Fixing the two-legged stool of Australian-made product development

Since Covid19 struck, there have been many calls to rebuild Australian manufacturing. However, the Australian-made story is like a three-legged stool missing one leg – automated box build.

Australia’s ability to compete with Asian-based low-cost manufacturers has always relied on our entrepreneurial ability to commercialise fundamental research or innovative ideas – the first leg of the stool.

More recently, our competitiveness has increased due to investment in advanced manufacturing technologies that produce sophisticated sub-assemblies that provide the core of the value-add in products – the second leg of the stool. In the electronics manufacturing industry, this has been driven by investment in high-speed surface-mount, pick-and-place machines that have brought us to price parity with Asian manufacturers for PCB assemblies.

However, there is a missing leg in Australia – automated box build. Also known as final or turnkey assembly, box build is the process of connecting all the sub-assemblies in their enclosure to deliver the final product.

Under the present paradigm, final assembly is a largely manual and costly process. The limitation is largely due to the lack of robotic systems that match the marvellous dexterity of the human hand. Even tasks as seemingly simple as picking up an odd-shaped object like a spring or wire and inserting it into the correct place is incredibly challenging for robots. It gets even more difficult when the robot must manipulate the object with a human sense of touch, such as that exerted when using a screwdriver.

Robotics technologies exist to do this but are usually the preserve of very high volume products such as those used in mobile phones or automobile assembly. For high-volume the cost of developing custom robotic solutions can be justified. However, for small to medium volume production, this has been an insurmountable challenge to date.

So Circuitwise was delighted to see that the winner of the Advanced Manufacturing category of the latest round of the Australian Technologies Competition was won by a company we have been following for some time – Contactile.

Contactile has developed a gripping solution for robotic automation tasks, that mimics the dexterity of a human hand. The technology uses a tactile sensor made from an array of soft pillars with a patented optical technique for calculating 3D force, deflection and vibration.

“By analysing pillar movements in real-time, the onset of slip can be detected and friction estimated, allowing us to optimise the grip force applied to a grasped object”, Contactile CEO Heba Khamis says.

The key point about this kind of technology is that it is flexible enough to adapt to virtually any manufacturing application. This is a key part of the solution if we are to build a third leg for short to medium manufacturing runs in Australia.

While this technology is a major step forward, more needs to be done. Circuitwise recently completed a box build for a product with hundreds of components and looked at the possibility of semi-assistive robotic assembly. The reality was that the robotic assembly of such a complex product was not viable because the product was not designed with robotic assembly in mind.

If industrial designers had a greater focus on balancing the aesthetic and functional requirements with that of reducing assembly costs, then we would be that much closer to viability. Product components need to be designed not just to meet functional requirements but work with the capability of the current generation of robotic assembly technology.

For example, Contactile’s first-generation robotic hand can only work with reasonably large parts and any tool it uses needs a large handle. So industrial designers need to think about eliminating small parts like screws in favour of the snap-fit assembly. Custom tools to pick up and manipulate odd parts/tools would also be needed. For example, a glue dispenser should be chosen to work with a robotic hand.

For small runs, the assembly station or line would also need to be designed to make it easy for the arm of the robot to reach out and pick up the parts. Programming the robot is another challenge and advances in AI is now allowing programming by demonstration and self-learning. Contract manufacturers like Circuitwise need to easily change between products for different clients, requiring a rapid programming ability.

One intriguing area of opportunity is when the product is also designed for robotic disassembly. For most products, environmentally responsible disposal of product is not a legislative requirement. However, with progressive governments around the world increasingly mandating whole-of-life product stewardship, the economics of robotic assembly made take an even greater step toward viability.

Companies currently doing final assembly in Australia usually do so because they are simply patriotic, have very low-volume production or stringent reliability requirements requiring a trustworthy local supplier. More recently, the risk of supply chain disruption due to Covid19 has been another factor.

Circuitwise has several customers that rely on us for just these reasons. We would love to see more companies doing final assembly in Australia but it requires people with the vision to invest in the next generation of robotic assembly.

What we need is a concerted collaborative effort between innovative startups like Contactile, researchers in artificial intelligence of manufacturing, industrial designers with an assembly-first mentality, government policy-makers encouraging product stewardship, and original equipment manufacturers with a vision to go beyond patriotism to building the future of advanced manufacturing in Australia. We need to build the third leg of the Australian-made stool.

Circuitwise Electronics Manufacturing, Sydney Australia

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