How Many Engineers Does It Take To Serve A Cup Of Froyo?

How Many Engineers Does It Take To Serve A Cup Of Froyo?

Saline Lectronics by Saline Lectronics

 

For the end customer, the world’s first robotic frozen yogurt vending kiosk is pretty cool. You order by touchscreen, which triggers an animated video and launches a robotic arm that takes a cup, fills it with froyo and lathers it in your favorite topping.

You’re going to start seeing lots of Reis & Irvy’s robots in shopping mall food courts, movie theater lobbies, hospital cafeterias and other venues around Michigan and beyond.

“The show is a big part of the appeal,” said Elliott Potter, co-founder of Houston-based Rethink Motion, which designs the robotic arm that powers the Reis & Irvy’s machine. “There’s always a line of people watching the robot do its thing.”

What the customer doesn’t know is that it takes a lot of engineering expertise to make a cool gadget like a robotic froyo kiosk into a viable commercial product that operates at a price point people are willing to pay.

As former NASA engineers, Potter and fellow co-founder Aaron Hulse are working to commercialize the kind of technology they worked on in the space program. They know what they’re doing when it comes to robotics. They know how to program the touchscreen interface, for example, and they know how to design the printed circuit boards that control the robotic arm’s motors and sensors.

But even though Potter and Hulse can design the products and make them work, they aren’t experts on how to make the circuit boards inside those products inexpensive and efficient to mass-produce. So, they turn to an electronics contract manufacturer (CM) with a deep pool of its own engineering expertise for help.

“Beyond the bill of materials and some basic rules of thumb, it’s hard to know what makes a printed circuit board assembly expensive or cheap, so I rely on feedback from the engineers at Saline Lectronics to say ‘We can do this, but this thing that you’ve done adds 30 percent to the cost of the board,’” Potter said.

“I definitely rely on them to go over the design and say ‘Gosh, the pads on this sure are small’ or ‘Without thermal relief on these pads we may have assembly issues.’ Their input on this is critical in terms of commercial success.”

How many engineers does it take to serve a cup of froyo? The question may sound like the beginning of a joke, but the reality is the more engineering expertise you can devote to solving a problem the better. That’s especially true for an electronics CM.

Not every electronics CM staffs the same level of engineering knowledge and experience. Some CMs have a greater breadth and depth of engineering talent, and that has a big impact both on the customer’s experience and on the quality of the final PCBA or box build.

PCBAs and other electronic manufacturing projects require a team effort between multiple types of professional engineers, who each bring the unique perspective of their specialty to the table.

Here’s a look at several different types of engineers that a technically-proficient electronics CM should have on its team:

  • When a CM receives an order, like for a PCBA that enables a robotic hand to sense when it’s grasping a yogurt cup, a Pre-Production Engineer reviews the customer’s documentation and requirements during a “pre-release” meeting that involves the entire engineering team. This meeting should include electrical, chemical and mechanical engineers. The CM’s engineers evaluate the documentation — instead of blindly following it — and identify the unique demands of the PCBA, including any special processes and potential problems that might arise. Having engineers with excellence in a variety of fields enables the CM to develop the optimal manufacturing plan for turning out PCBAs that meet the customer’s needs.
  • Once a manufacturing plan with instructions for the build have been developed up front, a Component Engineer reviews the Bill of Materials and works with the Purchasing Department to get all the parts and specialty components necessary to complete the PCBA. With many parts in short supply these days, some CMs will come back to their customers and say “we can’t find these 10 parts, so please find alternatives.” But it’s a huge time saver for customers like Rethink Motion when their CM has the technical capability to say “we can’t find these 10 parts, so please approve these 10 alternatives.”
  • An Associate Engineer translates the customer’s documentation into the CM’s standardized work instructions that technicians will use to implement the manufacturing plan devised in the pre-release meeting. Once the project is released to the production floor, a variety of engineers work with technicians to ensure the assembly proceeds successfully:
  • Process Engineer monitors the manufacturing process, troubleshooting any issues and finding opportunities for improvement. This may require support from a chemical engineer for special processes like conformal coating or potting processes, for example, or from a mechanical engineer for electro-mechanical box build products. It’s helpful to have specialty engineering expertise in house to oversee manufacturing and communicate with customers.
  • Test Engineer works closely with the customer to develop cost-effective testing that validates the PCBA performs as it should. This can include an In-Circuit Test (ICT), Flying Probe or other functional testing that helps improve product quality.
  • Quality Engineer works on the production floor and watches the entire process like a hawk, taking notes and making tweaks to make sure that the finished PCBA meets the customer’s needs. This engineer also is responsible for documenting compliance with any special certification requirements such as ISO13485, for medical equipment, or AS9100, for aerospace equipment.

Check out this eBook to learn more about how proper engineering training, degrees and industry certifications directly affect an electronic CM’s ability to implement best practices and superior solutions.

A diverse pool of engineering expertise is necessary for an electronics CM to optimize circuit board design and the assembly process — so that the manufacture of PCBAs avoids time-consuming inefficiencies and costly mistakes so that products like a frozen yogurt vending machine can come to life.

“That’s really a huge added value, not just having these engineers on staff at Saline Lectronics but having them work with me,” Potter said.

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