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Maintenance In High-Tech Industries

Mon, 10/11/2004 - 6:48am
Nancy Syverson, Managing Editor

Technical innovation has created challenges in maintenance that high-tech manufacturers say can be as complex and costly as the manufacturing process itself.


The world has come to expect marvels from high-tech manufacturing. Extraordinary advances in computers, instrumentation, digital cameras, medical devices and other areas enter the market daily, more powerful, smaller and less expensive than before. Thanks to seemingly limitless worldwide demand, the market for these products is expecting double-digit sales growth in the near term: 19.6% this year and 16.6% in 2005, according to the Manufacturers Alliance/MAPI economic forecast.

While this growth will be driven by both industrial and retail marketplaces, it's inevitably tied to the ability of the plants that manufacture high-tech products to stay ahead of a very fast-moving curve. As a New Hampshire-based computer maker says, "Our customers want cutting-edge technology or our product loses its appeal." If that technology isn't created, maintained and expanded upon at the plant level, tomorrow's business might never materialize.

As a result, facilities that manufacture high-tech products must be highly sophisticated operations that use the latest equipment, operated and maintained by highly skilled technicians. The high-tech factory has been re-shaped, mindful of the new materials and processes needed to make high-tech products. These products are typically made in one-piece-flow workstations, equipped with computers and microscopes in silent, air-conditioned cells. Clean rooms and near-clean environments are common; heat, noise and dirt are not part of the process. Keeping things "running" often involves technicians who are trained in computer programming, surface-mount technology and other special skills. What they can't fix, they might outsource or return to a vendor for repair.

For example, Everest VIT's plant in Flanders, NJ, includes a clean room, a laser, a wire-stripping station, a fiber-draw tower, and an assembly area to make its video borescope products. Networked computers control and monitor the equipment used to make the units, which includes an imager, which is used to place a silicon chip in a 1/10-in. camera. The imager, as well as other equipment, has documented preventive maintenance processes, which are performed on a scheduled basis. Because of the high-tech nature of the product and processes, the operation runs on one shift and all maintenance is performed in-house.

"Maintenance requires quite a bit of training and cross-training on a regular basis in a high-tech environment," says Tom Putnam, Everest VIT's production manager. The knowledge base is so deep among the plant's current workers, he says, that it would be difficult to match it on another shift. When equipment fails or questions arise, everyone gets involved: maintenance crew, technicians, production engineering and sometimes even R&D, says Putnam.

A key requirement of many high-tech manufacturing plants is that they be electrostatic-discharge (ESD) safe throughout. "ESD is that charge or shock you get after walking across the floor and touching the door knob," says Bill Ratfield, director of global manufacturing at National Instruments, the software and electronics maker based in Austin, TX. "We're preventing ESD because if you're handling electronics and you grab a board, you'll blow the circuits on the board."

The importance of ESD has led to the development of an association (the ESD Association, Rome, NY), along with standards for the effect and control of static electricity and discharge, especially in high-tech facilities. On the maintenance side, steps taken to prevent ESD include protective flooring over conductive floor tile and a dissipative floor finish, applied with new mops, that should be rinsed before use. Often, high-tech manufacturers will outsource these types of specialized facility-maintenance routines.

Ratfield says ESD is a big issue at National Instruments because of the size of its operation. At the company's Austin plant, for example, some 200 employees build more than 800 different active assemblies. These include modular instruments, motion controllers, switches, data-acquisition products and others. Ratfield runs two 10-hour shifts four days a week. The techs who maintain the machines are trained by engineers and by the machine's vendors. They perform preventive maintenance on a variety of equipment, which includes surface-mount assembly lines, component-placement equipment, reflow ovens and wave-soldering equipment. When maintenance is required, the in-plant team takes care of the full spectrum of equipment failure, from mechanical issues such as bearings, solenoids, motors, to controllers, computer cards and hard drives.

"These technicians are capable of repairing either a mechanical-type failure or an electronic, control-type failure," says Ratfield. "The preventive maintenance schedules run daily, weekly or monthly depending on the equipment. We rarely experience any catastrophic failures that put us down for a long time, which is the result of a good preventive maintenance program."

In high-tech's dark ages, engineers once made computer chips by hand. They used sharp X-acto knives and manually cut pieces of red plastic material called rubylith into strips. These strips were then physically taped to transparent sheets hanging nearby. When it was time to assemble the final chip, each layer of silicon or aluminum was interspersed with the taped, rubylith sheets. Today, chip-making is performed with sophisticated electronic automation tools and software programmed by teams of engineers in ultra-clean environments. These chip factories are called fabrication facilities or fabs. Within these fabs are clean rooms, where the actual chip-making takes place. According to industry experts, the cost of maintaining a Class 1 clean room and its associated controlled environments costs anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000 per square foot annually.

"Turning over and filtering the air is what makes the clean rooms clean" and very expensive to operate, says Barry Rockwell, fab manager at Photronics, an Austin, TX-based maker of optic reticles and photomasks for the semiconductor and microelectronics industries. Photronics' 14,000-sq.-ft. facility employs 130 workers in its Class 1 clean rooms.

To get an idea of how clean a clean room has to be, "A Class 1 environment should have fewer than 100 particles of half a micron in size for each cubic foot of air," says Rockwell. Air is turned over 400 to 600 times per hour and filtered through HEPA particulate air filters. Fans run 24/7. If they are turned off or if their speed is changed, it can take hours to achieve the correct level of air purity.

At Photronics, the entire volume of air in its clean rooms runs through an Opus filtering system about 360 times an hour. By comparison, a standard office ventilation system will turn the air over no more than two times an hour. On-site maintenance crews may perform minor tasks like inspecting, cleaning or changing air filters, but the complexity of the clean-room environment means that much of its maintenance is outsourced.

Clean-room complexity has evolved not just because of air requirements, but also requirements for temperature and humidity. The environments are maintained at plus or minus 2% relative humidity within five-hundredths of a degree C. Rockwell says that these conditions are important because they account for the speed of light and the coefficient of expansion of the material used to make their products.

In fact, all maintenance issues in this environment, from faulty electrical connections to inadequate lubrication on a blower motor, can have an immediate and direct impact on production. And energy costs, already high for this type of operation, can quickly climb if evaporator and condenser coils are not cleaned or refrigerant levels are low.

"Losing temperature control is deadly," says Rockwell. "It might cost us 24 to 48 hours of downtime before we could get back to a stable temperature and begin manufacturing again."

Power outages can be similarly devastating. To prevent them, Photronics' fab runs multiple feeds between power sources and is equipped with a static transfer switch to change between them. That system is backed by diesel generators or co-generators so the fab can generate its own power if needed. Rockwell says the fab also maintains redundancy in a five-pump system that pumps de-ionized chilled water through the air-conditioning loops. "If we needed 500 tons of chilling water," he says, "we would have 1,000 tons on site."

Reducing the cost of clean-room maintenance is a major concern for high-tech manufacturers. One way they're doing that is to use a mini-clean room. Maxwell Technologies in San Diego, CA, a manufacturer of ultracapacitors, for backup power supplies, has installed these portable, single-operator/operation work stations that provide a certified, Class 1 clean-room environment in reduced size. Enclosed in a hooded box, they provide controlled temperature, humidity and cleanliness. Their also wheeled for easy mobility.

"All of our factories are highly reconfigurable for efficiency," says Richard Smith, executive vice president for business development. "If we change a process flow, we can create the super-clean environment by rolling in one of our clean stations, but we don't have the room itself." Importantly, the portable stations costs less than $10,000 each to operate _ the cost of only two square feet of a permanent Class 1 clean room.

Clearly, operating and maintaining a high-tech manufacturing facility differs from that of a standard manufacturing operation. This is due to the use of new materials, equipment and skill sets, in addition to increased customization, shorter product life cycles and high product-mix environments.

At Mine Safety Appliances Co.'s Instrument division in Pittsburgh, PA, the company manufactures a range of high-tech detection devices, all of which use an electronic circuit board, processor, display screens and a sensing device. Director of operations Alan DiGiovanni says these types of products cannot be produced on machinery that is not similarly high-tech, and maintained in a high-tech manner.

For example, surface-mount technology, a core operation in the electronics industry, picks and places a component on a circuit board. It is controlled by a computer and has many moving parts. If it breaks down, a maintenance technician can make minor repairs and run down the list of preventive maintenance. But DiGiovanni says a problem his maintenance technicians face is the diversity of equipment at MSA and the fact that they don't work on the same unit every day. As a result, he says, maintenance proficiency grows slowly.

"We found that as the level of sophistication increased, when a problem occurred, it was a more technical, sophisticated issue that required people to have a very high level of training or skill to solve," says DiGiovanni. "If they couldn't solve it, we had to rely on service contracts with our suppliers to come in and maintain the machines because they are so specialized."

To keep their high-tech operation up and running, MSA developed a system called lean sigma, which is a combination of lean manufacturing techniques with six sigma quality directives to improve manufacturing operations. This includes training the entire workforce in lean manufacturing and one-piece flow. On a regular basis they also conduct kaizen blitzes, always with representation from maintenance.

"The maintenance technicians who work on SMT equipment are there so we can integrate their ideas in our efforts to optimize use of the equipment," says DiGiovanni. "We look at where the equipment is located, how we load it and unload it, whether the maintenance team has access to the equipment, and if floor space is used wisely."

DiGiovanni stresses that a key difference between a facility that manufactures high-tech products and one that does not is the skill level of the respective workforces. DiGiovanni had managed a non-high-tech MSA facility that made safety products for 16 years before joining the instrumentation division one year ago. He says the transition showed him that while he could manage any plant operation, his inexperience in electronics meant that he not only had to find the right people for the right job, but he had to "leverage their skills, education and knowledge so we can accomplish our mission. From that standpoint," he says, "the level of skill that we need to recruit is much higher than it was at the safety-products plant."

Today, DiGiovanni says he needs a minimum of a high-school education for entry-level positions, and requires two- and four-year degrees in electronics for higher-level positions. He says he has no trouble finding good candidates from local community colleges and specialty electronics schools, but his current goal is to increase on-the-job training so more maintenance and repair can be done in-house.

"We have to be more willing to take on new technologies and send our people out to learn them," he says. "We have to start to build in-house expertise so we can increase the number of types of equipment we can maintain, so we can repair machines in house, and build better in-house competencies."

Further complicating tomorrow's high-tech production and maintenance issues is the trend to make things smaller. Micro-sizing and nanotechnology are on the horizon, and as high-tech products shrink, the equipment used to manufacture them will become more sophisticated, as will the knowledge needed to repair them.

"When I look at the equipment we use to produce printed circuit board assemblies," says National Instruments' Ratfield, "parts are already getting much smaller. Some of them are about the size of a pepper flake."

The challenge, he adds, will be for high-tech maintenance crews to not only learn more about electronic control systems, but to fine-tune their sense of precision. This will be important, he says, when they're asked to determine why a machine is not properly placing a part that they themselves can't even see.

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