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Our Success Stories in Automation & Testing Systems Projects for SMEs

1.0 Introduction

Automation is well advanced in many industries and has played a major role in making products; look at the electronics manufacturing industry where pick & place machines have been used for years, the pharmaceutical and food industries where strict hygiene standards and high volumes demand the least amount of human interaction. Car makers use automation equipment and robots heavily in their assembly lines to become less dependent on manual labour whilst achieving consistent quality and boost productivity.

The challenge is for small to medium sized companies in the more traditional manufacturing segments. How can they transform their factories into the 21st century? The task may be daunting but with a few simple questions you can determine where to start.

· Identify assembly lines/processes that are major revenue generators and use labour-intensive production steps

· Look at mature processes that do not change frequently with least product variants

· Define the return on investments (ROIs) and start with a project that yields a high return (cap the maximum spend)

· Generate system specifications and clearly define what process steps the automation/testing system must carry out including cycle time, yields, up-time, etc.

Once you have scoped the project, find the right automation system partner who is interested, level headed and has a demonstrated track record to deliver projects with excellent performance.

2.0 Automation & Testing System Examples

The advantages of buying automation/testing systems from China are multiple:

a) There is significant knowledge & skill available as the times of “cheap labour” are long gone and international competitiveness of Chinese suppliers increasingly depends on factory automation

b) Systems manufactured in China are of high quality; there are no capacity bottlenecks and delivery lead-times are short

c) International component brands such as Siemens, Festo, SMC, Keyence, Cognex, Schunk etc. are readily available and widely used – so, you do not have to worry about getting spare parts and local support once the machine has been delivered

d) There is good segmentation and specialization to handle specific commodities (eg connector assembly, electric motor mfg., car window winding systems, …)

Over the years, we have learnt that on the SW side there is room for improvement as program architecture is often anything but modular!

Here are a few examples of successfully delivered systems.

2.1 Plastic Part Assembly Automate

  • Function: insertion of steel ball into plastic part & fitting of rubber cap

  • Inspection/checking (fitting of cap, steel ball position)

  • Cycle Time: 6 sec

  • Up-time: > 95%

  • Yield: > 98%

2.2 Metal Clamp Assembly Line

  • Function: plastic strip gluing, logo punching, screw/nut insertion & fastening,

  • Inspection/checking (8 different product variants)

  • Cycle Time: 35 sec

  • Up-time: > 90%

  • Yield: > 95%

2.3 Part Sorting Machine

  • Function: sort 3 different types of plastic parts (500k parts/annum)

  • Cycle Time: 15 sec

  • Up-time: > 95%

  • Yield: > 98%

3.0 Conclusions & Recommendations

· Do not automate “chaos” or what you do not understand – be absolutely clear about what processes need automation and why

· Ensure that you adopt an “open architecture” and do not tie yourself into proprietary solutions that may limit your flexibility

· Use appropriate technology and resist using fancy components (eg robots) where more traditional handling methods may do

· Work with your automation system partner to define the standard/brands of key components (pneumatics, vision systems, controllers, …); avoid a hotch-potch of different brands on different machines – this will make operation and maintenance easier

· Select a competent partner with profound manufacturing knowledge and pragmatic thinking. This is important if you buy a system from Asia as your need someone who you can trust and is your “eyes and ears on the ground”

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This month we talk about “Electronic Product Manufacturing”. The challenges in this business segment go far beyond chip shortages. The name of the game is “zero defects” or operating at 6 Sigma level – to illustrate what this means – if you type 1 million characters, you are only allowed to make 3.4 mistakes … – no mean feat! Enjoy the reading.


Roland Schmid

1.0 Introduction:

Many of the major electronic component manufacturers have a significant production base in Asia – be it Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, China, …

As a result, large EMS companies such as Flextronics, Jabil, Foxconn, Sanmina, Celestica, … are spread around the region to offer improved logistics, reduced transportation costs/times and JIT (just-in-time) services to high volume industries.

The challenge is for SMEs who do not have the volumes, may require customization, special production processes that do not fall into the mainstream of EMS suppliers (eg potting, selective conformal coating, ….).

In this edition we give you some examples of how we help customers solve the low-volume/high mix problem, find components, re-engineer products and reduce cost.

2.0 Advanced Electronics Manufacturing:

Electronics manufacturing is a highly specialized, finely tuned and automated industry. As a customer you rely on the competence of the manufacturer – you do not want to get involved in materials management, process optimization, writing test programs, …

The main areas that define success/failure are:

a) Component Sourcing – Materials Management

Getting parts at the right cost, right time, right quality, … is essential; as PCB assemblies often have several hundred components, 1 missing part can keep you high and dry! We have seen this in the past 12 months where chip shortages are crippling almost every industry.

The handling and storage of electronic components must not be underestimated. Some devices are extremely sensitive to moisture and must be stored in temperature-humidity controlled environments.

If product design is done by your engineers, make sure that you eliminate “single source components” – have a bill of materials (BOM) with 2-3 approved alternatives.

b) PCB/SMT Assembly

In EMS, high precision and high yields are a must! Good manufacturers have state-of-the art equipment and experienced/well-trained people who run and maintain machines.

If the solder paste deposition process for instance is not right (poor/wrong stencil design) the game is lost right at the start! Additionally pick & place machines must be capable of handling fine-pitch/ultra-fine pitch parts, BGA chips, etc.; the soldering technology if mature but nevertheless requires a data driven approach to ensure that temperatures, conveyor speeds, … are in line with the type and size (mass) of components to be fused to the boards.

c) Product Final Assembly and Testing

To facilitate high quality product assembly, jigs & fixtures are required to prevent operators from making assembly mistakes. Product testing is often performed at different manufacturing stages - after component placement & soldering (Optical Inspection, in-circuit testing) or at functional level (after loading software).

A competent EMS company can further offer “stress testing” (temperature – humidity cycling at various levels) as well as “burn-in” to detect any latent soldering issues (eg dry joints).

Running a successful EMS operation is a bit like running a Michelin Star restaurant! It is an unforgiving business – your materials & ingredients must be top grade (the best), your processes tuned to the ultimate levels (error free!) – consistency and a drive to continuously improve and reach new heights separates champions from amateurs. Process yields are not measured in %-age but “part per million defects”! As in a Michelin Star restaurant, every step is executed at mastery level, day-in, day-out. There is no margin for error – mistakes make the difference between success and failure (Losing money!).

Figure 1 shows pictures what equipment levels and process environments look like.


To get good results in electronics manufacturing is like running a top restaurant

· You need the best equipment

· You need the highest quality materials (PCBs, components, solder, …)

· You need highly trained operators (specialized in different process stages – solder paste deposition, component placement, soldering, testing, etc.

· You need exacting processes

· You need attention to detail, consistency and a mindset of continuous improvement

3.0 Turnkey Solutions in Electronics:

The shift from manually operated products to electronically driven devices does not just require a mindset change but involves a significant change in knowledge within a company. In a fast-changing market, outsourcing developments and manufacturing has many advantages:

· You can select external designers with broad practical experience

· You have a chance to apply a “fit for use approach” to solve complex knowledge gaps

· You can tap into a vast resources pool covering electronic hardware & software design, integration and testing

· External experts provide a convenient entry to the world of electronic components, technologies and state of the art communication options

· It gives you “speed” – fast time to market

Figure 2 shows an example of a valve controller that we have developed and are manufacturing for our customer.

Product features are:

- Integrated power supply with power/data connection to actuator

- Large colour display with user friendly menu

- Multiple external sensor inputs (temperature, pressure, ….)

- Modbus and digital I/O connections

4.0 Value Analysis – Value Engineering:

The objective of VAVE is to take cost out of a product without changing form – fit or function.

Here are some examples how we have managed to reduce product cost with relatively little effort and investments.

a) LED Pilot Light

Step(1): Product/BOM Analysis

  • Major components, cost drivers

  • AVL parts vs “free to choose components”

Step(2): Determine product assembly sequence

  • PCB Assembly (SMT) & functional testing

  • Potting

Step(3): Identify cost reduction opportunities

  • Process related

  • Components – cost drivers – BOM related


We achieved cost savings of > U$ 1/unit (> 25% of the total product cost) by the following:

1) Bezel  switch from costly “catalogue part” to custom made, injection molded bezel (investment in tooling was minimal with ROI < 1 year)

2) Potting material: evaluate different potting materials (brands) and switch to locally made Chinese brand

Figure 3 shows some product manufacturing snap shots.

b) Product Enclosure Re-design

We have changed the method of fitting 2 end plates to an AL-extrusion enclosure for a communications product

· Initial design:

2 metal end plates with 4 mounting screws each

· New design:

Injection molded end cap with snap-fit to AL extrusion housing

Figure 4 shows the product with the snap fit end cap.

c) Alternative Components – Localization of Connectors

Step (1): Check connector types/design & footprint

Step(2): Search for alternatives (major international types vs high quality Asian equivalents)

Step(3): Compare costs (cost per contact point), materials, brand reputation, etc


We have achieved a cost reduction of 40% plus for connectors for a total of 22 contacts (details see Figure 5).


  • Unless there are strict functional/product safety/reliability issues, be open to ideas of others

  • VAVE can be quick and yield significant results

  • Move away from single source components

  • Pick the “low hanging fruit”

  • Use 80/20 rule and focus on the parts/product elements that constitute major costs

  • Do the simple, easy things first – be creative but pragmatic (look at investments, implementation times/effort and risks)

5.0 Conclusions:

If you are looking for a competitive electronics products manufacturing country you cannot go past China.

As your company unlikely falls into the fold of Apple, Sony, Bosch or Hewlett Packard, large EMS companies such as Jabil, Sanmina, Flextronics or Foxconn will not talk to you unless the annual business per product exceeds U$ 1mn.

The challenge is to find EMS companies that are interested in the low volume/high mix products manufacturing. This is where we come in!

Our value is in the following:

(1) Pairing the right manufacturer with your product (size, complexity, volumes, …)

(2) Checking and qualifying sub-suppliers for housings, cable assemblies, etc.

(3) Help with product certifications (CE, IPxx)

(4) Cost comparisons and price negotiations

(5) Final product quality control

(6) Value Analysis and value engineering

There is another reason why China/Asia is an attractive location to manufacture electronic products

· Abundance of low-cost labour

· Competent pool of suppliers to make enclosures, whether in plastic or metal

· Opportunity for cost reductions via “localization” (for instance electric motors)

· Competitive base for manufacturing cable assemblies/harnesses

· High quality product packaging (gift boxes, printing, manuals, ..)

Turnkey projects, value analysis/engineering, customized production – we manage the supply chain, minimize risks and make you more competitive.

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One of our core business areas is “injection molding tools”. This month we show you the faces who have developed and fine-tuned procedures over the years to make sure that you get high performance tools that last and produce excellent parts.

1.0 Introduction: Many companies had mixed experience with buying tools directly from manufacturers in China; some are happy, others tell me “never again” … Before starting to buy tools from China, one of our European customers visited us in 2011 for two reasons: a) Get an understanding of equipment levels, competencies, organization & thinking of Chinese tool makers; b) Evaluate us in terms of people, procedures, knowledge and ability to understand each other, including synergy in thinking, willingness to invest, etc.; After more than 10 years, we do more business together than ever – Why? (1) We are located in China with an operations center in Shanghai and a strong and competent team; (2) We are open, honest and direct with each other; we took ownership and stood by mistakes, fixed them – no argument; (3) We learnt together – we had to bridge language and cultural barriers (in particular thinking and what is expected) – but there was always respect and a motivation to get to the next level; (4) We started with relatively simple tools but progressed to advanced high performance tools for difficult technical parts; (5) We have developed effective procedures, fine-tuned them and consistently use them throughout all phases of a tooling project; (6) We never stop evaluating our suppliers; we have filtered out “non-performers” and continuously look for tool makers that fit our customer’s needs more precisely; I have observed a significant change in the injection molding tool manufacturing industry in China over the past 10-15 years. The reasons for success are: · Manufacturers work with high-end, state of the art machines · Design skills for tools and the pool of talented designers has grown dramatically (as opposed to Europe where the older generation tooling experts have retired and young engineers prefer to do “easier or more fashionable jobs” · Customers are international with automotive and medical industries pushing the bar higher · Speed of project implementation is high (from design to delivery) – often half what it is in the western world · There are hardly any capacity bottlenecks – factories mostly operate 24x7 Let us have a look at the tool manufacturing landscape and critical success factors. 2.0 Tool Manufacturing Landscape in China and Steps for Success: My first projects with Chinese tool manufacturers go back to the 1990’s where we selected ACE Mold (est. 1988, > 3000 people) in Shenzhen. The cooperation worked well and thanks to the knowledge/guidance of our people we got good quality tools at attractive prices. Meanwhile 3 major pockets for tool manufacturing have emerged: · Shenzhen, Dongguan, … (Guangdong Province) · Shanghai and Jiangsu Province (Kunshan, Suzhou, …) · Ningbo (Zhejiang Province) Here are a few examples that give you a visual impression of typical tools that we have built for our customers: Lever Tool: Tool Details:

Tool Weight: 1300kg Tool Size: 546x546x578 Cavities: 4 Material: PA6GF35 Gate Type: Hotrunner (Moldmaster)

Ventilation Grill for Heat Exchanger: Tool Details: Tool Weight: 500kg Tool Size: 396x396x420 Cavity: 1 Material: PA6 Gate Type: Cold Runner

Refrigeration Tray: Tool Details: Tool Weight: 700kg Tool Size: 396x596x520 Cavity : 1 Material: SAN

Header (Water Filtration): Tool Details: Tool Weight: 3200kg Tool Size: 546x996x750 Cavity: 1 Material: ABS Gate Type: Hotrunner (Moldmaster)

What are the learnings? · Make sure that you have clearly defined tool requirements (materials, steel grades, hardness, surface finish, etc.) · Work with approved & reputable suppliers (we have vetted many companies over the years – some no longer make it in our portfolio as our standards were not fulfilled) · Have a local partner in China that has exacting procedures and manages tooling projects throughout all implementation phases:

  • Design for Manufacturing (DFM)

  • Tool Design

  • Schedule Management & Reporting

  • Mold testing (molding parameter optimization, fill studies, etc.)

  • Tool adjustments/modifications

  • Tool inspection and checking

  • Tool Documentation (tool folder)

  • Packaging and Shipping

Let me introduce our tooling team:

(1) Bruce Li (Tool Design & Project Manager) · Joined Vela Eurasia in March 2015 · Comprehensive tool design background (7 years with German company Oechsler) · Successful completion of tool designs for German customers · Experienced project manager (tool testing & parameter optimization)

(2) Lambert Ruan (Tooling Project Manager) Has been with Vela Eurasia for 2 years · Solid tooling project management experience (5 years with USANE) · Started career as tool design engineer · Experienced in tools for medical industries

(3) Dylan Chen (Tooling Project Manager) Has been with Vela Eurasia for 5 years · Stationed in South China were he manages all tooling projects in the region · Prior to joining Vela Eurasia he has been a project leader with TK Mold for 5 years where he served mainly automotive industry customers · Experience with complex 2k molds

3.0 Conclusions: Companies around the globe continue to buy injection molding tools from China. Driven by a huge local demand and manufacturing operations of many global companies in China, new emerging technologies, the sophistication and maturity of tool making in China is high. In order to have consistently good results, it pays to work with a western organization who is experienced and well established in China. Our business model has proven to work and neither a pandemic nor travel restrictions can derail our work. We are not “seagulls” who fly in/out of China a few times a year. We are on the ground, we feel the pulse, we adapt quickly to a changing environment and consistently look for the most appropriate suppliers covering various industry segments. Because we are engineers, we challenge ourselves, we have pride in what we do and strive to find the best solutions. We represent your interests, speak your language whilst knowing how people in the Asian culture think.

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