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Interview with Todd O’Neil, Business Development Manager, Nordson DAGE Assure™ X-Ray

Nordson Corporation is a global designer and manufacturer of innovative precision technologies for critical customer applications in consumer, medical, electronics and industrial end markets. The company’s products are supported by application expertise and direct global sales and service. We recently met with Todd O’Neil, Business Development and SalesManager specifically for the Nordson Assure product line, to find out more about Nordson, its notable achievements and future plans.

For readers unfamiliar with Nordson TEST & INSPECTION, can you briefly describe it? How does this division fit into the Nordson company?

As you know, Nordson is a global company involved in many different industries from medical to electronics, materials and more. We are leaders in many industries including our ADVANCED TECHNOLOGY SOLUTIONS, which includessubgroups such as Nordson ELECTRONICS SOLUTIONS, which is what we consider our “Build-in-Quality” segment, and TEST & INSPECTION (T&I), which we consider our “Verify Quality” segment. Within the T&I group we offer ACCOUSTIC products, OPTICAL products, Bond testing and Materialproducts, X-ray detectors and sources and, of course, the Assure X-ray component counting systems which we are discussing today.

We understand that you work primarily with the Nordson Assure products. What is this division’s role under the TEST & INSPECTION umbrella?

A high percentage of TEST & INSPECTIONcustomers are building circuit boards and other electronic assemblies. The Nordson products within the TEST & INSPECTIONgroup are used to verify quality as mentioned above. Most are verifying quality on electronic assemblies, which have electronic components. With such shortages of electronic components, it is critical to have complete control of your component inventory during the process of building these products. The Assure counts components very quickly and accurately with much less handling, compared to the old way of manually counting or not counting at all. It will update ERP, storage towers and/or racks, and will give you peace of mind by having complete control of your inventory. The idea of counting components and controlling your inventory is more about keeping SMT lines running.

How has Nordson Assure continued to stay successful and differentiate itself from its competition, especially in today’s fast-paced industry?

The first thing people should know is we were the first to produce this type of equipment for this application. We were originally optical control, and we began developing this machine in 2011 in Germany. As you know, we were acquired by Nordson in 2019 because we fit perfectly into their product lineup but, more importantly, our focus on quality and support fit theirs.

I believe we differentiate from others for several reasons but one of our big advantages is the fact that we built this productwithin our own EMS factory, for our own needs, where we had four SMT lines. Maybe you are thinking “why that isimportant”? There are many reasons:

1. We struggled with the same pain points all other EMS companies struggle with, i.e., line stoppage because there were fewer components on a reel than expected. As everyone knows, line stoppage is very expensive, frustrating, and often unnecessary. In fact, that is how this idea came about at optical control years ago. An engineer was being questioned about a line down and he said; “Well, if we had a better way to count components, maybe this wouldn’t continue happening.That was the beginning of optical control, and in reality, the beginning of counting components with x-ray.

2. We built this machine from the ground up as a component counter and nothing else. We did not turn an existing machine into a counter. We made a deliberate design from the beginning and the only focus was “counting components”.

3. We had, and still have, a dedicated team that focuses 100% on component counting. We don’t try to be an all-in-one solution as we feel that distracts from what we are good at.We work with other companies that do what they do best, while we continue to do what we do best. A good example is component storage which I’m sure will be a part of this conversation.

4. Most likely, our biggest advantage is we were both a CM and an OEM, and that means having thousands of reels onhand. Having an endless supply or reels that are used across multiple shifts for actual production needs gives us a huge advantage for our R&D. From this, we built the most robust set of algorithms in the industry specifically for this application. No other company can say that. If you think about it, any component such as a resistor 01005 can come in various packages, different quantities as well as cut strips, ESD bags, boxes, etc. You may not think those differences can affect an X-ray image and the counting process, but theycan and who is going to purchase millions of dollars in reels for testing? We didn’t have to because we have this inventory in our own factory. I have zero doubt that has always been our biggest advantage and sets us apart from others. Having these robust sets of algorithms results in never requiring a library of models and requiring NO programming. It’s truly a“Plug and Play” solution that can be used within a few hours of arriving at a factory.

5. Being part of Nordson gives the added benefit of a larger team and more support, which is comforting to our customers.

Why does component counting seem to be such a hot topic right now?

I’d say it’s been very hot for a while as people are realizing it is a critical part of the process, and it demands the same attention as the entire production. They are searching for all ways to keep lines running. When a line stops because you ran out of a component that is worth about ½ a penny, it’s a bit frustrating. With the current component shortagesituation, it’s even more critical to manage your inventory. Keep what you have safe and know what you have. When using an x-ray counter such as the Assure, it allows you to count 100% of your inventory, typically with one person. That is not possible with manual counters unless you have several people doing this all day long across multiple shifts. Also, with manual counters you have a lot more human error, and now more than ever it is critical to manage inventory properly.

We’ve seen your Assure FLEX systems at several factories. Can you tell our readers a little about Assure FLEX Automation? What benefits does this technology provide users?

The Assure FLEX is very interesting. The “FLEX” name was decided because of its flexibility, which I’m guessing would be obvious. We don’t want to tell our potential customers, “This is what we can offer you for an inline solution. I hope you like it.” Instead, we designed a machine that can be built around the customers’ requirements. The FLEX machine can be purchased by itself and used by itself, or the customer can attach it to various conveyors, loaders, robots, etc. They canalso get a complete solution from us including loaders and unloaders, automatic label placement, and conveyors. In addition to handling devices, it can be physically connected to storage towers and for the most part, controlled by the tower.

The idea of the FLEX is not necessarily about cycle time. In fact, it could be slower than a stand-alone machine depending on the configuration, but not always. That is not a bad thing because the idea for this machine is more about a hands-off approach. However, no matter what, it will always be faster, more accurate, and safer compared to manual counting. In today’s world, its more about handsoff automation and inventory control vs. speed. Set it and walk away. This results in fewer human errors, and less potential damage to components. It’s not a pick and place machine where speed is always measured.

An example of one of our FLEX configurations is quite interesting. We supplied our FLEX machine without any attachments. The customer did the entire integration by themselves with our support. At incoming, they use an incoming material station to match the part numbers to a BOM and apply a new unique identifier for that reel. The reel is placed on a conveyor and transferred to the first Assure FLEX to verify the count matches the PO. From that point the reel travels throughout the factory on a conveyor directly to a storage tower with humidity control, and it stays there until it is needed for a job. Once the reel is called on, it is automatically delivered via AGV directly to the line. When production is completed, the reel is moved via AGV to a second Assure FLEX directly connected to the storage tower, counted again and returned to inventory. In this case, other than at receiving, and putting the reel on the feeder directly in front of the pick and place machine, there is no handling of the reel.

As you mentioned previously about storage, it seems the topic of the day at many factories is automated counting and storage. They are always included in the same conversation. How do they complement each other?

I think the example just mentioned is a very good example of how they complement each other. But not all customers are ready for this type of automation and that does not matter to us. Even our stand-alone Assures can communicate with any storage system. They do not have to be automated. We have several “s/w only” connections to storage towers and rooms. We also connect to storage rack systems which are different than towers but have many benefits as well. In fact, many customers have both storage towers and storage racks. Each have their own benefits.

The reel is counted on the Assure, and it immediately updatesany type of storage system. Whether they walk the reel over, push it on a cart, or a conveyor, the communication is the same as a fully automated system. The way the complement each other is simple. We count the reel, and then it is kept safe in a storage system. By them knowing the count, they can be confident when they put the reel on a feeder, and we can be confident after we count it, it is kept safe, and our count remains accurate and reliable. Working together like this is how we keep SMT lines running.

Last week during an open house, one of our reps told me one of his customers said to him “Stop searching for a reel that doesn’t exist”. That is so true. So much time is wasted searching for reels and what’s worse is when you find that reel and use it, you must wonder where it’s been and how many components are “really” on it. That is how we complement each other.

Conversely, what challenges do you foresee for these industries? Will Nordson Assure be ready to meet them?

Nordson will always be ready to meet any challenges. We have a team focused on counting, and over-all inventory concepts. The process of inventory control in the past was not always looked at with the same urgency as the rest of production, but it all ties in together. The challenge is to utilizeall solutions to keep SMT lines running more efficiently. We feel this starts with inventory management. If there is no inventory, there is no SMT line. If the quantity is not reliable, it results in a line that can be down far too often.

In years past, it was considered wasteful for a person to manually count components all day and many factories still do not count at all. We have led the market by simplifying that process and that solves the first challenge. I think complete automation will continue to be in high demand and the challenge in the next few years. For sure, Nordson is ahead of the game. So, the short answer is “Yes, Nordson will be ready to meet them”.

How has COVID-19 affected Assure products?

I don’t think the Assure has been affected directly. In fact, demand has been very strong, sales have been great and the product keeps improving. I think COVID has slightly changed the way we do business but that’s about it.

With that said, what are the most significant ways that the pandemic has changed the way we do business today?

I think my answer will be like many others in our industry: lots of online Web conferences. I think we have all done more of them in the past 20 months than we have done previously in our career. It’s been good in some ways as we have realized we can accomplish a lot with online meetings. However, I feel face-to-face meetings are still most important and desired for most people but safety for ourselves, our families, and our customers is the priority.

If we can’t do a face-to-face meeting, and an online conference is not enough, a live video demonstration of our machines is great. The customers do not need to leave their factory but can be part of an actual demo via videoconferencing. We’ve done several live demos and let the customers direct the activity as if they were there. Many times, a box of reels is sent ahead of time so we can use their reels during the demo. This has always been available to our customers but because of the pandemic, we have been doing a lot more and I’ve come to believe this is a great way to show the machine.

What would you most like readers to know about Nordson Assure?

We were first to market with this type of product, and we are still the leaders. We have always had the same vision for this product and our design was deliberate from the beginning. It didn’t start as something else and then converted to a counter: it started 100% as a counter, and our focus is still 100% counting.

We are ready to meet all customer needs and requests. Mostcompanies realize how important this is and don’t want to rely on manual counting. They want a closedloop system where we can communicate with other inventory management systems such as storage and an ERP. They want automation. The bottom line is they want to know their inventory and have the confidence their lines will not stop because of a missing component. And I must also say they want a machine that is intelligent, simple, fast, and trustworthy that anyone can use. It should not require an engineer to count components.

That is what we provide with the Assure.