Silicon Wafer Transfer Machine Is Beautifully Expensive

There’s nothing more freeing than to be an engineer with no perceptible budget in sight. [BrendaEM] walks us through a teardown of a machine that was designed under just such a lack of constraint. It sat inside of a big box whose job was to take silicon wafers in on one side and spit out integrated circuits on the other.

[BrendaEM] never really divulges how she got her hands on something so expensive that the engineer could specify “tiny optical fiber prisms on the end of a precision sintered metal post” as an interrupt solution for the wafer.  However, we’re glad she did.

The machine features lots of things you would expect; pricey ultra precise motors, silky smooth linear motion systems, etcetera. At one point she turns on a gripper movement, the sound of it moving can be adequately described as poetic.

It also gives an unexpected view into how challenging it is to produce the silicon we rely on daily at the ridiculously affordable price we’ve come to expect. Everything from the ceramic plates and jaws that can handle the heat of the silicon right out of the oven to the obvious cleanliness of even this heavily used unit.

It’s a rare look into an expensive world most of us peasants aren’t invited to. Video after the break.

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Should You Outsource Manufacturing? A Handy Guide

A lot of people assume that the product development cycle involves R&D, outsourcing to a Chinese manufacturer, and then selling the finished product. It’s almost ingrained in our heads that once a prototype has been developed, the next step involves a visa and airplane tickets. Here is a guide that will explore a few other options, and why outsourcing may not be appropriate for everyone.

First, let’s talk about goals. We’ll assume you’re not a large company, and that you don’t have a huge budget, and that you’re just getting started with your product and don’t have big volumes; a startup trying to sell a kit or breakout board, or a consumer electronics product. Your goals are the following:

  1. Validate your product in the market. Build a minimum viable product and get it in the hands of lots of users
  2. Get the most bang for your limited bucks. All money should go towards getting products out the door
  3. Reduce risk to your company so that any single failure doesn’t crater the whole operation and you can safely grow.

With that in mind, what are your options?

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Books You Should Read: Poorly Made In China

This book is scary, and honestly I can’t decide if I should recommend it or not. It’s not a guide, it doesn’t offer solutions, and it’s full of so many cautionary tales and descriptions of tricks and scams that you will wonder how any business gets done in China at all. If you are looking for a reason not to manufacture in China, then this is the book for you.

The author is not involved in the electronics industry. Most of the book describes a single customer in the personal products field (soap, shampoo, lotions, creams, etc.). He does describe other industries, and says that in general most factories in any industry will try the same tricks, and confirms this with experiences from other similar people in his position as local intermediary for foreign importers.

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The Mystery Behind the Globs of Epoxy

When Sparkfun visited the factory that makes their multimeters and photographed a mysterious industrial process.

We all know that the little black globs on electronics has a semiconductor of some sort hiding beneath, but the process is one that’s not really explored much in the home shop.  The basic story being that, for various reasons , there is no cheaper way to get a chip on a board than to use the aptly named chip-on-board or COB process. Without the expense of encapsulating  the raw chunk of etched and plated silicon, the semiconductor retailer can sell the chip for pennies. It’s also a great way to accept delivery of custom silicon or place a grouping of chips closely together while maintaining a cheap, reliable, and low-profile package.

As SparkFun reveals, the story begins with a tray of silicon wafers. A person epoxies the wafer with some conductive glue to its place on the board. Surprisingly, alignment isn’t critical. The epoxy dries and then the circuit board is taken to a, “semi-automatic thermosonic wire bonding machine,” and slotted into a fixture at its base. The awesomely named machine needs the operator to find the center of the first two pads to be bonded with wire. Using this information it quickly bonds the pads on the silicon wafer to the  board — a process you’ll find satisfying in the clip below.

The final step is to place the familiar black blob of epoxy over the assembly and bake the board at the temperature the recipe in the datasheet demands. It’s a common manufacturing process that saves more money than coloring a multimeter anything other than yellow.

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Filling The Automation Gap In Garment Manufacturing

Even in this age of wearable technology, the actual fabric in our t-shirts and clothes may still be the most high-tech product we wear. From the genetically engineered cotton seed, though an autonomous machine world, this product is manufactured in one of the world’s largest automation bubbles. Self-driving cotton pickers harvest and preprocess the cotton. More machines blend the raw material, comb it, twist and spin it into yarn, and finally, a weaving machine outputs sheets of spotless cotton jersey. The degree of automation could not be higher. Except for the laboratories, where seeds, cotton fibers, and yarns are tested to meet tight specifications, woven fabrics originate from a mostly human-free zone that is governed by technology and economics.

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Lessons in Small Scale Manufacturing From The Othermill Shop Floor

Othermachine Co. is not a big company. Their flagship product, the Othermill, is made in small, careful batches. As we’ve seen with other small hardware companies, the manufacturing process can make or break the company. While we toured their factory in Berkeley California, a few interesting things stood out to us about their process which showed their manufacturing competence.

It’s not often that small companies share the secrets of their shop floor. Many of us have dreams of selling kits, so any lessons that can be learned from those who have come before is valuable. The goal of any manufacturing process optimization is to reduce cost while simultaneously maintaining or increasing quality. Despite what cynics would like to believe, this is often entirely possible and often embarrassingly easy to accomplish.

Lean manufacturing defines seven wastes that can be optimized out of a process.

  1. Overproduction: Simply, making more than you currently have demand for. This is a really common mistake for first time producers.
  2. Inventory: Storing more than you need to meet production or demand. Nearly every company I’ve worked for has this problem. There is an art to having just enough. Don’t buy one bulk order of 3,000 screws for six months, order 500 screws every month as needed.
  3. Waiting: Having significant delays between processes. These are things ranging from running out of USB cables to simply having to wait too long for something to arrive on a conveyor belt. Do everything you can to make sure the process is always flowing from one step to another.
  4. Motion: If you have a person walking back and forth between the ends of the factory to complete one step of the manufacturing process, this is wasted motion.
  5. Transport: Different from motion, this is waste in moving the products of each individual process between sections of the assembly.
  6. Rework: Get it right the first time. If your process can’t produce a product that meets specifications, fix the process.
  7. Over-processing: Don’t do more work than is necessary. If your part specifies 1000 hours of runtime don’t buy a million dollar machine to get 2000 hours out of it. If you can find a way to do it with one step, don’t do it with three.

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The first thing that stuck out to me upon entering Othermachine Co’s shop floor is their meticulous system for getting small batches through the factory in a timely manner. This allows them to scale their production as their demand fluctuates. CNCs and 3D printers are definitely seasonal purchases; with sales often increasing in the winter months when hackers are no longer lured away from their workstations by nice weather.

As the seven sins proclaim. It would be a bad move for Othermachine Co. to make too many mills. Let’s say they had made an extra 100 mills while demand was at a seasonal low. If they found a design or quality problem from customer feedback they’d have to commit to rework, potentially throwing away piles of defective parts. If they want to push a change to the machine or release a new model they’d either have to rework the machines, trash them, or wait till they all sold before improving their product. Even worse, they may find themselves twiddling their thumbs waiting for their supply to decrease enough to start manufacturing again. This deprives them of opportunities to improve their process and leads to a lax work environment.

One way to ensure that parts are properly handled and inventory is kept to a minimum is with proper visual controls. To this end, Othermachine Co has custom cardboard bins made that perfectly cradle all the precision parts for each process in their own color coded container. Since the shop floor is quite small, it lets them focus on making spindle assemblies one day and motion assemblies another without having to waste time between each step. Also, someone can rekit the parts for a recently completed step easily without interrupting work on the current process going on.

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It’s hard to define what’s over processing and what isn’t. My favorite example of what isnt, and something I’ve fought for on nearly every factory floor I’ve worked on is proper torque limiting screwdrivers. They’re a little expensive, but they are a wonderful tool that helps to avoid costly rework and over processing. For example, let’s say you didn’t have a torque limiting screwdriver. Maybe your customers would complain that occasionally a screw came loose. Now, one way to solve this would be the liberal application of Loctite. Another way would be an additional inspection step. Both of these are additional and completely uneccessary steps as most screws will hold as long as they are torqued properly.

In one factory I worked in, it was often a problem that a recently hired worker would overtorque a screw, either stripping it or damaging the parts it was mating together. A torque limiting screwdriver takes the worker’s physical strength out of the equation, while reducing their fatigue throughout the day. It’s a win/win. Any time a crucial step can go from unknown to trusted with the application of a proper tool or test step it is worth it.

Another section where Othermachine Co. applied this principle is with the final machining step for the CNC bed. The step produces a large amount of waste chips. Rather than having an employee waste time vacuuming out every Othermill after it has gone through this process, they spent some time designing a custom vacuum attachment. This essentially removed an entire production step. Not bad!

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With the proper management of waste it is entirely possible to save money and improve a process at the same time. It takes a bit of training to learn how to see it. It helps to have an experienced person around in order to learn how to properly respond to them, but with a bit of practice it becomes a skill that spreads to all areas of life. Have any of you had experience with this kind of problem solving? I’ve really enjoyed learning from the work stories posted in the comments.

How to Fail at Laser Cutting

Laser cutters are CNC power tools, which means an operator uploads a job digitally and then pushes START to let the machine do all the work while they lie back in a hammock sipping a margarita, occasionally leaping out in a panic because the sound coming from the machine changed slightly.

Like other power tools, laser cutters are built around doing one thing very well, but they require an operator’s full attention and support. The operator needs to handle all the other things that go on before, during, and after the job. It’s not too hard to get adequate results, but to get truly professional and repeatable ones takes work and experience and an attention to detail.

People often focus on success stories, but learning from failures is much more educational. In the spirit of exploring that idea, here are my favorite ways to fail at laser cutting and engraving. Not all of these are my own personal experience, but they are all someone’s personal experience.

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