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By Matthew Vande Bunte, MLive and Davina McDonnell, Saline Lectronics

For the end customer, the world’s first robotic frozen yogurt vending kiosk is pretty cool. You order by touchscreen, which triggers an animated video and launches a robotic arm that takes a cup, fills it with froyo and lathers it in your favorite toppings.

You’re going to start seeing lots of Reis & Irvy’s robots in shopping mall food courts, movie theater lobbies, hospital cafeterias and other venues all across the United States.

“The show is a big part of the appeal,” said Elliott Potter, co-founder of Houston-based Rethink Motion, which designs the robotic arm that powers the Reis & Irvy’s machine. “There’s always a line of people watching the robot do its thing.”

What the customer doesn’t know is that it takes a lot of engineering expertise to make a cool gadget like a robotic froyo kiosk into a viable commercial product that operates at a price point people are willing to pay.

As former NASA engineers, Potter and fellow co-founder Aaron Hulse are working to commercialize the kind of technology they worked on in the space program. They know what they’re doing when it comes to robotics. They know how to program the touchscreen interface, for example, and they know how to design the printed circuit boards that control the robotic arm’s motors and sensors.

But even though Potter and Hulse can design the products and make them work, they aren’t experts on how to make the circuit boards inside those products inexpensive and efficient to mass-produce. So, they turn to Saline Lectronics, a leading electronics contract manufacturer (CM), with a deep pool of its own engineering expertise for help.

“Beyond the bill of materials and some basic rules of thumb, it’s hard to know what makes a printed circuit board assembly expensive or cheap, so I rely on feedback from the engineers at Saline Lectronics to say ‘We can do this, but this thing that you’ve done adds 30 percent to the cost of the board,’” Potter said.

“I definitely rely on them to go over the design and say ‘Gosh, the pads on this sure are small’ or ‘Without thermal relief on these pads we may have assembly issues.’ Their input on this is critical in terms of commercial success.”

How many engineers does it take to serve a cup of froyo? The question may sound like the beginning of a joke, but the reality is the more engineering expertise you can devote to solving a problem the better. That’s especially true for an electronics CM.

“Our clients want someone who can bring value, so we look at solutions on how we can make our client’s job easier,” said David Amador, Regional Sales Manager at Lectronics.

Not every electronics CM staffs the same level of engineering knowledge and experience. Some CMs have a greater breadth and depth of engineering talent, and that has a big impact both on the customer’s experience and on the quality of the final PCBA or box build.

PCBAs and other electronic manufacturing projects require a team effort between multiple types of professional engineers, who each bring the unique perspective of their specialty to the table. Lectronics’ engineering team offers combined experience of over 200 years.

“It’s great to have that engineer to engineer discussion,” commented Steve Telgen, Pre- Process Engineer at Lectronics. “To have intimate knowledge of the design intent allows me to help each of our customers achieve what they need to with the design while guaranteeing it’s still manufacturable.”

How many engineers does it take to serve a cup of froyo? The question may sound like the beginning of a joke, but the reality is the more engineering expertise you can devote to solving a problem the better.

Here’s a look at several different types of Lectronics’ engineers:

When a CM receives an order, like for a PCBA that enables a robotic hand to sense when it’s grasping a yogurt cup, a Pre-Production Engineer reviews the customer’s documentation and requirements during a “pre-release” meeting that involves the entire engineering team. This meeting should include electrical, chemical and mechanical engineers. The CM’s engineers evaluate the documentation — instead of blindly following it — and identify the unique demands of the PCBA, including any special processes and potential problems that might arise. Having engineers with excellence in a variety of fields enables the CM to develop the optimal manufacturing plan for turning out PCBAs that meet the customer’s needs. Any wonky requirements will be flagged at this stage, and special processes will be better defined with a clear timeline to ensure that everything is prepared for the actual manufacturing process. Flagged requirements may include a special stencil design for smaller components, pallets for flex PCBA’s, or added x-ray images for complex BGA’s.

Once a manufacturing plan with instructions for the build have been developed up front, a Component Engineer reviews the Bill of Materials and works with the Purchasing Department to get all the parts and specialty components necessary to complete the PCBA. With many parts in short supply these days, some CMs will come back to their customers and say “we can’t find these 10 parts, so please find alternatives.” But it’s a huge time saver for customers like Rethink Motion when their CM has the technical capability to say “we can’t find these 10 parts, so please approve these 10 alternatives.” With the current component allocation situation and lead times exceeding 30+ weeks, recommending alternative components to customers is paramount.

“Given the current allocation situation, especially in relation to ceramic capacitors, it’s been difficult to keep up with the dramatic increase in requests for alternate components,” commented Mark Haavisto, Component Engineer at Lectronics. “For passive parts, if we can get form/fit/function approval for alternates where we are buying to the component’s description, it can save a lot of time and help us secure that available stock before it goes away.”

An Associate Engineer translates the customer’s documentation into the CM’s standardized work instructions that technicians will use to implement the manufacturing plan devised in the pre-release meeting. The work instructions are standardized for manufacturing technicians to be able to efficiently and accurately perform the assembly work required in each area. Once the project is released to the production floor, a variety of engineers work with technicians to ensure the assembly proceeds successfully:

A Process Engineer monitors the manufacturing process, troubleshooting any issues and finding opportunities for improvement. This may require support from a chemical engineer for special processes like conformal coating or potting processes, for example, or from a mechanical engineer for electro-mechanical box build products. It’s helpful to have specialty engineering expertise in house to oversee manufacturing and communicate with customers. If a PCBA doesn’t sit properly within the designed mechanical housing, an experienced process engineer will work closely with the customer to find a solution, which may mean re-arranging the box-build configuration or even specifying a better fitting housing.

A Test Engineer works closely with the customer to develop cost-effective testing that validates the PCBA performs as it should. This can include an In-Circuit Test (ICT), Flying Probe or other functional testing that not only validates the PCBA is assembled correctly, but also helps improve product quality. Some clients don’t have the in-house capabilities to establish a robust test plan, so Lectronics’ test engineers partner with many of these clients to develop the ideal test solution. This effort can include development of the hardware, software, and test protocol for each printed circuit board assembly.

“I have a current client with very limited engineering staff, so we are working with them to develop, write, and publish test procedures. Other CM’s wouldn’t work with them to develop an appropriate test solution,” commented Amador.

A Quality Engineer works on the production floor and watches the entire process like a hawk, taking notes and making tweaks to make sure that the finished PCBA meets the customer’s needs. This engineer also is responsible for documenting compliance with any special certification requirements such as ISO13485, for medical equipment, or AS9100, for aerospace equipment.

A diverse pool of engineering expertise is necessary for an electronics CM to optimize circuit board design and the assembly process — so that the manufacture of PCBAs avoids time-consuming inefficiencies and costly mistakes so that products like a frozen yogurt vending machine can come to life.

“That’s really a huge added value, not just having these engineers on staff at Saline Lectronics but having them work with me,” Potter said.

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