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Robots and Vision for Semiconductors and Electronics Manufacturing

POSTED 12/03/2012  | By: Bennett Brumson, Contributing Editor

Delta robot performing connector assembly tasks, courtesy FANUC Robotics America Corp.Robotics have long been a staple in the electronics and semiconductor industry. Complex assemblies and a plethora of tiny parts make flexible robotics the ideal solution for the rapidly-changing electronics and semiconductor market.

Robotics for the electronics and semiconductor sector will be a component of Automate 2013, the trade show and conference covering a wide array of automation technologies.

“Kawasaki’s customers, the semiconductor equipment suppliers, use robots to manufacture wafers before those wafers are sliced and diced into microchips. As microchips get smaller and smaller, they require less power to function which is why smart phones are thinner and able to do so many things,” says Barney Huang, Director of Sales and Marketing at Kawasaki Robotics USA Inc. (Wixom, Michigan). “Microchips are more densely packed onto electronic devices.” Robotics play a key role in facilitating production of electronics and semiconductors, Huang says.

Need for Speed
Electronics embodies the essence of the fickle consumer market. Manufacturers need speed and flexibility to profitably tap into a market segment before consumer tastes change. “I see a trend in the need for smaller and faster robots. Using small robots makes sense for manufacturers to handle small parts. Production lines need to move very fast in the electronics and semiconductor industry,” says Chris Blanchette, Account Manager with FANUC Robotics America Corp. (Rochester Hills, Michigan).

Continuing, Blanchette says, “Robot makers build different types of robots to meet the needs of the electronics and semiconductor market. These types of robots include very fast delta-style robots. Also, six-axis articulation is a necessary requirement to orient small parts in more than one plane or off axis.” Six-axis articulation in conjunction with high speed is an important trend in the small part electronics industry, says Blanchette.

Blanchette goes on to say, “Robotic assembly of connectors is a growing trend. This application requires precision and tolerance because of so many small parts. Component assembly on circuit boards requires finesse during the assembly process which cannot be done with high-speed chip shooters.” Blanchette adds robots provide a very cost-effective solution to populate components onto circuit boards. “After the assembly of electronic circuit boards, the boards must be assembled into a package. Robots are a great tool for assembling those packages into electronic modules.”

Moving silicon wafers at high speeds without causing damage is a fundamental task robots are increasingly called on to perform. As wafer sizes become progressively larger, that task becomes more demanding. Robotics are more than capable of meeting throughput requirements without causing damage to delicate components.

“Robots must cycle wafers quickly and with high repeatability. The electronics and semiconductor industry wants robots to handle bigger wafer sizes,” says Huang. “Wafers were a half-inch in diameter then grew to 150 millimeters, eventually to 300 millimeters. The semiconductor industry is moving to a 450 millimeter standard.” Manufacturers invest in flexible robotics rather than hard automation for wafer fabrication due to the constantly changing wafer size.

Huang explained why the electronics and semiconductor industry continually moves towards ever-larger wafers. “Wafers keep getting bigger because manufacturers can get more chips on it using the same number of people and equipment. That reduces costs because chip makers do not have to build as many wafers. The robot has to handle these chips and wafers without causing vibration. The thinness of the wafer causes them to flop all over the place and causes particles to flutter off.”

Robots are a means to quickly handle these thin wafers without shedding particulate matter in cleanroom manufacturing. “Robots are more cost-effective, faster, more accurate, repeatable and are cleaner than hard automation,” Huang concludes.

The speed of the robot and vision system in electronic applications were also on the mind of Patrick Laughter, Engineering Associate with DENSO Robotics (Long Beach, California). “Vision systems are faster, processing times are better and software is more user-friendly. The camera, lenses, processors and lighting are now all in the same box. The system is much more compact.”

Testing, 1, 2, 3...
Vision-enabled robotics play an increasingly important function in the inspection and testing of electronics to ensure the semiconductors are doing their job properly.

“Robotic inspection and testing are big applications in electronics manufacturing. Implementation of higher resolution cameras is important because the electronics industry must deal with many small and delicate parts. Testing and inspection requires high resolution cameras to locate the part and inspect particular features,” says Blanchette. “A vision system integrated into the robot is critical for guidance and where the end-user could utilize that vision system for inspection.” Third-party vision systems might be necessary in sophisticated robotic inspection processes. Robots are used extensively in the assembly and testing of wafers in the course of manufacturing solar panels.

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Likewise, Laughter says, “Robotic vision systems do software analysis and inspection of cellular phones. Robots use a vision system to test a cell phones’ radio frequency and software. The robot touches a screen, looking for a reaction or a change in the software. When the robot touches an icon on a cell phone’s screen, the vision system finds that icon and tells the robot where to push. The vision system verifies the software is functioning properly.”

Blanchette talks about cameras on robotic vision systems used by the electronics and semiconductor industry. “Taking a photograph on the fly is another trend. Because of the high rates of throughput in the electronics and semiconductor industry, stopping the robot while the vision system takes a picture of each part is not feasible. Manufacturers must have the ability to snap a picture of the component on the fly while the robot holds it.”

Huang also says vision-equipped robots are instrumental for successful inspection of products in the electronics and semiconductor industry. “Vision is used to look for defects on chips or finding the notch on wafers. Each wafer has a notch on one edge to align them correctly.”

Using a robotic vision system in the electronics and semiconductor industry poses special challenges, particularly if deployed in a moist environment. “Robots are used more and more in wet bench wafer cutting and handling. Wet bench processes requires an IP67 rating, so that the robot and vision system can function in wet environments without becoming corroded or damaged,” says FANUC’s Blanchette.

Offshore No More?
For a generation, the electronics and semiconductor industry has moved production to low wage countries in Asia. Robots outfitted with vision systems can help bring manufacturing of electronics and semiconductors back home, along with some employment associated with the industry.

“In the past two years, I have noticed a huge effort by the electronics and semiconductor industry to re-shore production back to North America. End-users say the compelling reason to bring that manufacturing back to North America comes down to quality and costs. Companies have found that applying more robotics in manufacturing processes requires less labor to compete globally,” Blanchette says. “Robotics allow manufacturers to bring manufacturing back home while hiring skilled people to program the robot and low-skill labor to bring parts into a work cell.”

Blanchette also says flexible robotics cost less to implement than dedicated hard automation. “Intelligent robotics with vision allows manufacturers to reduce hard automation and tooling traditionally required in the manufacturing of electronics and semiconductors and provides a low-cost solution.” Blanchette cites delivery improvements through the re-shoring of electronics and semiconductors. “When manufacturing in North America, suppliers do not have to wait for the shipment of products from overseas.”

Besides cost, quality and delivery improvements, Huang credits robotic manufacture of electronics and semiconductor at home as a means to, “Protect intellectual property, so an electronics and semiconductor company can grow very quickly.”

Automating the Robotic Way
Robotic systems for the electronics and semiconductor industry will be a major portion of the Automate 2013 conference and trade show, scheduled for January 21-24 in Chicago’s McCormick Place. “We will bring high-speed six-axis robots for assembly to Automate. These robots have speeds similar to delta robots and provide for a longer reach and higher payloads,” previews Patrick Laughter.

Similarly, “We are planning to bring several small assembly four-  and six-axis robots intended for the electronics and semiconductor industry to Automate. The majority of the systems FANUC will bring to Automate have integrated intelligence features, like vision systems for locating and inspecting products. Some robots will use force sensing to finesse small electronic parts into position,” says Blanchette.

As robots become faster, more precise and intelligent, their role in the manufacture of electronics and semiconductors will increase in North America and around the world. “In the next three to five years, I see robots continuing to get smarter, smaller and more precise. Articulated robots are replacing more traditional cartesian robots in the assembly of electronics,” says Blanchette. “The value-added to this application comes through much simpler implementation of the process at a much lower price.”