PC Partner is employing a solution that automatically tracks the components used to assemble circuit boards, and shuts down the assembly process if it detects a potential mistake. PC Partner, one of Hong Kong's largest electronics manufacturing firms, is using radio frequency identification to improve assembly-line efficiency at two of its production facilities, located in Dongguan, China.
PC Partner is a global manufacturer of such electronics products as motherboards, graphics cards and consumer electronics. Every month, the company assembles more than 2 million printed circuit board assemblies (PCBAs). The firm's RFID-enabled facilities include 33 assembly lines for constructing various assemblies and subassemblies, as well as mounting components onto the surface of printed circuit boards. Altogether, there are approximately 100 placement machines to accomplish the assembly. Every placement machine must have feeders, each loaded with a reel of components, plugged into the proper location on the machine prior to a circuit board's assembly. Mistakes such as an incorrect reel being loaded into a feeder, or the feeder being located at the wrong location within the machine, can be costly, requiring additional materials and labor to rectify.
PC Partner had been employing bar-code technology to track which materials were loaded into the placement machines for the assembly of circuit boards, by scanning a bar-coded label attached to each reel, thereby associating the reels with the feeder in the company's back-end software for managing the assembly system. When the feeder was then installed in an assembly machine, it had to be visually checked to ensure it was the correct feeder and in the proper location, and the bar codes on the reels were checked by scanning them once more. This process took time, and was reliant on operators remembering to scan each bar-code label. Consequently, PC Partner sought a more automated system, ultimately selecting a track, trace and control (TTC) system provided by Canadian RFID firm Cogiscan. "RFID is a natural migration to deliver a more efficient solution," says Alan Poon, PC Partner's operation manager. Installation began in July 2010.
The factories installed Cogiscan's RFID Smart Feeder 125 kHz reader, which operates via a proprietary air-interface protocol, on each of approximately 100 component-placement machines. Each feeder is fitted with an RFID tag containing a unique ID number. When a component reel is loaded into a feeder, that reel's bar-coded label is scanned (in the same manner as with the non-RFID process), and that information is stored in the TTC software to link the specific reel with that feeder's unique tag ID number. When a specific feeder is loaded into the machine, that machine's reader captures the feeder's tag ID number only when the tag comes within close proximity of the reader antenna. The reader then sends the feeder's tag ID to the TTC software, via a cabled connection to a PC connected to the Cogiscan-hosted back-end server, on which the software links the ID number with data regarding that particular feeder, including which reel is installed within it.
The TTC software then triggers a green light on the PC's display screen to validate the feeders and components for the specific order at hand, or issues an alert and a stop command to the production equipment until the feeders can be removed and the correct feeders with the proper reels can be attached to the machine. In addition, the TTC system software running on the server calculates the quantity of materials being used, based on the feeders and reels plugged into the machines, thereby maintaining an accurate real-time inventory of all components. It also sends warnings if a minimum quantity has been reached, thus enabling operators to prepare new feeders in advance, and to keep machine downtime to a minimum. To date, PC Partner has used 8,000 tags on its feeders, which are currently being tracked at the machines on all 33 assembly lines. "Future plans are in place to expand the scope of the system," says Vincent Dubois, Cogiscan's co-president, to use RFID tags and readers to track all materials received, as well as assembled products shipped from the facility.