Robotic soldering plays a key role in assembling trading room systems.

Every day, fortunes are made and lost on Wall Street. Electronic trading systems play an important role in the drama. Stock, commodity and bond traders equipped with high-tech tools conduct million-dollar deals with a mouse click.

Many traders rely on products manufactured by IPC Information Systems Inc. (New York). The company pioneered trading floor systems 30 years ago. Today, more investment transactions move through IPC equipment than all other systems combined.

In fact, the privately held company boasts a major share of the global market for advanced trading technology. Customers include leading brokerage houses, pension funds, investment banks, mutual fund managers and exchange markets around the world. Products manufactured by IPC are found on the desktops of more than 100,000 traders in more than 50 countries.

Other IPC equipment is used in “back office” operations. A back office is a clerical operation that supports the trading of stocks and other securities. It handles written confirmation and settlement of trades, record keeping and regulatory compliance.

The typical IPC customer is looking for a product that provides highly reliable communication for their traders. They want a scalable platform that can adapt to evolving technologies and connectivity networks. In today’s topsy-turvy market, it’s also important to have a product that provides risk management and documentation of disputed trades. The term used to describe the unique communication tool used by traders is “turret.” It’s a powerful desktop system that provides traders with a user-friendly interface consisting of high-resolution touch-screen displays, handsets, speakers and numerous pushbuttons.

The leading IPC product is called the IQMX IP trading system. It integrates data, voice and video into a single system, with access to as many as 600 phone lines. Each IPC turret features a plethora of high-powered multimedia functions that help traders conduct numerous transactions quickly and seamlessly. It provides 100 million instructions per second (MIPS) of digital signal processing, 128 megabits of synchronous dynamic random access memory (SDRAM) and 128 megabytes of flash memory.

The IQMX system has been available for three years and is the only native voice-over Internet protocol-based product on the market today. It delivers all of the features and functions that traders want, from excellent voice quality to the ergonomic feel of the buttons and toggle switches. Unique features of the next-generation product include its resilience and its robust feature set. An applications module allows the system to receive real-time video feeds, in addition to button applications and computer telephony integrated applications.

The IPC product line is highly configurable and consists of numerous modules that a trader can put on his or her desktop to meet specific needs. The control module is the essential building block to the IQMX trading desktop. It includes controls for two handsets, an integrated speakerphone and intercom telephone keypad, 10 soft keys, and 30 dynamic buttons. The 4.8-pound unit measures 12.3 inches wide, 8.9 inches high and 3.4 inches deep.

A War Zone

Most financial trading rooms are described as “war zones” because of the unbelievable frenzy of activity that occurs. With today’s global economy, the operations run 24 hours a day and resemble Mission Control at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (Houston).

During the daytime, traders are connected to all major domestic trading venues, such as the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, NASDAQ and the New York Stock Exchange. At night, while most people are sleeping, traders continuously monitor market activity in Bombay, London, Shanghai, Sydney, Tokyo and other parts of the world.

The typical trading floor has more external private lines and public switch telephone trunks than it has traders. One single trading turret alone can accommodate hundreds of phone lines. In fact, no other business environment has a similar ratio of lines to users. That’s one reason why traders need a custom device, such as the IQMX system, that allows instant access to a wide range of external lines.

A day in the life of a trading room is never dull. In fact, constant change is the only thing a trader can count on. The quickest response at the most competitive price is often the key to a successful trade. Traders have unique communication requirements, because they must capture and analyze vast amounts of market data in a short amount of time.

Traders are deluged with a barrage of information ranging from live market data feeds to cable TV to Internet chat rooms. To the casual observer, chaos reigns. But, traders use the vast amount of information at their fingertips, headsets and speakers to spot trends and conduct million-dollar transactions.

Traders depend on quick, easy access to market data and news to predict the market’s next move. In addition to multiple phone lines, a trader’s life revolves around computer screens and TV monitors. Traders live and die by real-time information. Seemingly insignificant events, such as a minor change in weather conditions in Sri Lanka, can have a huge impact on market conditions in Frankfurt or Paris.

Working conditions in a trading room can be extremely stressful. Confusion on the desktop reduces productivity, impedes decision-making and hinders customer relationships. As trading volume continues to increase at a staggering rate, traders demand state-of-the-art electronic technology to give them a strategic edge.

The challenge for financial trading firms is to provide their traders with timely content without causing information overload. They want equipment that provides a practical, ergonomic solution that can be easily maintained. Fault-tolerant architecture, ease of upgrading and scalability are essential for any trading system. Each time a trading turret can’t operate for one minute, it can cost a customer up to $1 million.

By using open standards, IPC’s design engineers have developed a suite of products that fit together to create unique, integrated communication platforms. The IQMX system allows traders to respond quickly to market changes and fluctuations. A key component of the IPC product is a touch-screen membrane. The bright, full-color active matrix LCD screen responds to any input—finger, pen, pencil or paper clip.

All IPC trading systems are assembled in a state-of-the-art facility located 50 miles from the hustle and bustle of Wall Street in the quiet coastal town of Westbrook, CT. The 30,000-square-foot plant produces more than 100 different assemblies designed to meet unique customer needs. A talented staff of 55 workers assemble and test 10,000 trading systems annually.

Building IQ

Over the past 3 years, IPC has doubled output from the facility without increasing the staff size. “It’s a direct result of our investment in better assembly infrastructure, as well as employee empowerment and involvement at all levels of the manufacturing process,” says Pete Simms, vice president of production services and solutions.

The shop floor is divided into functional areas where boards are built and tested individually. Key areas include presolder assembly, where through-hole parts are inserted by hand, and SMT assembly, which features two automated lines. After initial test and inspection, boards are mated with a plastic bezel housing and interconnect cabling is attached. Completed modules are then subjected to elevated temperature burn and post-burn functional testing. All assembly, testing and inspection is done by operators sitting at individual workbenches and cells.

Each product is then assembled according to the customer’s unique specifications. This final assembly step joins several completed subassemblies, such as the control module, the applications module and a speaker. A complete module is then tested as an integrated unit to ensure that it can plug-and-play correctly.

The IQMX applications module uses leading edge electronics. It consists of a stack of 5 boards that include a processor assembly, a display processor board, a feature processor board and a touch-screen controller board. There are 1,200 components, ranging from 0402 SMT parts to odd-form-placed parts, such as BGAs and mictor connectors.

“It’s a challenging assembly,” says Simms. “This is an extremely complex device. But, we’ve worked proactively with our design engineers to apply DFM methodologies to ensure that we can put it together reliably and repeatably.”

According to Simms, the ongoing miniaturization of parts and the shrinking of real estate provides many assembly and test challenges to IPC. “Ten years ago, the same product was larger than it is today,” explains Simms. “It was hard-wired inside, with through-hole technology. Today, there’s a stack up of very dense SMT assemblies.

“As parts get smaller and there are more parts on the board, you have to get it right the first time, every time. Whenever possible, we’ve worked on implementing automation to promote repeatability of processes, compared to processes done by hand.” Simms points to the SMT line as an example.

Soldering is a critical assembly process at IPC. In fact, 99 percent of the components put on the IQMX boards are soldered. The IPC shop floor is divided into presolder and postsolder assembly processes.

Robotic Soldering

“Presolder activity is associated with the insertion of the parts that are either put in manually or by the contact semiautomatic machines—generally insert, clinch and cut operations,” says Simms. “These boards are then candidates for either wave solder or semiautomated solutions, such as selective soldering. We call it presolder because the parts are put in before the mechanized solder processes. Boards go through the environmental stress screening chamber after wave or selective soldering.”

Postsolder is for parts that are put on after the mechanized solder processes. These are typically odd-form parts that are heat-sensitive or ones that cannot tolerate the water wash on the wave line.

Two years ago, Simms and his team recognized that there was an opportunity to improve the hand soldering operations by applying robotic technology. After exhaustive research, IPC acquired two ECO soldering robots, manufactured by MTA Automation AG (Gals, Switzerland), from MTA’s North American partner, Global Automation Inc. (Old Saybrook, CT). Since then, IPC has acquired three more ECO robots from Global Automation.

Each ECO module features a PC-controlled Cartesian robot. The high-performance systems allow continuous soldering in linear paths. They’re used for though-hole component applications.

“The soldering robot is used for parts that would normally be candidates for hand soldering in the postsolder cell,” says Simms. “The idea is to eliminate hand soldering in favor of CNC-controlled soldering. The robot is only 25 percent faster than a human. However, it is repeatable and we do not have to contend with issues such as someone having ‘a bad day.’”

Because of their accuracy and repeatability, the robots consistently produce higher quality soldered joints than people. “We believe that we cannot inspect quality in,” says Simms. “That’s the reason why our philosophy is to have the best assembly equipment that money can buy. We strive to make our processes simple and repeatable.”

Flexibility is also important. “Our customers expect it,” explains Simms. “They demand the ability to change their mind up to the 24th hour. We pride ourselves on our ability to react and support them.”

Efficient Operation

After boards come off the SMT line, they’re placed into totes and wheeled over to the robotic soldering cells. The antistatic carriers hold approximately 20 assemblies each. After robotic soldering, boards are put back on a rack and wheeled over to the testing cells.

Each ECO robotic cell comprises a dual-head soldering unit with a conveyor system that wraps around it. “That allows the operator to pitch-and-catch at the same,” says Simms. “We have four pallets in play at a time on each machine. The operator takes a completed pallet off after it’s been soldered. They take the board out and place it in a rack. They put the next board in the clamshell and send it on its way.” Each machine is set up to handle 9 assemblies.

Clamshell fixtures ride on the conveyor trolley. “We generally produce four fixtures per assembly to ensure that the machine can run constantly,” says Simms. “The fixtures are unique to each assembly because of the physical size and the parts that the fixture has to hold in. The only common element is the attachment to the trolley and the sensor mechanisms.” Many of the fixtures are made by an in-house machine shop. “We found that to be more cost-effective and more responsive than other alternatives,” Simms points out.

The robotic soldering technology has improved temperature monitoring and control variables. “Temperature sensing is important in the scheme of overall joint quality,” notes Simms. “The iron has an excellent temperature sensing and regulation system. This, in combination with controlled dwell time, yields a more consistent heat profile.

“We set the iron dwell based upon the mechanics of the part and the connection scheme,” says Simms. “Pins connected to a ground plane get a longer dwell. We do not send the boards themselves through a ‘traditional’ preheat process.”

The ECO soldering robots use an 80-watt iron setup that senses temperature in the end of the head of the iron. A chisel tip is used on the robots, compared to a cone used on the manual soldering irons. According to Simms, the actual robot profile is determined by the angle of attack, proximity of the joints to each other, heat requirement, and other physical characteristics.

The tips typically need to be replaced every 8 to 24 hours. “This is more frequent than by hand, because the iron is presented in the same configuration and hits the same spot each time,” says Simms.

Each soldering cell requires one operator. “People who were doing hand soldering before were trained as machine operators,” notes Simms. “Everybody who had the aptitude and the interest was trained. That gives us the ability to rotate different people.”

Converting to robotic soldering was fairly effortless. For instance, IPC was able to keep using the same type of solder paste. However, the company had to find a different vendor. “We changed solder suppliers because we needed a more consistent draw of the solder than what we needed when we were doing it by hand,” notes Simms. “An inconsistent grade of solder has a tendency to get jammed up in the distribution tubes.”

Simms says the investment in robotic technology has paid off. “We’ve seen several benefits,” he points out. “The robots are more efficient than someone sitting down all day with a hand soldering iron. The robots are also more reliable and consistent.

“We have lots of DC to DC converters driving power to our boards,” adds Simms. “Each converter has a pin that’s tied to a ground point. If you’re doing that by hand, you’re never going to remember with consistency which pin requires a longer dwell with the iron. But, we can program that on the robot to get the desired result each and every time.”

Simms claims that IPC has achieved a 15 percent increase in first-pass test yield as a result of the robots and other assembly process initiatives. “Our first-pass test yields have gone up significantly and we’ve had a reduction in ‘cold solder,’ “ he points out.

Robotic soldering also plays a role in IPC’s lean manufacturing initiative, which started one year ago. The company is focusing on lean to improve efficiency, utilization and first-pass test yields. “We’re using the talents of the people in our shop and our investment in technology to respond to unique customer requirements, says Simms. “That’s one of the things that sets us apart from the competition.

“We bring all of our customers in here and walk them through the factory. No one else in this business can do that, because they’ve outsourced it. Our products are mission critical to our customers, so our manufacturing efforts are solely focused on their needs. That allows us to be leaner, more reactive and more cost competitive.”