
For example, manually placing and securing die-cut gaskets in Bluetooth speakers is an established norm. But advances in robotics have opened up new possibilities. Today, a specially-fitted robotic arm can dispense form-in-place gaskets, a process too precise for human hands, removing cost from the making of Bluetooth speakers.
One manufacturer is test-driving this automated process. The company has implemented a microfactory consisting of two robotic cells, each performing three steps in parallel:
- Load/unload parts
- Apply form-in-place gasket
- Cure gasket with infrared lamp
With only one human operator managing the microfactory, the new approach to gasket assembly is driving savings on two fronts: reduced labor, in the form of fewer operators, and reduced material costs, in the form of their precision application. To date, the automated solution is yielding 1.5 million units per year at a price of $0.07 per unit.
An Automation Foundation: Meet Your New Workforce
In both examples, audio device manufacturers are enjoying performance gains and cost reductions that position them to capitalize on growing demand and nimbly respond to changes in product specifications. What they are also gaining is an automation foundation that can be endlessly re-configured, maximizing machine longevity, utility, and ROI over the long haul, and that can communicate with MES and order management systems to guide production in real time.
Leveraging these advantages, audio-device manufacturers can now deploy manufacturing solutions as smart as the speakers they are producing.
Want to learn more? Watch our webinar on automating audio-device assembly.