Monday, June 25, 2018
Publication Date: 03/1/2010
Archive >  March 2010 Issue >  Special Features: SMT and Production > 

Solving In-Line Test Bottlenecks
Electric power meter transmits RF readings.

Meter-maker Itron Inc. provides a uniquely comprehensive portfolio of products and services for the energy and water industries throughout the world. Itron Inc. consists of Itron in North America and Actaris outside of North America.

The company manufactures solid-state meters that measure electricity, water, gas and heat, as well as data collection/communication systems, including automated meter reading (AMR) and advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) technology.

The 33-year-old company offers enterprise-wide software platforms, project management, installation and consulting services. This allows customers to collect more detailed, reliable and timely data, analyze it in meaningful ways and use it to make informed decisions that optimize the use of energy and water. The company has over 8,500 employees and more than 8,000 customers in over 130 countries.

Automating PCB Testing
"In 2007, we investigated automating the functional circuit board testing for our high volume RF products," explained Glenn Duerr, Senior Manufacturing Engineer at Itron. "Within these machines there is a transmitter included that works with radio frequencies. We wanted to lower the cost of testing by reducing labor through the use of automatic handling."

"We also wanted to increase throughput by reducing load/unload times as well as the reduction of test times with the use of parallel tests. After evaluating test handling vendors, it was decided to work with Cencorp."

The project with Cencorp is at Itron's production facility in Waseca, Minnesota, and involved test handlers for two Itron products, both RF sending units that allow automated data retrieval. The test requirements included traditional functional power-up testing and RF performance testing. This demanded a special kind of handler solution with an integrated RF enclosure. Traditionally, Itron has used test stations that required manual loading and unloading. Not only does this increase labor costs, but it also increases the risk associated with damaged products resulting from operator error.
Cencorp's 501 SL test system.

When looking for automated test handling, Itron wanted equipment that could be utilized for several years by reconfiguring it with different test adapters for the different circuit boards. "Cencorp's expertise brought value-added benefits," explains Kent Dixon, U.S Sales Manager, Cencorp. "Itron approached us for an automated solution for test handling. They purchased four 501 SL, in-line test handling systems. The 501 SL is a compact, in-line test handler that can be configured to accommodate a wide range of test requirements. The 501mm wide handler has a lift unit that lifts the panel or pallet off of the conveyor and engages it with a test fixture. The 501 SL systems includes an integrated RF chamber, allowing RF testing."

These systems are used on two production lines. Two 501 SL systems are used in-line to meet the production line's capacity requirements. The novel bypass feature in the machine allows two systems to be installed in-line but used in parallel. If the first system already has a product in test, then the next product can pass through to the second system.

RF Isolation Needed
One of the requirements was to have the test adaptors RF isolated so that RF tests would be repeatable. An additional requirement was to load a panel into the adaptor to allow tests to be performed on multiple circuits at the same time. The load and unload needed to be automatic to reduce the labor. Itron needed the flexibility to start with two test handlers in a series and at a later date add a third without having to resort to substantial line reconfiguration. "Following the successful initial implementation of Cencorp's in-line test handling systems, we expect to reduce our labor and increase our throughput or pulse rate," Duerr continued. "Labor should be reduced by 2 or 3 operators in a 3-shift operation. The load/unload time saved will give us a 15 to 27 percent increase in throughput. Parallel testing will give us another 3 to 6 percent increase in throughput. To date, our experiences with Cencorp have been both positive and financially beneficial. We look forward to finishing the implementation, improving efficiency, realizing the cost/benefit savings, and using Cencorp's expertise and equipment for future products."

Remove Test Bottlenecks
The 501 SL uses parallel test processes without blocking the line. Because of its pass-through feature, capacity can be easily increased. It is the machine of choice for providing low-cost automated testing — a solution which ensures that the testing phase is not a bottleneck in the production line. The system provides high quality, fast cycle time and change-over time. The company has over 10 years of experience built into this 3rd generation test solution. The graphical user interface makes the system easy to program and operate different test processes. It is easily connected to different test platforms and it's not dependent on special hardware or software.

Single Platform
The company's standard solutions are based on one platform and module strategy. If required, customer-specific modules can be created to meet the testing process requirements. In effect, more testing power can be packed into a smaller space. The 501 SL is used in functional testing, camera checking, software downloading, boundary scan tests, RF measurements and different electrical measurements.

Contact: Cencorp, Maksjoentie 11, FI-08700 Lohja, Finland +358 19 6610 100 fax: +358 19 6610 380 In the USA: 956-467-5660 or 281-251-8895 E-mail: Web:

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