The Power of Automation: Bringing New Products to Market with Speed and Quality

In engineering and operational contexts, efficiency is often represented as a percentage. But efficiency is also an imperative for progress and innovation. Being more efficient really has no limits because what may be 100% efficient today can only ever be measured against what the current solutions can provide to drive that efficiency. When new technology is introduced, efficiency has to be reassessed because technology is constantly evolving. Thus, what may have been viewed as 100% efficient a year ago may be considered considerably less efficient by today’s standards.

This is very much the case in product development and manufacturing where efficiencies that can be gained in the manufacturing process actually begin as part of the original design. Only companies that provide services spanning both domains can bring real leaps in efficiency by leveraging advancements made possible in both the design and manufacturing processes.

Design for Success

Using collaborative design tools, including simulation, makes the design process itself more efficient. But these gains can be amplified by looking at the design goals more holistically. There will always be more than one way to design a product to meet a specification, and if that specification doesn’t include manufacturability, then the challenge becomes greater from the standpoint of optimization. Of course, many companies today follow best practices in terms of Design for Manufacturability (DfM), but not all have the expertise to tailor the components to deliver that optimization.

Companies like Molex, which can take on new product design and manufacture with a holistic and systemic approach, can bring these potential efficiency gains together to deliver measurable improvements. And as components become more complex – this capability becomes even more vital.

Let’s consider integrated circuits. Well known for being highly complex devices that require many engineering hours to develop, these circuits require a tremendous amount of design effort in a virtual domain using Electronic Design Automation (EDA) tools in order to get them right. Similarly, optical devices are another component classification where the level of complexity demands highly efficient systems design and accurate automated manufacturing. The demand for optical devices integrated with electronics is growing due to the very high bandwidths and very low transmission losses they deliver. Achieving this level of performance takes extreme accuracy, as well as physical alignment coupled with great durability.

Building platforms to the future

Automating the design process, such as using EDA tools to develop integrated circuits, leans heavily on design reuse. This typically takes the shape of proven functions that are packaged up to become ‘building blocks’ that can be slotted together to create a complete solution.

The metaphor can be extended to describe how the building blocks enable each layer of integration in the product design process, and even further to define how the final product may be manufactured using those components and sub-systems which, themselves, become building blocks.

This is where having the ability to design product and manufacturing platforms that are building blocks for multiple generations of product can deliver substantial gains in the design and manufacturing process and maximize the efficient use of scarce resources. Molex follows this ethos when working with customers and their design experts to develop new ‘building blocks’ that meet the end product’s requirements exactly.

Across its optical solutions business, Molex uses collaborative design tools with its customers to propose initial concepts for optical module products. Beyond the technical performance parameters, we can address size, configuration, connection interfaces, and aesthetics. The full module is simulated so that we can predict performance and create advanced features before making the first physical parts. The tools allow engineers to position fully architected products in a 3D environment as working examples within the customer’s end application, using animation to demonstrate how the product will fit, interact, and function. Customers benefit by seeing results quickly and having the opportunity to provide input, enabling Molex to respond rapidly with change requests and enhancements that make the product development cycle more efficient.

In concert with its advanced design capabilities, Molex also uses advanced manufacturing capabilities and technology innovation to automate our advanced optical wavelength switches using our optical fabric-build automation robotics platform. Aligning optical lightpaths for clear transmission is key to reliable performance in communications systems. The final alignment of the optical system is achieved via automated robotic control. Molex custom alignment stations optimize the degrees of freedom that light can travel. We develop custom software to monitor light running through the optical circuit to control the robotic alignment of all the various elements. Not only does this result in better products that can be built more efficiently, but it ensures better uniformity from unit to unit and across operators and manufacturing processes.

Designing our products with the technology to apply advanced manufacturing methods at the early stage of product design allows us to work with our customers and factory teams to work on streamlined manufacturing, even before the first pilot runs of the product on actual equipment is finalized.

Once in volume production, Molex employs advanced automation using robotics and computing capability to monitor the health and efficiency of our production lines in real-time. This allows changes with minimal interruption to production, thus increasing throughput and minimizing downtime. Ultimately, this combination of advanced technology in design and manufacturing enable Molex to respond with greater speed and create more value for customers, suppliers, and society.

Putting Industry 4.0 into practice

Leveraging new technologies and transformative processes to deliver higher efficiency is not just a trend, it is a continuing expectation. While Industry 4.0 gives this currency, it should be acknowledged that all markets are closely tied to the underlying technological developments that enable this and all other trends.

In the context of product design and manufacturing, Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is vital, and automation is critical to the process overall. However, the machinery used to implement that automation must be designed with consideration of how each component is integrated into the total system in order to ensure accuracy, performance and efficiency. And likewise, those smallest building blocks should also be developed with DfM in mind.

Bottom line? Building better products starts with the design but it extends all the way to  final assembly and fulfilment.. And, with the latest tools and highly skilled engineering expertise, those ever-evolving efficiency and accuracy percentages are reaching new heights.

Vice President and General Manager of Optical Solutions Group at Molex