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
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.
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
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.