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Written by Clive Ashmore   
Monday, 31 December 2007 19:00

Software can be the stabilizer for a “balanced” process.

Screen Printing If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: “It’s just like riding a bike.” The adage suggests that once you’ve tamed the teetering two-wheeler, you’ll never forget how to ride. But, getting there the first time is a difficult task, to say the least. It’s a learned skill – one that each person has to attack with their own sense of balance and intuition and, of course, many spills along the way. Riding a bike is something that can’t actually be taught with a set of instructions. If someone asked you to describe how to balance, you’d be hard-pressed to put that down on paper. Your parents give you the support, hold onto the bicycle seat, tell you to lean a little left, a little right and help you find your own center.

Much the same can be said about operating a screen printer and understanding the print process. Manufacturers buy extremely sophisticated systems with loads of capability, but, in many cases, the operators don’t know how to use them to their full potential. But, how do you teach them? Of course, good training courses offered by all printer OEMs are a great place to start, but they are only that: a beginning. The knowledge and expertise about how to react or what to do to optimize a particular process have to be learned on the factory floor over time. And if the proper response to a particular problem isn’t performed – or perhaps not even understood – then mistakes may become the legacy.

Understanding the brains behind the machine – the software – and how to access the vast array of options is daunting. So, because someone may not be aware of all the functionality of the machine, certain problems may persist for years. Particular software options might be available, but because the original engineer didn’t know all the parameters when the machine was installed, the ripple effect is that nobody is aware because that knowledge wasn’t in the factory from the beginning. But let’s get real: With so many different machines to manage, it is unreasonable to expect anyone to be intimately familiar with every single software parameter of every piece of equipment. Software gets bigger every day and that’s what we expect; we expect the functionality to be there, but fully understanding its power is a huge learning curve.

What if you could package the learned expertise, the process knowledge and the machine functionality into an easy-to-use software package – one that didn’t take months to comprehend? Newer-generation machine software is attempting to do just that. So although you have to learn how to optimize your specific process, the software is there to be your stabilizer while you get your balance.

Historically, machine software, though robust, could be challenging to learn. As an example, consider the option to clean after downtime. Perhaps something down the line has gone haywire and production has halted; the printer’s been sitting idle for 20 minutes and the paste in the stencil has started to dry. If someone just focused on getting the machine to print boards, they may not be concerned with process optimization and what dried paste may do to the yield. But even those who do understand the effect may not even be aware that the clean after downtime function is software programmable, or have the knowledge to do it. Now, new software techniques deliver machines that come with a pair of built-in stabilizers: knowledge bases with descriptions against almost all the parameters to ensure optimization of the process. Obviously, these tools aren’t closed loop, so you’ll have to experiment with the system to address individual manufacturing conditions, but the latest versions of advanced software are powerful, “at your fingertips” training and optimization centers delivering an entirely new level of productivity and enhanced yield.

Options like ergonomic, icon-driven touch-screens and on-demand video are only part of the equation with these latest tools. How much more efficient would your line run if you had warnings about the amount of cleaning solvent or understencil cleaning paper remaining, and you were notified about the time left before a change was needed? Think about it. You wouldn’t want the car you’re driving to run out of fuel all of a sudden. You expect a warning so that you can plan accordingly. The same should hold true for a sophisticated printer. All these software capabilities that were once pie-in-the-sky, wish list items are now being incorporated into today’s machine software and enabling maximum uptime and predictive maintenance and performance. Plus, user interfaces have come a long way; they are intuitive and help provide training in addition to on-board help. In markets where operator turnover is incredibly high, having a tool like this literally at your fingertips enables better productivity regardless of staff changes. We’ve come a long way.

Just like riding a bike? Well, almost. New software can be the stabilizer – the knowledge base – you need to get your balance and give you support when you’re in need and help ensure that even if you do forget a few things, you’ve got the backup tools necessary to help you stay on the right path.

Clive Ashmore is global applied process engineering manager at DEK (dek.com); This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . His column appears bimonthly.

 

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