What are the common challenges to high-density board assembly?
For example, while it seems that non-electrical components are moving closer to the board assembly process, this skill set requires more expertise than just solder. What about fluid cooling? Both applications have strong ties to high-end data center applications, of course.
Heat management, signal integrity, and crosstalk issues are other possible challenges, but these aren’t really within the scope of the assembly house. Sure, these issues may raise their heads during testing, but the solution is an OEM redesign concern.
Can we find new efficiencies or higher yields if we break some old rules to make new ones? It’s certainly an intriguing question, hearkening back to continuous improvement thinking. Where are the increased efficiencies, the better margins, the faster build times, and the resulting increases in capacity? Can the build steps be reduced? How does or doesn’t automation help? Can the machinery keep up with the shrinking component sizes?
Pondering these questions led me back to thinking about my undergraduate days. While pursuing my computer science degree at Oregon State University, my academic advisor recommended a “soft science” course. So, I enrolled in Sociology 201, your typical survey course. “Soft science” is a term used for scientific study which is generally understandable without needing the rigors of mathematics. Categories include sociology, psychology, political science, and the like. But is it really science? Is it science if it’s the study of, say, interpersonal relationships or societal dynamics, or are the soft sciences more closely aligned with philosophy? This was on my mind as I recalled that course.
At the time I started the course, I thought sociology was more akin to philosophy. But as the professor’s lectures set up the methods and objectives of social science, I learned to accept the value of the soft sciences; the process of going through that course tore down my inadvertent elitism about science in general. I went in with assumptions that I treated as beliefs and came out better able to recognize when I was using an assumption as a truth. I don’t remember much about the material in the lectures, but the process of surveying the social sciences did change my critical thinking. Maybe that was why my advisor pointed me in that direction. My perspective had been changed and I looked at other questions in front of me in a different way.
As a result, I added some other soft science, specifically psychology courses. One of those, “Behavioral Psychology,” was commonly known on campus as “Rat Lab.” If any of you have heard Happy Holden speak about his career, he often includes the story of designing interface cards for a PDP 8 computer while a student at Oregon State. These interface cards were to enable the PDP to operate a series of “Skinner boxes” for the Rat Lab and were still in use when I took the course 20+ years later. After a handful of introductory lectures, we were assigned a lab rat, which was to be kept slightly dehydrated, creating motivation to learn. Each day, we had to care for our rat, and teach it to push a lever in the Skinner box to deliver a small amount of water. The behaviors that the rat had to learn became increasingly complex and involved. But the basic tenets of positive and negative reinforcement were made quite clear during the course. When confronted with challenges, we find a way to make things work.
So, as we sought answers to our current questions about high mix, low volume, we asked how many of these topics are making life difficult for EMS firms, and how they are coping with all these challenges. What we learned was that the high-density challenges were actually few and far between. Like my sociology class, we went in with one set of expectations and came out with a different understanding than we anticipated. And like my psychology class, we found ourselves documenting the pressures that are motivating new thinking and potential new methods on the shop floor.
Specifically, as the requirements for assembly continue to move toward smaller components and higher densities, the most common challenges are with supply chain, inventory management, and part feeder technologies. Most of the issues we thought we’d be talking about weren’t the pain points we thought they would be. At least, not right at this very moment. So, what did we learn?
In the May 2022 issue of SMT007 Magazine, you’ll find two interviews with Axiom, one exploring high density issues, and the other the data format effect on business costs. You’ll see how some of Axiom’s concerns likely line up with your own. Duane Benson of Screaming Circuits shares the challenges of quoting because of the instability of the supply chain, and I-Connect007 columnist Emmalee Gagnon helps us understand the unique ability of your machines to optimize throughput in a high-mix, low-volume environment.
Like the rats I mentioned in my psychology class, building high-density boards in today’s post-pandemic world makes us “thirsty” for stability and accuracy. See the obstacle as the way and use this issue to recognize and overcome your own challenges.
What will be your takeaways from what you read here? I’d love to hear from you.
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