Intelligent automation • Viewpoints

Taking Pain, Cost, and Scrap Out of Network Equipment Assembly

By Stevan Dobrasevic, Director, Product Marketing, Bright Machines

Behind every online shopping purchase, every bit of streamed content, and every cloud-delivered application or service lies an elaborate network of firewalls, routers and switches that move data and orchestrate our digital experiences. Not surprisingly, the global market for networking equipment remains robust with projections for next-generation firewalls alone reaching $6.7 billion by 2025 at a strong 12.9% CAGR.

While these critical pieces of network infrastructure help power an array of sophisticated applications, from AI to digital payments, many networking equipment manufacturers still build critical assemblies the old fashioned way – with human laborers. That, however, is beginning to change.

One reason the sector has continued to rely on human labor is the difficulty of the tasks performed, intricate assembly tasks that historically have been too hard for machines to master. New patented automation capabilities, however, are enabling robots to pick and place components into circuit boards with a precision, speed, and quality rate that is positioning network equipment manufacturers to slash per unit assembly costs and reduce expensive scrap.

Ouch! The Pain and Cost of DIMM Card Insertion

One of the most labor-intensive steps in the production of firewalls today is the insertion of heat sinks and DIMM cards. Testifying to the difficulty of these steps, one manufacturer of firewalls had relied on 10 human operators per shift (running 2 shifts) to produce 18 firewall assemblies per hour, or 72,000 units per year.

The placement of these vital parts 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 sink and DIMM card quantity and type, human operators had their hands full with precision, and sometimes painful, picking and placing activities. Simply put, manually inserting heat sinks and DIMM cards is a repetitive task rife with injury.

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

Meet Your New Workforce

Using a Bright Machines Microfactory comprised of four manufacturing cells, the manufacturer re-imagined and re-energized its pick-and-place processes. Here’s how it works. In the first automated cell, the machine places pins into the circuit board to secure the heat sinks. In the second, a robotic arm with a vacuum extension cleans out the DIMM card slots, ensuring grit-free placement and smooth functioning of the card. Then, in the third cell, the robotic arm inserts the DIMM cards and, in the fourth, the heat sinks.

The results have been noteworthy. Because the heat sink and DIMM card assembly steps are only one component of the final firewall assembly, the manufacturer did not wish to increase throughput of these particular assemblies. Instead, the capacity of the line was set at the same 18 units per hour.

Yet that doesn’t mean everything stayed the same, especially the per unit production price.

Over the course of one shift, a 10 human operator team could place heat sinks and DIMM cards into firewalls at $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. The flexibility of the automated solution also increases overall ROI, with 80% of the cells being reconfigurable for other tasks.

For example, if the firewall assembly ran for three years, there is nothing stopping the Microfactory from running an additional three or four performing different tasks, such as picking, placing and screwdriving housing components. While a different end-of-arm device would need to replace those used for heat sink and DIMM card insertion, the same conveyors, feeders, cells and robotic arms could still be used, further future-proofing the investment.

Advanced Automation: Another Number to Like

In the past, networking equipment manufacturers looking to automate their assembly lines may have balked at the implementation times of first-generation automation solutions, which typically took 12-18 months to implement. Today’s next-generation automation showcases radically better implementation times.

The automation solution spotlighted above was implemented and integrated into the factory floor in just 5 months. And now when operators want to switch a product SKU, they simply push a button on a touch screen, select the desired SKU from the Microfactory’s recipe book, and the changeover occurs in 5 seconds.

Want to learn more? Join me on March 18 for a complimentary Bright Machines webinar on automating networking equipment assembly. Register today!


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