Microtech’s plumbers reach for tools to unclog production

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HANNOVER, Germany, April 15, 2003 The shape of an hourglass might best describe the route from initial design to final realization of microtechnology products. Production and assembly represent the narrow part in the middle that holds up the flow.

This bottleneck in the process is created by faulty approaches and entrenched self-interest, according to participants at a special section of Hannover Fair 2003 devoted to microproduction.

“We believe that production is a serious bottleneck in producing microsystems for industry,” said Klaus Zimmer, managing director of microtechnology for the VDMA German Engineering Federation. “I think this issue is the next problem that the microtech community has to solve.”

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According to Zimmer, the production bottleneck presents as many challenges to microtech companies as the mythical Hydra has heads. It drives up price, since production makes up an estimated 50 percent of the cost of a product. It can make mass production difficult or even impossible. It can kill innovative and potentially profitable ideas, since little thought is put into the actual making of the product during initial design and development. And it can keep companies from being flexible and responding to customers’ changing product needs.

“Microsystems should be customer-oriented and have an efficient production system like automobile manufacturers do,” Zimmer said. “A carmaker can produce a model in red, green or yellow, according to what the customer wants. The microtech scene should follow suit. It hasn’t.”

Zimmer said that for microtechnology firms to enter mass-market mode, they have to produce less-expensive products. To bring costs down, firms need equipment that is flexible and can perform various tasks and assemble different types of microsystems. There are countless small- and medium-sized firms around, he said, that invest heavily in a production process that creates one product, one way.

“If we have to make a new machine every time we want to assemble a new product, we’re lost,” said Christoph Hanisch of Festo AG & Co., laying out his reform plan for this ball-and-chain of the microtech world. “There is a strong interdependence between economic success of MEMS technology and assembly and if we want to succeed in assembly, we need to move toward standards, at least to some degree.”

The “S” word — standards — can elicit audible gasps in the microtechnology community.

While standardization is seen by some as the sector’s saving grace, it is the devil incarnate to others, and the industry is nowhere near to agreement on the issue. While VDMA’s Zimmer advocates standardization and automation as a way of making the assembly line more efficient, flexible and profitable, he said he understands why others hold the opposite view.

“Not everything can be standardized, of course,” he said. “In fact, I believe some companies are surviving because they are not standardized.”

He said those companies fear a loss of their uniqueness if standards are put into place, of losing the individuality of their product. They feel it is better to have your own particular area of competence than to be compared with others’ competence in a standardized world.

“Companies will be killed by standardization,” said Volker Klocke, head of Klocke Nanotechnik. He illustrated his point with a hypothetical example: A group of companies produce screws, some in 1 millimeter size, others in 2 or 3 millimeters. “In the end, they’re all screws,” he said. “If you set the standard to 2 millimeters, what happens to the others?”

Some might ask if you could design a better 2 millimeter screw. Maybe you can’t, but the design question does come up often in discussions about improving microtech production. Design and production have to be considered at the same time, analysts say. All too often, they are not, and companies, especially in Europe, come up with good ideas and solutions to problems that in the end cannot be realized.

“The key is designing for assembly,” said Ulrich Gengenbach of the Karlsruhe Research Center. “And predicting if the product can even be produced, and at what cost.”

To most, it’s far too late to think about production only after design is complete. Gengenbach would like to see the whole process of design thought out anew, putting the focus on his design-for-assembly idea and on automation and modular production systems. He calls it the yin-and-yang strategy of microassembly, two interlocking parts providing balance and harmony — plus fewer headaches and a better return on investment.

Klocke is doing his part to bring some yang into the European microtech world. He sells his module-based microproduction system in stages, starting off slowly with maybe just a gripper or two. Then as the operators get used to it, he adds more modules and features until they have a flexible system that meets their specific needs.

“You’ve gotta start slow with these people,” said Klocke. “But there’s hope.”


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