In recent years, surface mount technology contract manufacturer MRP Electronics (Bedford, England) has been investing in both facilities and equipment to meet growing demand in the telecommunications, information technology and medical sectors. As part of this evolution, MRP has been switching from low-volume contracts to mid-volume manufacturing, with batch runs typically in the 1,500 to 2,000 range.

Two years ago, the company moved into a newly refurbished 30,000-square-foot workspace. In early 2004, it installed an AX-5 chip and integrated circuit placer from Assembléon, formerly Philips Electric Manufacturing Technology (Veldhoven, Netherlands) to boost both productivity and flexibility. The AX-5 is part of Assembléon's recently introduced A-series, which also includes the AX-3 chip and IC placer, and the AQ-1 multifunctional placer.

"We have five production lines, four of them built around Philips placement products," says MRP sales director Nick Fairhead. "To expand our production capacity in line with demand we were looking for higher throughput, but on a small footprint to make the best use of space."

The A-series starts at a minimum 30,000-cph configuration, and capacity can be added in 5,000-cph increments to 100,000 cph. Robots are quickly and easily exchanged, with no need for calibration. The series meets the placement requirements for a wide variety of components, from 0101 chips to flip-chips to large, heavy odd forms.

MRP installed the AX-5 in January. According to Fairhead, a few days after putting the AX-5 on line, MRP effectively doubled its line capacity within its footprint constraints.

"Our operators were so comfortable with the new machine that we were able to move to three-shift working for the first time," Fairhead says. "With auto correction for board width and thickness, and quick-release change of heads with no need for calibration, reconfiguration is simple and easy for operators. If we have any problems with a robot we will be able to take it out of production and reoptimize the line in seconds. Uptime has been impressive, and run rates are in line with Assembléon's predictions."

MRP is currently using only three out of the AX-5's five robot banks and three out of a possible five feeder trolleys to achieve required throughput.

According to MRP technical director Andy Roberts, the company has also benefited from the A-series' improved feeder and vision capabilities.

"The [AX-5] machine looks for the position of the feeders and auto-corrects for pick positions and pick-up heights," Roberts says. "As a result, we immediately experienced improved pick rates. We expect to install setup verification software soon, making full use of the intelligence in the feeders and trolleys."

With regard to vision, Roberts says the A-series' improved laser alignment allows it to place components up to 17.5 by 17.5 millimeters. With its enhanced capability to deal with integrated circuits, the chipshooter section reduces the load on the multifunctional placer for higher throughput, maximized by across-the-line optimization. A range of features, including automatic pick correction, zero-touch component pick, continuous component check, board warpage correction, and artwork alignment for each robot ensures optimal performance.

"The AX-5 is currently placing packages up to SO8," Roberts says. "It's too early to quote statistics, but our impression is that the AX-5 has improved yields. Even difficult boards are showing fewer defects at AOI [automated optical inspection]. For example, we're finding 0402 alignment better on the AX-5 than any machine we've seen."

In the coming months, Roberts says MRP is planning on acquiring an additional set of feeders so batches can be set up off-line, with setup verification speeding changeovers and ensuring zero-defect manufacturing. MRP has also opted for Assembléon's remote monitoring service, which means operators no longer need to worry about collecting and analyzing management information. One of the A-series' unique features is distribution of intelligence on a per-robot basis. This allows Assembléon to remotely monitor machine parameters in unprecedented detail. This in turn ensures ongoing optimum line performance.

Management is saying the AX-5 is only the first of what may be a number of A-series machines that will eventually take their places in MRP's production lines. This will give MRP the flexibility to move robots from line to line to meet capacity and application requirements with no run-time calibration. Another aging Philips machine will probably be replaced by an AX-5 before the end of the year. MRP is also considering bringing an AQ-1 to replace an existing Philips Emerald model as a multifunctional placer.

"The A-series concept certainly suits our business model," says Fairhead. "It gives us the speed, footprint and capacity we need now, and open-ended options for the future. Assuming this flexibility continues to be supported by our early experience of uptime and yields, the new Assembléon products will play an important part in building our business."

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