Soldering Robots: Powering the Future of Electronics
Soldering is a critical component of the electronic assembly process. As the number of smart devices and consumer electronics booms, the demand for high-quality soldered components also grows. This increase in demand puts a strain on manufacturers to find more efficient modes of production. Those ahead of the curve are looking for more ways to automate the soldering process to maximize their potential output. Companies from local family-owned aerospace contractors to large multinational medical device manufacturers are leveraging the potential of automated soldering.
If you’ve yet to automate, there are some key concepts you need to know to find success on your automation journey. This article will illustrate the basics of soldering robots when you should consider automating, and the best practices for robotic soldering.
The Basics of Soldering Robots
Soldering robots come in many forms depending on the industry and use case. They are commonly deployed in the consumer and commercial electronics industries. We also find them in automotive, aerospace, and medical device manufacturing facilities. These industries incorporate many sensitive electronics into their products.
Types of Soldering Robots
Due to the small footprint of soldering applications, manufacturers utilize a broad range of robots to perform this task. There are a few robot types commonly found in soldering applications:
This robot is typically used in bench top setups. It lends itself well to applications that require manual loading and unloading by an operator. Cartesian robots can offer high-end accuracy due to the simplicity and rigidity of their construction. This type of robot can also be scaled up for larger applications, however, it will fall short in applications that require intricate movement of the soldering head to work at angles. The cartesian—as its name suggests—is only able to move in the x, y, and z directions.
The SCARA is a common choice for soldering applications because of its balance of reach, speed, and precision. This robot can move quickly from point to point and still maintain a good level of precision. It isn’t as scalable as the cartesian or six-axis robots and will struggle with dexterous movement applications. However, it’s typically a faster machine than the cartesian and the six-axis.
It’s not surprising to find the jack-of-all-trades on this list. The six-axis can be deployed in most applications—soldering included. However, this option is easily the most expensive of the three listed here. It’s overkill for most soldering applications. But for those tasks that require dexterous movement, the six-axis becomes an obvious choice.
We highly recommend requesting quotes from multiple suppliers when researching options for your automation project. Luckily, HowToRobot maintains a network of over 16,000 global automation suppliers. You can use our database to find suppliers in your area that can be a valuable resource for you on your automation journey.
When Should You Consider a Soldering Robot?
A soldering robot can be an excellent addition to your manufacturing process. However, these machines aren’t suitable for every manufacturer. The demands of your business and the capabilities of your current process will determine if automation will be a value-add for you. Here are some common reasons today’s leading manufacturers integrate soldering robots into their production facilities.
Soldering robots can produce at a much higher rate of speed when compared to manual soldering operations. Robots can move from point to point faster than human operators can. They also don’t suffer from fatigue, which slows down their human counterparts. Soldering robots spend only as much time as needed on each solder joint before moving on to the next step. This leads to faster and more efficient production.
Higher Levels of Precision
Robots boast greater repeatability than people are capable of. The servo motors that drive their movement allow soldering robots to move to the same point repeatably in the sub-millimeter range. This means more accuracy in production and fewer errors.
More Consistent Production
Robots follow a given list of instructions by design. They will do the same thing each cycle without noticeable deviation. This, in addition to their high levels of precision, means that you will produce more consistent products. Manually soldered products can have deviations and even failures. Things like solder bridges, cold joints, and disturbed joints are common with manually soldered components. These errors affect the quality and performance of the final product, which could be detrimental to your business long-term. Robots will solder the joint as expected with a consistent amount of flux.
Best Practices for Robotic Soldering Applications
Perhaps you’ve read this far and have decided that automating your soldering process might be the next step for your business. It’s crucial at this stage to understand some best practices when considering a soldering robot. These best practices will help you make an informed decision and avoid major headaches down the line.
Choose a High-Volume and Repeatable Task
Most robotic applications are well-suited for high-volume tasks. Ideally, this unit will be performing the same task repeatedly, dozens to thousands of times per day. Optimal soldering applications are no different. Thankfully, PCB production is typically a high-volume application. This allows you to take advantage of the speed of automation over the manual operation.
Robots can struggle to prove their value in low-volume or custom runs. You will be spending time having the robot reprogrammed for each new SKU. It’s challenging to gain this time back when the production volume is low. Ideally, the robots should stick to the higher volume runs.
Select the Right Tooling for the Job
There are several types of soldering. Different soldering tasks require specific solder based on the specifications of the part. The demands placed on the product are the primary factor for determining the flux and method used. For example, simple soldering tasks for most consumer electronics can get by with soft solder. More demanding products built to withstand high temperatures or vibrations perform better using hard soldering methods. Subsequently, different solder heads are available to accommodate the various soldering techniques. Your product likely has a specific type of flux and soldering method specified. You should look for tooling that supports this soldering method. There are options for soft, hard, laser, and ultrasonic soldering heads.
Your selection should include the proper tooling and flux to feed the soldering process, as an incorrect choice here can change the characteristics of your final component. This could lead to undesired results or part failure.
Manage Part Presentation
Proper part presentation is an essential component of the automatic soldering operation. Since robots don’t see and adjust as humans do, they rely on consistent part presentation. You will need a system or fixture to place the component in the same position and orientation every time. This way, the robot can perform its task correctly. Inconsistent presentation can lead to misaligned solder joints.
There are options available for operations that can’t guarantee consistent presentation. For example, machine vision systems allow the robot to “see” the part and react appropriately when the component is in different positions and orientations. The machine vision system learns the workpiece and its key features. These points are then relayed to the robot to know where the solder joints lie. This is a useful option for operations that otherwise can’t guarantee repeatable part positioning.
Soldering robots offer massive potential for manufacturers running manual operations. By understanding your business, the demands of your application, and how to best deploy this robot, you stand to gain the most from automating your soldering process. Automating today can pay dividends over the long term and give you an edge over your competition.
Are you ready to begin your automation journey? HowToRobot is here to help. Tell us about your application and your business, and our tools will help you get connected with suppliers that can assist you with finding the proper selections for your project. Click here to get started today.