Design machines on the boundaries of manufacturability

Published on by Development & Engineering. The reading time is approximately 8 minutes.

Erald Schipper works as System Lead Engineer at NTS. Currently he is involved in a complex project in which very diverse disciplines and parts of NTS cooperate. For over twenty years NTS has been designing and delivering pick-and-place robots for one of its strategic customers. The robots are robust systems that have been continuously optimized. The most recent challenge was to make them more precise. Erald likes working on small but complete and complex machines, on the boundaries of manufacturability. "I studied technology to be able to make something."

 "I have been working for NTS for three years now. I started as a Design Engineer and recently I was promoted to System Lead Engineer," says Erald. “In my role as Design Engineer I ensured that concepts were worked out in a detailed manner. I have a master in mechanical automation and I focus primarily on mechanics. At NTS, I am also part of the Matlab Competence Team. In this team we work on the correct implementation of a mathematical calculation program within NTS that allows you to execute all kinds of complex simulations and display data. What I also like doing is thinking about concepts and partial solutions. Something that I can do a lot in my new role as System Lead Engineer. I propose five concepts and then discuss them with the system architect in order to detail them further. Besides the technology I then look at schedules and overviews. What we deliver in the end, are prototypes and 0-series. What I like about NTS is that it is also possible to manufacture complete series here. Connecting with this expertise is also part of my job responsibilities.”

From precise to twice as precise

“The project that I am currently working on is the fourth project in which I am involved within NTS. We are working on refining a robot that can place objects with a precision of some tens of µm. We are now working on improving linear guidance. The robot experienced a minor disruption, but it was too much. It concerns achieving a certain precision in positioning objects. The original design was no longer precise enough because of the increasing demand for precision. The customer asked us to develop a system that can do the same but then roughly twice as precise. Due to the higher precision, the final products can be made narrower, lighter and more compact and you notice that. You can see the result in the electronics in your phone that become smaller and smaller. Besides this, the higher precision leads to a reduction in errors. "

Involvement technicians at three levels

“In a project like this one colleagues at three levels are generally involved: the system architect, the lead engineer and the design engineer. The system architect fulfils the most conceptual role. He formulates technical specifications together with the customer and is responsible for scheduling and budgets. Accordingly, a lead engineer is assigned to the project who gets the responsibility for implementing those specifications in a module. Furthermore, design engineers are assigned to the project who work on the execution of technical details.”

Solutions that meet the system boundaries

“Considering the limited scope of this specific project, I am both responsible for the role of lead and design engineer. The system architect who is involved in this project, had already done some research before I got involved. He mapped possible solutions and described system boundaries like: ‘what does the interface with the rest of the machine look like?’, ‘what room do you have and how much can it cost?’. Together we started working with these starting points in mind. During a brainstorm we looked for solutions that comply with the system boundaries. In this case we worked out three concepts in which we mapped the risks per concept by means of a failure mode effect analyses and a safety risk assessment.”

Air hockey principle

“A linear guidance based on balls functions just like the rails of a kitchen drawer, it can be tight because of friction and tension. In this case we have chosen to resolve this by applying an air hockey principle that is not accompanied by these effects. To achieve this, we have used an air bearing that squeezes air through a layer of graphite. When it comes to this principle you can choose for a round or flat shape, both have their pros and cons.”

Bringing concepts to live

“In the concept phase everything is still quite theoretical but eventually we have built five prototypes to confirm that we made the right choice. In an early stage I also made 3D prints from plastic to prove that certain functionalities fit in the design space. An additional advantage is that you really bring concepts to live by printing them.”

Taking into account considerations serial production during proto phase

“The prototypes for the module are developed together with all departments and operating subsidiaries that were involved. We have been making this machine for a long time and that is why many different disciplines within NTS are involved. That needs to be coordinated in a correct way.  When such a machine would have been developed by different companies this would also be the case. The advantage of the fact that all aspects of the development and manufacturing is done by NTS, is that during the proto phase we already think about what is needed when we upscale the proto into a series. If another company is responsible for the upscaling, a customer needs to guide that process.”

PCP provides guidance

“In this project my colleague Nicole Plender, as responsible project manager, supervises this design process. She ensures good project planning so that everything runs streamlined. At NTS, we work on the basis of the Product Creation Process (PCP) and that provides guidance for everyone involved, including myself. A PCP divides the design process in phases. It varies from product and project definition to feasibility studies, detailed design and finally the verification tests. Then I can also explain why we do or don’t do certain things and when which activity takes place. By giving these insights we minimise the project risks for ourselves and the customer.”

Working on the basis of a fixed structure

“I like that at NTS we have a clear structure because of the PCP. That forces me to devise a baseline and frameworks in advance. At the company where I worked before I joined NTS, there was no such structure. That went pretty chaotic. Here I plan all my tasks and indicate how much time it will cost me. I then discuss and schedule it with Nicole. This is how we create and maintain an overview.

Project planning helps manage expectations

“The project planning gives me an overview. Fully realising that I am not productive or schedulable 100% of my time really, took me some time. I can now also give feedback to a customer when something happens and I can more easily visualize the consequences of when we do not perform an action. A customer, for example, recently asked me “can’t you do that faster?” I noticed that I was about to get in the action mode but by first looking at the priorities I didn’t and I was able to explain why. If I get stuck in this project, I go to Nicole for advice. "

Making complete machines on the limit of manufacturability

“I used to want to become an inventor. I was good at physics and mathematics. In the end I opted for mechanical engineering and then specifically for mechatronics. In the end I just wanted to build complete machines. I studied technology to be able to make something. That's possible at NTS. You can simply design a machine yourself, assemble it and plug it in. I usually work on relatively small machines that can be assembled in two weeks. They are often very complex; it is on the border of manufacturability. "

Being able to oversee a complete machine is a luxury

“I also really enjoy working with our operating company in Wijchen. Then I walk to the buyer with a drawing and he looks for someone who can make it. Or I just walk to the man behind the lathe and ask him to think along with me about the design.  I think it is a luxury that we make smaller machines. As a lead engineer you can be far more involved than when it concerns a huge machine that cannot be overseen by one person. If the protos are on the table, it really feels like a gift. "

Provide feedback from experience and content

“At NTS I can also watch what the engineers do. What was treated at the university was very theoretical. Here you come across many practical issues. Ultimately, I want to become a system architect in the future. Because I am someone who wants to be able to give feedback from the content, I must have seen and done everything before that time. A possibility that  have at NTS."

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