What are custom test fixtures?
Fixtures are generally smaller and simpler than equipment, but the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably. Nevertheless, one would typically not refer to a giant machine on the factory floor as a fixture, or conversely a small drilling jig as a piece of equipment. Often the term “test fixtures” is used to refer to the class of fixture utilized in testing devices. These tests can range from evaluating shaft straightness on a device to quality inspections to assessing performance of a device’s features (like this three-point bending fixture). Of course, not all fixtures are test fixtures. Non-test fixtures (referred to as simply “fixtures”) might include constructions used to disassemble a specific component on a device, drilling a hole at a very specific location on a device, or a particular aspect of an assembly process.
Test fixtures typically (but not always) do not include automation or motion control, and are more often static in nature or actuated manually. Test fixture design commonly employs strong, reliable materials such as Aluminum, stainless steel, and Delrin. Often, custom test fixtures are manufactured to very tight tolerances in the thousandths of inches, or even ten thousandths of inches, to perform highly precise actions on the devices with which they interact. As is the case for all of the equipment Pipeline develops, our test fixture design is focused on custom solutions as opposed to “off the shelf” options.
What is custom equipment?
Equipment within the manufacturing industry can generally be defined as mechanical constructions used to execute a process (for example, an injection molding press, a robotic arm, or perhaps an apparatus used to dispense glue onto product). Furthermore, it can be split into two categories: commercially available and custom (commercially available equipment typically being available as an “off the shelf item” that can be procured immediately, and custom equipment representing solutions that are not readily available and require development to address the particular application for which it is needed). The development of manufacturing equipment may also be referred to as machine design, and often involves elements such as motors, sensors, PLCs (programmable logic controllers…basically industrial computers), air cylinders, HMIs (human machine interfaces…such as a touch screen display) housed in metal enclosures.
Because custom equipment requires development (often referred to as an “NRE”, or a non-recurring engineering cost) it is often more expensive than commercially available equipment. So, why would one make the investment in costlier custom equipment vs simply purchasing equipment that is already commercially available? Usually the answer is because the solution one wishes to achieve cannot be realized by commercially available equipment, and thus custom equipment must be developed to do so. This comes in many forms: for example a custom test fixture design to create a life cycle test for a particular device, or to assemble a new & unique product, or to perform functional verification on a device.
Pipeline’s focus is developing custom equipment. Engineering, R&D and manufacturing teams come to Pipeline when they cannot find an off the shelf solution to their specific application. Many times the full solution requires some level of process development, as well, that then becomes integrated into the equipment, and this is commonly a part of the value we provide to our customers.
What is industrial automation?
Industrial automation is the execution of processes without human intervention, often run repeatedly. The benefits are accuracy, repeatability, and reliability. Once an automated process has been developed and deployed, it will (given proper maintenance) run indefinitely and autonomously to produce the same result over and over. Industrial automation removes the inherent variability associated with human operators and produces results that are predictable and repeatable every time. Generally speaking, these results are produced much faster (often orders of magnitude faster) than can be accomplished by human operators.
Given all of the benefits associated with industrial automation, why wouldn’t every team incorporate it into their workflows? As with most things, there are tradeoffs, the largest of which is arguably the cost and time associated with setting up new automation. For this reason, automation is typically not deployed in situations involving low volume operations. If something only needs to be produced a dozen times, the investment in automating the process likely will not be financially justifiable. When a process needs to be deployed many thousands of times or more, however, automation may become an attractive solution that can reduce costs far below and improve quality far above what the manual counterparts might be.
Industrial automation can be deployed in relatively small tabletop constructions (an example of this is shown in our automated drilling fixture), or up through expansive lines that consume an entire factory floor. There are also varying degrees to which a process may be automated, depending on volume, process complexity, and the cost of alternate solutions.