Making ‘Smart Meter’ Production Smarter with Next-Generation Automation

August 6, 2020 | 5 min read

Stevan Dobrasevic, Director of Product Marketing, Bright Machines

Smart meters, electronic devices that enable two-way data exchange between homes, businesses, and utilities, monitor the consumption of resources such as electricity and water. By delivering insights they can drive smarter, more cost-effective consumer behaviors and more accurate, more efficient billing by utilities.

And they are becoming pervasive. A recent report from Fortune Business Insights forecasts the global smart meter market will nearly double in size, growing from $24.5 billion in 2018 to $44.2 billion in 2026, a CAGR of 7.7%.

To record and deliver data, smart meters are packed with componentry. For manufacturers of these devices, this means many assembly steps. With the demand for smart meters on the rise, device makers are looking for a long-term production advantage that can be implemented quickly and cost-effectively – and can scale.

Next-generation automation is providing a compelling solution.

The “Final” Frontier: Automating Final Assembly

Inside every smart meter is a printed circuit board containing hundreds of components, including computer chips, inductors, capacitors, and resistors. Printed circuit board assembly is a front-end production process handled by an array of advanced machinery. But back-end assembly, where printed circuit boards are mated with other sub-components, such as display screens and antennas, and put together in the final housing has traditionally been done by humans.

Next-generation automation has emerged that is cost-effective, flexible, and capable of performing many of those back-end, final assembly skills once reserved for human labor: pick-and-placing, soldering, dispensing, screw-driving. For example, today’s automation solutions include a broad array of advanced end-of-arm tools, such as grippers for pick and place, screwdrivers, and soldering and heat-sink placement devices.

But it’s not just the tools. It’s the intelligence inside them that is changing the speed, math, and flexibility of today’s next-generation automation systems. These systems are software-driven, meaning instructions, or production recipes, are programmed into the line. An operator interacts with the system menu, selecting the appropriate assembly recipe to start a work order to make a specific product SKU. When that work order is completed, the operator can switch the line to a different assembly recipe in seconds using the system menu on the touch screen. Software is not only used to direct each assembly step, it can also be used to analyze real-time and historical production data, anticipate bottlenecks, and create workarounds.

Bright Machines Microfactory: Not Your 2010s Automation Solution

In years past, smart-meter manufacturers have had automation options, but they have been limited. Traditional, or first-generation automation, typically involved PLC programming and using teach pendants to program robotic arms, custom hardware, and developing custom software for a custom line. And that hardware-first, customization-heavy approach came at a cost: 12-18-month implementation times for a single-use, inflexible solution.

Fortunately, automation has gotten much smarter and easier to deploy. Next-generation automation is not custom-built – instead, it leverages modular automation hardware building blocks, which are, in turn, configured by software. This one-two punch enables manufacturers to check all their production requirements quickly and easily.

With next-generation automation, assembly lines can be automated in 3-6 months, meaning time-to-benefit shrinks. And if a part or alignment angle changes along the way, the software assembly recipe can be quickly modified with the push of a button to accommodate the change. Need more capacity? Simply add more robotic cells.

This new breed of smart, flexible, and scalable automation is found in our Bright Machines Microfactories, that deliver factory-ready skills quickly, accurately, and economically.

Next-Generation Automation in Action: Smart Meter Assembly Gets a Whole Lot Smarter

Over the last year, Bright Machines has worked closely with a smart-meter manufacturer to automate various assembly steps. In the following example, we worked with them to automate three different assembly tasks in the production of its single-phase electric meters, automating the assembly of display-board sub-assemblies, a nine-step assembly process.

So, what were the production results? The microfactory helped dramatically increase production. The number of units produced per hour more than doubled from 135 units per hour to 300, a 120% increase. Also, the cost per unit decreased. With manual assembly, the cost for these nine assembly steps totaled $0.05 per unit. With automation, the cost dropped precipitously to $0.02 per unit. At the same time, production yield improved from 95% to 98%, highlighting just how good robotic arms are at repetitive motions and error-free production.

Next, the microfactory was used to tackle an intricate assembly task, automating the placement of three small plastic standoffs onto the back of the display board. Here, the automation solution required pick and place, conveyance, bar-code reading, and MES communication capabilities.

Again, the results speak volumes about transformational advancements in today’s automation solutions. Units production per hour remained constant at 257, by design – the manufacturer did not want to make more of these subassemblies at this stage of the production line. The company did, however, want to reduce per-unit costs, and was very successful. With automation, cost per unit was halved from $0.02 to $0.01, and production yield increased.

The third and final step involved the automation of screwdriving the circuit breaker to the display board. This screwdriving function is quite advanced, with the torque, angle, and number of rotations all being verified by the system to ensure high-quality assembly.

As with the other steps, the microfactory delivered the desired results, reducing headcount while maintaining 257 units produced per hour and driving cost-savings: production cost per unit fell to $0.01 from $0.02.

Ready to Excel?

The success of this smart-meter manufacturer’s automation initiative is not an outlier. Looking across the range of assembly skills, manufacturers that deploy a Bright Machines Microfactory are experiencing production cost savings ranging from 25-68%, depending on the complexity of the task.

Automation continues to get better. It is already excelling at the repetitive assembly steps which used to slow down and add cost to smart-meter production. A smarter, faster, more productive production line is only a conversation away.

To learn more about our capabilities in building the backbone of AI, visit Bright Machines.

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