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Written by Clive Ashmore   
Tuesday, 02 June 2009 19:21

Screen PrintingDesigning in flexibility isn’t easy, but it’s a must.

The “Have it Your Way” slogan popularized nearly 25 years ago by Burger King defined the requirements for the fast food industry. Understanding that customers want choice, flexibility and selection to satisfy their unique and individual tastes set the tone for the future of the fast food market, and those who couldn’t offer variety likely didn’t survive long.

The “customer is king” mindset has transcended many other industries as well, and now, as we find ourselves in the midst of global financial chaos, this requirement is even more profound. Customers want choice. Customers want the ability to buy for today’s needs with the adaptability to modify for tomorrow’s requirements. Customers want value, of which flexibility is an inherent attribute. This is certainly not a new philosophy, but one that is now more poignant as we continue to navigate the current recession. When it comes to equipment systems, designing in flexibility from the foundation isn’t always the simplest route, but for customers, the ability to choose is essential to lowering cost of ownership and planning for future needs.

The platform equipment concept certainly isn’t new to electronics assembly. For years, notable names in the pick-and-place segment have offered limited scalability options to enhance or upgrade equipment performance. For example, one popular placement machine offered the ability to select one or two placement heads plus tray feeders as performance options. Historically, delivering this type of flexibility for the screen-printing market, while available, hasn’t been as customer-friendly as it should be. Sure, you could spec in options from the outset and a machine could be built as specified, but adding upgrades at a later date was limited to a few choices, and incorporating these technologies after the fact wasn’t always a seamless process.

But that is changing. What customers want with all of their systems is the ability to add options – numerous options – when and if they want or need them, and now they can do just that. As I stated, designing and engineering a screen-printing platform so that it can be retrofitted in the field is quite a difficult proposition. In fact, from an equipment design point of view, it means adding constraints to the project that elevate the engineering complexity and design time. Clearly, creating true modularity isn’t the path of least resistance, but it is arguably the best solution for the customer.

With the platform concept, consider that every single retrofittable option has to be designed to be compatible throughout an entire equipment range. Not only does each technology have to be mechanically harmonious, it has to fit within the cover packages, the software, the electrics; a whole host of extra work must be done on the front-end to achieve meaningful modularity in the field. From an equipment manufacturing perspective, it also means the process must be very lean, agile and flexible because, in theory, every machine going down the line potentially could be unique.

With advances in software and equipment design techniques, suppliers have made large strides in delivering a truly on-demand, customizable platform. Customers can now decide where they want to fit within the product curve today in terms of cost of ownership, flexibility and output. And, they can then modify their criteria when production volumes or conditions dictate a change. A printing system is selected based on process alignment capability and throughput as a starting point. From there, virtually any option can be added to any of the platform systems to address manufacturing requirements or preferences. For example, say you are a speed animal and your biggest concern is throughput. Obviously, you select the system with the fastest core speed, but you can also add a super-quick understencil cleaning technology that enhances throughput even more. Or, suppose flexibility is the most pressing concern for your operation. Now, with new system modularity, you can add in – at anytime, not just with the PO – different cameras for alignment or a bigger field of view. And, of course, if throughput and flexibility are equally important, customers can retrofit tools to address both requirements.

At Apex this year, for example, we saw most new printers now have the option to provide at least limited dispensing capability, either through direct or third-party add-ons. Outside the printing spectrum, we even saw a machine that contains screen-printing, solder paste inspection, adhesive dispense, placement and post-placement inspection all in a single platform. A true one-man band.

From board support, understencil cleaning, inspection, print verification, dispensing capability and more – just about anything the customer wants, the customer can have when and how they want it. The customer is, indeed, king. Choice and modularity rule and you can “Have it Your Way.”

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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