For manufacturers of medical, automotive, electrical, computer and telecommunications products, the next century will bring many of the same challenges as the previous century. Assemblies will get smaller. Product life cycles—and, therefore, time to market—will get shorter. Qualified technical help will be harder to find.

The need for smaller, more precise as-semblies will stimulate major changes in assembly technology during the year 2000 and beyond. For example, new, smaller medical products are being developed at an accelerated pace each year. This is creating demand for compact, precise, high-speed assembly systems that can operate in clean rooms and meet Food and Drug Administration requirements. Similarly, in the automotive industry, assemblies are getting smaller and more precise. Moreover, manufacturers throughout the auto industry are requiring suppliers of assembly systems to be ISO 9001 certified. And by 2010, most automotive manufacturers will re-quire assembly systems suppliers to be QS 9001 certified.

To meet this demand, automation suppliers will offer standard assembly systems. These systems will be engineered for low cost, high reliability, and ease of use and maintenance. Because they can be built to a forecast, rather than to order, standard assembly systems can be delivered faster and take much less time to install and commission. This will allow assemblers to get new products to market faster.

Feeder bowls and pneumatic pick-and-place devices are common in today’s automated assembly systems. In the next century, these devices will increasingly be replaced with flexible parts feeders and robots. Adaptable feeders and robots can be reprogrammed to feed and assemble different parts, with little or no mechanical changes. These agile systems will be able to build many product variants on the same line at the same time. Flexible feeding systems will also let assemblers implement demand-pull systems, building to order instead of forecasts. This will help assemblers reduce their dependence on costly inventory.

The shortage of qualified technical support personnel will continue into the 21st century. As a result, automated assembly systems must continue to get simpler to operate. Systems must get smarter so that less technically skilled personnel can operate them successfully. "Smarter" means that systems must self-diagnose problems and alert the operator before the process fails. In some cases, assembly systems must be able to self-correct processes that are trending out of specification. The need for smarter systems will drive the conversion from assembly systems controlled by programmable logic controllers (PLCs) to those controlled by personal computers with PLC emulators.

The shortage of qualified personnel, coupled with shorter time-to-market demands, will increase the need for outsourcing. Manufacturers will be forced to push the building of subassemblies and complete assemblies upstream to their suppliers. This will create strong growth in contract assembly. And, it will allow manufacturers in industries with short product life cycles to concentrate on their core competencies of product development, marketing and sales.

To meet manufacturers’ time to market demands, machine builders and systems integrators will have to deliver assembly systems in less time. Moreover, those systems will have to produce more assemblies per square foot of plant space, at a lower total cost per assembly. In turn, these demands will flow down to the suppliers of assembly technologies that go into multistation automated assembly systems, such as ultrasonic welders, laser welders, screwdrivers, riveters, epoxy dispensers, leak testers, controllers, parts feeders, robots and vision systems.

Compared with today’s equipment, the purchase cost per part for assembly automation will decrease during the next century—a result of increasing cost pressures from assemblers. This will be achieved with the use of compact, high-speed, cam-operated assembly systems. However, as assembly systems get more flexible and more able to build multiple product models, the total cost per system may increase while the cost per part decreases.

June 1999