If your PCB company is growing, you'll eventually encounter the inconvenient question of, "How can I increase my production to keep up with rising demand while keeping my operating costs reasonable?" Once you're there, you'll inevitably start seeing steps in your production process that you can automate to save yourself time, money, and headache. While it can be tempting to go all-in and convert your entire production process to a fully automated assembly line, it may be more advantageous to start with low-volume assembly and convert more gradually.
In any case, when you find that the demand for your product is starting to outstrip the number of units you can feasibly produce in a month, it’s time to consider your automation options.
Depending on your production requirements, a prototyping line could be the right solution for you. A low-volume SMT workcell solution is often the first step towards a fully automated inline production facility in the future. The increase in production over an on-site manual assembly will let you keep up with increasing demand from your customers without an egregious investment of capital or floor space. If you currently source your assembled boards overseas, a low-volume line may not meet your current production demands, that would likely require an upgrade to a more substantial line. However, a small line could provide you with a fast, reliable prototyping solution and a way to better produce small runs without the hassle of involving an outside production source.
These lines aren’t the be-all, end-all of SMT production, but they can be a great, convenient option for on-site prototyping as well as R&D work, and can also work for companies that have small production requirements that they need to meet.
One of the downsides of a transition to this type of line is that it may not increase your production as much as you’d like, and it may even be seen as a temporary stopgap measure before an upgrade to a full inline solution. While a small prototyping line has advantages of its own, if you currently source your boards from an outside producer and are looking to bring your assembly in house, you may wish to consider a fully automated production line.
Transitioning to a fully automated inline solution is bound to vastly increase your production abilities. While this type of conversion is the ideal solution for businesses looking to bring their production from an outside source to in-house, it can also be the right upgrade for businesses transitioning from manual production or low-volume workcell lines, depending on their industry and unique situation.
In the event that you're looking to step up to mid-range production, or you’re attempting to bring mid-range PCB assembly in-house from an outside contractor, you should look toward inline automatic solutions. Something to keep in mind is if you’re transitioning from hand assembly to completely automated production, it’s important to ensure that you have the commensurate demand for your new production capabilities, as your overhead is about to get a significant upgrade as well.
Before a fully inline conversion, you’ll need to take into account your software, facility, and personnel requirements to keep that line up and running so that you can meet your production standards. Hurdles you could face include reworking the layout of your facility, dedicating time to equipment training and evaluation, and increasing your staff to keep up with the increased complexity of your operation. Be sure you’re fully aware of the specifications of the products you’re looking to purchase, the specifications of the products you’re building, and that your machines fall in line with your intended production capacity.
There is some good news in terms of financing, however. If you’re thinking that a complete inline solution might work for you, but you’re worried about the up-front cost or the overall expense of running it, there are a number of options that you can explore as long as you do your due diligence. For one, banks are more likely to approve loans and other lines of credit for purchasing a physical property. Also, many states offer financial opportunities that could help you defer your costs. In terms of machinery that will generate jobs for business and stimulate the economy, you even have more leverage when pursuing incentives from state and local governments that can offset your capital cost. Make sure to research the options available to you fully before deciding how you’d like to proceed with a line.
The question of whether your facility could benefit from a conversion to a small-scale SMT workcell or fully automated SMT line is a heavy one to consider. It’s important not to let the excitement of a possible increase in production and sales get the better of you when making the decision to automate. Keep in mind the increased overhead and the ongoing costs associated with new personnel that may offset your new production capabilities. Take the time to research the capabilities of any line you may be looking into as well as the personnel and training requirements to get the line started. Even with the initial investment of time and money, converting to an automated line could be the right choice to take your assembly capabilities to the next level.
Mike Fiorilla is a writer at Manncorp Inc. debuting his first column in the April 2019 issue of SMT007 Magazine.