Flexible and future-proof with an off-the-shelf solution
isel Germany AG specializes in building robots for handling wafers and solar cells designed for very specific applications. By replacing a custom isel controller with an off-the-shelf solution based on B&R technology, isel gained the benefits of shorter innovation cycles, increased flexibility and an expanded range of functionality, not to mention the international presence of a strong automation partner. This robot manufacturer is now perfectly positioned to handle the demands of a volatile semiconductor market.
Robots from isel Germany AG can be found in wafer processing cells and sorters produced all over Europe. "In this highly competitive equipment market marked by fluctuating demand," explains Andreas Trabert, head of isel's Robotics division, "European manufacturers have made a name for themselves by developing highly specialized machines. These machines place specific demands on handling systems that standard off-the-shelf robots can't fulfill." isel has therefore focused on developing, producing and selling wafer handlers, prealigners, linear tracks and end effectors, which it then assembles into customized systems.
Trabert attributes isel's sustained success to its robots' high performance, "as well as isel's ability to tailor them to customers' specific applications, including those for use in Class 1 clean rooms as specified in DIN EN ISO 14644-1." He adds, "Customers also particularly value the quality of our service, which is unaffected by timezone, language or distance, as well as the financial stability we offer as part of a well-established group of companies."
This was the philosophy that guided isel's search for a new robot controller. "We evaluated solutions from five different suppliers, with B&R clearly coming out on top," says Trabert. "Our decision was primarily influenced by B&R's innovative strength, international positioning and market leadership, as well as their local presence – all factors that give us the agility to react flexibly to increasingly demanding customer requirements."
In light of the the mounting complexity of the control tasks required by isel's customers, it had become evident that the previous controller, developed specially for isel, would soon be reaching its limits. "We observed clear trends towards a higher number of axes, greater interdependence between robot and machine control processes and increasing throughput," explains Trabert. "B&R technology offers the openness and scalability we need to keep pace with these challenges in a sustainable way."
isel's previous solution topped out at a maximum of five axes – and even this was limited to point-to-point positioning. Thanks to a new controller and drives from B&R's ACOPOSmicro family that feature an EnDat interface and high-speed Ethernet POWERLINK with real-time capabilities, isel has already implemented systems with seven interpolated and synchronized axes – which is still far from exhausting the solution's potential. The advantages for the customer are clear, says Trabert: "In one particular application, upgrading to the new controller helped us minimize dead time and nearly double the machine's throughput, and we have yet to fully exploit the full potential for optimization."
Total control over the software
The modularity of the B&R solution allows isel to react more flexibly to customer requests. The robot controller, which also features a web server and CNC functionality, consists of a 1.6 GHz PLC from B&R's modular X20 System with an Intel Atom processor. The controller can be upgraded by adding an unlimited number of I/O modules from B&R's comprehensive portfolio. A fundamental element in this newly gained flexibility is the universal programmability of the controller.
"The control software B&R developed for us is easy and straightforward to expand using Automation Studio, allowing us to accommodate customer-specific requirements at any time," emphasizes Trabert. "When the software was being developed, we made sure that it was backward compatible so that customers using our existing machine controller or command macros can continue using them even after upgrading to the new robot controller."
A high-speed Ethernet interface allows the robot controllers to be very closely linked with the rest of the machine. "This link is even more seamless when the machine's controller is also built with B&R technology," adds Trabert, "as is the case with many of our users."
In the semiconductor industry, a machine's availability is equally as important as its ability to perform dynamic movements without delays and while maintaining high throughput. "The mechanical components in our robots are virtually free of wear, so they do not contribute to machine failures," explains Trabert. "The reliability and maintenance-friendliness of the electronic components was therefore given top priority in designing our new controller."
This led isel to opt for an external solution. "This way, you don't have to dismantle the entire robot to service the electronics and perform a new teach-in procedure when you're done. Depending on the application, this can save system operators several hours."
End users can also count on B&R for support when it comes to maximizing machine availability. "B&R's global network of subsidiaries ensures quality support anywhere in the world – one of the main factors for selecting them as our automation partner. Since our customers are able to order replacement parts directly from B&R, either locally or through other channels, we can greatly reduce or eliminate the amount of consignment stock we maintain. With B&R's size, innovative strength and policy of long-term product availability, we and our customers can both rest assured that they will be around as a solid partner long into the future."
These factors, along with the positive experiences using the new controllers so far, have led isel Germany AG and other companies from the isel group to utilize B&R technology to solve demanding control tasks in other applications, with the added benefit of reducing the overall number of control electronics suppliers. "Our colleagues were also impressed by B&R's extremely low project development cost estimates and excellent project support. B&R stands far above the competition in these regards," concludes Trabert.