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Low-tech solutions in high-tech manufacturing

If you have a Nokia, Motorola, or other popular brand of cell phone, chances are, its earpiece speaker was made by NXP, an independent semiconductor company founded by Philips. I had the privilege of touring NXP's plant, near Vienna, Austria, last month with other editors from around the world at an international press conference sponsored by Festo AG, Esslingen, Germany (parent company of Festo Corp., Hauppauge, N.Y. )

You certainly expect parts for cell phones to be miniature, but that's an understatement here. The speakers we saw were only 8 mm in diameter, yet the machines making them perform welding operations and use vision systems to verify the quality of the welds. When you actually see how small some of these parts are, you can understand how so many can fit into a small phone.

Prior to the tour, we were introduced to Rolf Rihs, managing director, Mikron Assembly Technology, Biel, Switzerland. Mikron specializes in assembly machines for small parts.

Rihs said Mikron typically has to deal with work envelopes measuring only 10 × 10 × 10 cm. He called this the G05 assembly cell, and Mikron engineers use as many standard modular components as they can to build them quickly. Festo's CPV valve terminal is a staple in these assembly cells.

Probably even more impressive than the small size of the parts and precision of these machines, I think, are their speed and reliability. Rihs explained that NXP demands that machines be able to crank out 100 parts per minute for 5 million cycles.

Speed and reliability are synonymous with pneumatics, so Mikron's machines make extensive use of it. No wonder. Pneumatic drives pack a lot of power into a compact package and do not generate heat — which could be a big problem when doing so much work in such small spaces. The machines use electromechanical servodrives for applications where precise motion control is required. However, for every one of these sophisticated drives, there must be dozens of run-of-themill pneumatic cylinders and valves for pressing, indexing, clamping, and transferring parts.

The biggest surprise, though, came when Rihs told us that many of these machines make extensive use of cam-operated valves. Considering how far valve technology has come, you'd think camoperated valves would've become obsolete a decade ago. Then again, cam-operated valves have no solenoids to burn out, and as long as the cam is kept lubricated (which is easy to do), the valves have no problem shifting millions of times.

Therefore, even though so much attention is given to high-tech solutions, I have held for years that mature technology (cylinders, valves, FRLs, etc.) still reigns supreme. This was verified by Dr. Eberhard Veit, Festo AG's chairman, who said that conventional pneumatics accounts for 68% of Festo's income — more than twice that of hightech solutions. He explained that although high tech solutions are growing at a faster rate, conventional pneumatics isn't standing still; it's growing as well.

Alan L. Hitchcox editor
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