Manufacturing Innovation: Automating the Installation of Heat Sinks onto Circuit Boards

March 23, 2020 | 4 min read

Stevan Dobrasevic, Director of Product Marketing, Bright Machines

Heat sinks are a common component within electronic products today – and for good reason! Whether you are assembling automotive infotainment products, networking equipment, smart meters, building security systems, or any other number of circuit-board-driven wares, chances are they’ll need a heat sink to keep within temperature specifications during use.

Unfortunately, the installation of heat sinks are a time suck on the factory floor because of the processes used to attach them to the circuit board – either screwdriving them into place, afixing them with pushpins, or fastening them with clips.

Historically, each of these approaches has required too much dexterity to automate. But that’s changing. Computer vision and other advances in robotics and software-defined manufacturing are helping electronics manufacturing services companies, contract manufacturers, and OEMs turn the page on old manufacturing norms and begin a new chapter in producing electronics products faster, more predictably, and at a lower cost per unit.

Breaking Through the (Fire)Wall

One networking equipment manufacturer found itself running into a (fire)wall as it fielded a team of human operators for heat sink assembly. The company relied on 10 workers per shift across 2 shifts to install heat sinks on 18 firewall assemblies per hour, or 72,000 units per year.

The placement and mounting of heat sinks within the firewall is critical to the performance and quality of these high-end products, which can cost upwards of $1,000 each. Responsible for 12 different product SKUs, reflecting various combinations of heat sinks and other key components, human operators had their hands full with precision, and sometimes painful, picking and placing activities.

And unlike less costly assemblies, any mistake – whether an incorrectly placed or cracked heat sink – can result in high-end scrap. At $1,000+ per firewall, the hand placement of this key component at quantity posed many risks. Like many electronics manufacturers, this one understood the risks and limitations of its traditional manual approach and looked to reduce its reliance on human operators through automation.

Using a Bright Machines Microfactory comprised of four Bright Robotic Cells (two for heat sink placement, two for DIMM card insertion) the manufacturer re-imagined and re-energized its pick-and-place processes. In the first automated cell, a robotic arm places four pins into the circuit board and pushes them into place using an end of arm tool developed for heat sink installation. DIMM card insertion is done in the second and third cells. In the fourth cell, the robotic arm mounts the heat sinks in place.

Automation of the heat sink assembly process has driven noteworthy results. Over the course of one shift, a 10-person human operator team could place heat sinks and DIMM cards into firewalls at a cost of $13.89 per unit. With the Microfactory, that cost dropped $1.06 per unit to $12.83 – a nice savings. Then, compared to the original two-shift, 10-human-operators-per-shift scenario, the automation solution shaved off $7.00+ per firewall. Finally, over three shifts, avoiding the need to hire 10 additional human operators, the efficiency and scalability of the microfactory kicked into overdrive, lowering the cost per unit to $4.28, a 69% reduction.

At the same time, aided by each cell’s machine-vision capabilities, error rates dropped and yield improved from 92% to 95%, reducing very costly scrap. And, notably, the microfactory integrated into the factory floor in just 5 months.

Meet Your New Workforce: Overcoming Staffing Uncertainty with Automation

For a European manufacturer, automation held the key to unlocking predictable production and precious workspace on the factory floor. Employing 7 workers at 7 workstations to assemble 15 product SKUs – a number dictated by the variety of heat sink types and quantity of each required – the company had difficulty reliably staffing its shifts due to worker scarcity. That unpredictability impacted hitting production targets.

Working with Bright Machines, the manufacturer consolidated its 7 stations into a microfactory comprised of onerobotic cell. Leveraging the microfactory’s software, the company fed in its assembly “recipes” for all 15 product SKUs and at a push of button could switch from product to product with only a 5 second changeover.

Again, the transformation to automation proved invaluable. First, the microfactory solved the company’s staffing issues, reducing its FTE requirements for heat-sink assembly from 7 human operators to just a single half-time employee – a great cost saver. But more importantly, they could now depend on the consistent production output that comes with automation instead of the erratic output that resulted from not knowing how many workers they’d have on any given day. And as an added bonus, the solution also dramatically reduced the physical footprint of heat sink assembly on the factory floor, since 7 stations were consolidated to 1, freeing up space and streamlining logistics.

Throughput benefited as well. The microfactory increased assembled units per hour from 180 to 240, a 33% improvement, while reducing TAKT time from 20 seconds to 15. And now when operators need to switch a product SKU, they simply push a button on a touch screen, select the desired SKU, and watch as manufacturing history gets written.

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

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