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Assembly and end-of-line testing of high-performance computers (HPCs)

The more functions a car has, the more powerful its control units must be. As the demand for high-performance computers (HPCs) grows to support telecommunications, driving comfort and autonomous driving, these components also need automation solutions. Automation company Schnaithmann Maschinenbau GmbH has programmed seven KUKA robots to help produce these HPCs.

Intelligently programmed robots assemble supercomputers

The robot arm of a KR AGILUS robot straightforwardly and precisely grips a critical plastic component for a high-performance computer (HPC). It assigns the component to the correct compartment of the storage buffer, where another robot grips it and feeds it to the part sensor. Seven KR AGILUS robots work hand in hand, quickly and precisely following an intelligently programmed process. As they assemble and monitor HPCs, these robots carefully maintain an uninterrupted workflow – and drop nothing. They do their part to ensure that only the best quality components are installed.

Assembly automation and end-of-line testing

Seven KR AGILUS robots display impressive precision while they assemble high-performance computers (HPCs).

Current HPCs accept downloads of apps and safety updates, among other items. In the long term, they also will support autonomous driving. As a vehicle's brain, a high-performance computer must be light and compact enough to fit in smaller vehicles yet able to process huge amounts of data. Efficient, flexible automation is a must to produce these control units cost effectively.

The KR AGILUS ensures error-free efficiency in assembly automation.

To achieve automated assembly and the end-of-line testing (EOL) of parts, an automotive supplier brought in automation engineer Schnaithmann Maschinenbau GmbH and KUKA. Schnaithmann, a medium-sized automation company from Remshalden in the southern Swabian region of Germany, specializes in system and special machine solutions for assembly automation, and can program numerous robots to work together securely and safely.

“We found modular automation particularly exciting because it does not rely on rigid peripheral equipment and is extremely flexible. If the design or construction of a component changes, we exchange the corresponding cell, reprogram the robot assigned to it – and assembly can continue,” explained Chris Klöpfer, Technical Sales SL, Schnaithmann.

Maximum quality assurance through end-of-line tests

The innovative automation for HPC production began at the end of 2021. Schnaithmann already had implemented numerous customer projects that used KUKA robots. The automotive supplier had worked with KUKA solutions for years at various locations and valued the robot manufacturer as a reliable, innovative partner in assembly automation. This challenging HPC project also called for KUKA robots. The streamlined design of the KR AGILUS, its versatile range of applications and special ESD+ paint finish – in conjunction with the compact KR C5 robot controller – were just some of the reasons to choose KUKA.

“The customer wanted a solution with maximum flexibility, plus quick and cost-effective adaptation when components change,” explained Joachim Roess, KUKA’s Global Key Account Manager responsible for the automotive supplier. The goal was to create extremely reliable end-of-line tests for the product.

Because of their safety relevance, HPCs are subject to the particularly stringent certification regulations of Advanced Autonomous Driving Technology. Undetected micro-cracks in supercomputers could lead to failures in the Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS). These micro-cracks had to be eliminated through highly precise and fully automated assembly under ESD+ protection, as well as through tests including the reliable EOL tests.

The perfect, millimeter precision of the KR AGILUS in the Chaku-Chaku workflow.

Robots in the Chaku-Chaku flow

Similar systems often use lines with conveyor belts, but this setup limits manufacturing companies to certain product sizes. “If the product or even just part of the end-of-line test sequence changes, this can force complex design changes in rigid system concepts,” noted Joachim Roess. As a result, Schnaithmann and KUKA proposed a solution with several free-standing robots operating according to the Chaku-Chaku principle.

Under this principle, the robot sets down the part to be processed directly at the station. From there, after processing, the robot conveys the part to the next station – without the use of additional means of transport such as conventional conveyors. The robots thus move the parts directly from station to station and process them there. This requires less peripheral equipment and offers more options for future adaptations of the system through simple repositioning and reprogramming.

KUKA robots operate freely according to the Chaku-Chaku principle and carry out their work without human colleagues.

The Chaku-Chaku principle, however, presupposes that robots communicate with each other in a smart way and that their workspaces are open to one another. In a conventional Chaku-Chaku handling application, robots stand freely in space on racks and bases and carry out their work steps in a precisely predefined sequence.

KUKA robots operate freely according to the Chaku-Chaku principle and carry out their work without human colleagues.

Leveraging simulation and extensive EOL tests for utmost precision

Simulation of the production process prior to system start-up with KUKA.Sim software made it possible to identify the ideal production workflow. This perfect, cost-effective production sequence is based on a combination of cycle times and ideal robot utilization. In addition to reducing hardware components to a minimum and saving space as a result, this sequence offers maximum adaptability to changes in component requirements.

Space-saving and automated: Each work step is carried out in a precisely defined order.

In this way, the system can be converted quickly and easily as required. Through comprehensive testing, in particular through EOL tests, Schnaithmann, KUKA and the automotive supplier have been able to ensure that only elements of the highest quality are used in high-performance computers.

A compact force: KR AGILUS, KR C5 micro and smart programming

The Schnaithmann team opted for seven KR AGILUS robots cooperating in a fully automated system with no human employees. Five of the robots load and unload storage buffers with components, while two use a vision system to perform actual end-of-line testing. The KR AGILUS impresses with its streamlined design, versatile usage options and precision, as well as its IP67 protection rating and ISO 4 cleanroom classification.

All KR AGILUS robots are certified and conform to the ESD+ standard. They thus meet the high requirements of the automotive industry.

Practically predestined for the Chaku-Chaku workflow, the six-axis robot can also be combined with the particularly compact and energy-efficient robot controller for small robots. This controller stands out in every installation position – and, in this case, it could be accommodated on the robot booster frame. An additional control cabinet with rigid, inflexible cabling is not required here. The compact design of the KR AGILUS in combination with one of the most compact robot controllers on the market meets the automotive supplier’s objectives exactly: Maximum flexibility in terms of components through rapid and cost-effective expansion and adaptation of the system.

Special paint and KUKA system software (KSS) meet challenges 

“Standard KUKA robots are ESD certified in accordance with the latest regulations,” explained Joachim Roess, “but when it comes to autonomous driving, the requirements are higher than in the general electronics sector and even higher than in semiconductor manufacturing.” It is difficult to achieve this standard in production with human employees because human hair and clothing tend to build up electrostatic charges, which requires special work clothing for anyone who comes into contact with sensitive electronics.

Even a small electrical charge can result in micro-cracks that cannot be detected during final inspection of the control unit and that reduce the service life of the component. To prevent this, the automotive supplier requested a special paint finish that contained discharging metal particles, not only for the robot, but also for its base and pedestal.

Requested – supplied: All KR AGILUS robots in the system now meet the ESD+ standard. Additionally, the use of robots addresses the general shortage of skilled workers, especially for monotonous, repetitive and yet demanding tasks.

The perfect Chaku-Chaku workflow

Another challenge: program the robots to coordinate the respective workspaces perfectly. The seven KR AGILUS robots also take up as little space as possible in the shop. At the same time, the arms and grippers could not collide. “In our KSS operating system, such component spaces can be implemented as standard,” said Roess, “so the host controller always can determine when space is available for robot A and robot B for safe prevention of a collision.”

Automation solutions such as these are easily scalable. They are used in the production of HPCs for innovative electric cars.

The addition of machines or other components also is easy here. New robots incorporated into the system can be reconfigured quickly and perform the tasks hand in hand with the other KR AGILUS robots.

Summary and outlook: a future-oriented solution

We prefer to work with KUKA because their delivery capability is good even in difficult times,

Chris Klöpfer, Technical Sales SL, Schnaithmann

The current project has proved this once again. The customer, an international automotive supplier, also is extremely satisfied to have found in KUKA a manufacturer of ESD-capable robots in the electronics sector. Joachim Roess revealed that the system, which has been in operation for a few months, is set to be expanded even further. “A second test station already is in the pipeline. This can be implemented quickly and easily, as this type of solution is easy to scale,” said Roess. The need for supercomputers for innovative electric cars will continue to grow, experts predict – and automation solutions such as these will help meet high demand as well as to produce in a cost-effective manner.

Meanwhile, the automotive supplier is working with KUKA and integrators on further innovative solutions for future mobility. For example, a research project has shown that the KMR iiwa mobile cobot can support high-speed configuration of PCB boards. As part of the splicing process, it ensures that sensitive components reach designated points on a board reliably, quickly and precisely. This further step by the international automotive supplier will make its production and thus the mobility of tomorrow even more efficient and innovative.

More about splicing technology and its relevance to the electronics industry

Click here to read an interview with Christian Felkel, Vice President of Global Industry Management Electronics at KUKA.

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