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By Jason Brett, May 6, 2013
People love display screens. I’m looking at one as I write this, and chances are good that you’re looking at one as you read this. From phones in pockets to replays in stadiums, flat panel displays are everywhere. Global sales of displays last year were roughly $100 billion USD.1 If you put the screens of the 56,000,000 iPads sold in 2012 side by side, they would cover the city of London. Add televisions, monitors, phones, and laptops, and you could pave the island of Manhattan in new display screens every year.
While thousands of companies produce flat panel displays, the machines they use to manufacture them come from a relatively short list of companies. I had the chance to learn more about this technology by speaking with an engineer with years of experience in the field. Due to the extremely competitive nature of the industry, however, he requested that I keep his firm’s identity confidential. What I can say, however, is that there is a good chance your computer, tablet, or cell phone uses components produced on the machines he helps design.
A silicon wafer catches the sun on its way through the fabrication process.
(Photo by Windell Oskay, published under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)
His company not only produces the equipment to manufacture flat panel displays, but also the machines that manufacture semiconductor chips and polycrystalline solar panels. It is the flat panel display manufacturing equipment, however, that is perhaps most impressive. One of their LCD display production machines requires the space of one-and-a-half Boeing 777 cargo planes to transport it to the end user’s "fab plant."
Engineers in this field face unique challenges. Their machines combine complex electronics with fluid power systems, and as production changes to more advanced devices, they need to be regularly updated. As the machines become more complex over the years, the software used to design them has had to advance as well. This company once used AutoCAD to design their schematics. "We needed to migrate to an intelligent CAD platform," the engineer explained to me. While AutoCAD was great for mechanical design, it lacked the intelligence to produce reliable electrical and fluid power schematic diagrams. When a change was made on one of AutoCAD’s drawing sheets, the changes had to be manually adjusted on all other sheets. If an engineer missed one connection or component, it caused significant and expensive problems. And so they set out seven years ago to find a software package that could address these problems.
The dust-free corridors of high tech semiconductor and screen "fab plants" contain incredibly advanced equipment to produce the chips and displays that we use every day.
(Intel Corporation file photo.)
"We established 30 criteria and looked at ten different software packages," the engineer explained regarding the selection process. "Three came close, but Zuken’s E3.series stood out. It was able to handle far more stuff than the others." He cited E3.series’ ability to handle everything from schematic capture to cable design.
"Key for us was its ability to combine electrical and pneumatic diagrams, as was the friendly interface. I just gave the user guide to a junior engineer and in two days he was showing me the new things that E3.series could do."
" E3.series gave us one single solution for system schematics, fluid and pneumatic diagrams, and it even handled facility diagrams," he mentioned. E3.series’ abilities and flexibility are a function of its object-oriented design. Every component, connection, and wire is represented by a software object. Rather than having separate symbols on different pages, the different pages show the identical object, but show it from different perspectives. When he put a solenoid valve into the schematic for the pneumatic diagram, it appeared with the appropriate pneumatic symbols, but it also appeared in the electrical diagram using the correct electrical symbols; in the wiring diagram showing the correct connectors and wire gauges; and in the parts list using the correct name and part number. Any changes he made in any of the diagrams were made to the object and thus updated in all of the other diagrams automatically.
"The industry is driven by ‘time-to-market’," he explained, "and so we have to go from research to prototype to production very quickly." One of the challenges that used to hold back this process was the creation of wiring harnesses and cables. It used to be a bit of a "Catch-22" situation for the company: "We couldn’t rough out the cables until the machine was designed, but we couldn’t test the machine until we had cables."
Producing advanced semiconductors and display screens requires carefully designed equipment. Zuken’s E3.series software is used to design machines used in this industry.
Solving this problem required an electrical CAD package that would integrate with a variety of mechanical CAD packages, allowing electrical engineers to design the logic of the system while the mechanical engineers routed the cables efficiently. This was a particular challenge given the variety of mechanical CAD packages used by the firm: "Inventor, SolidWorks, CATIA, PRO/E. Nevertheless, we were able to integrate them all with E3.series for cable routing. E3.series communicates the design intent, and our manufacturing diagrams for cable assemblies leave no room for interpretation." He described how in the past occasional miscommunications with cabling subcontractors led to assemblies being rejected and concludes, "That was huge! Now, we don’t have to worry about cables anymore."
With 200 engineers spread across 50 offices in 20 countries around the world, the company needed software to support their distributed design process. "Our development centers don’t work in silos… in E3.series’ multiuser environment, multiple people can login to work on one project. You can see and track the changes as they are made." Once again, this feature is built upon the object-oriented nature of E3.series software. Once a particular module is designed, it exists as an object and can be pulled from the parts database like any other component. This allows a great deal of control and imposes standardization on designers, as the parts database is controlled centrally; as well, it provides a great deal of flexibility as the design team can create new components or modify existing ones while the software documents the changes automatically. The flexibility paid off as; "the multiuser environment was the number one feature for us." he says when describing his company’s choice of E3.series software.
After choosing Zuken’s E3.series software, the company discovered just how flexible the software can be: " E3.series is almost like open source, you can build a lot on top of it." He described how his company worked with Zuken’s E3 development team to automate several in-house processes and develop routines to enforce internal standards. "The people at Zuken’s office and development center are very helpful," he adds, pointing out that in return his firm gave Zuken feedback that helped guide future development of the E3.series software suite.
When I reviewed E3.series software last year, one of my favorite features was the multiple language database, allowing schematics, parts lists and diagrams to be seamlessly translated to multiple languages using "human approved" terms rather than employing the sometimes sketchy machine translation used in other automated multi-language solutions. Given the global reach of this company’s machines I was surprised to learn that this was not a particularly crucial feature. "Multi-language documentation is important on our solar side," he explained, referring to the machines that produce polycrystalline solar photovoltaic panels; otherwise, the industry standard is English when working in flat panel display and semiconductor manufacturing.
With annual releases of new smartphones, tablets, and lightweight laptop computers, we are reminded of how rapidly the semiconductors and flat panel displays are advancing. As processors and memory become cheaper, more efficient, and more powerful, displays are becoming brighter and pixel densities keep going up. When I purchased my first computer, its chips would have been produced in a batch process using relatively small machines. Since then, the introduction of a continuous production process using transfer chambers to maintain a vacuum from step to step on the assembly line, combined with a shift to larger wafers and tighter tolerances has allowed the power of the chips to increase exponentially even as the cost decreased. The machines that produce flat panel displays have increased their abilities even more rapidly and will continue to do so as we move towards 4K and 8K displays, flexible displays, and "invisible" pixels. While the makers of these chips and screens are household names, as end users it is easy to forget that there are production machines behind this magic. Next time I walk down the aisles of my local mega-market ogling the latest big-screen TVs and tablets, I’ll take a moment to remember that driving this innovation are teams of engineers, collaborating around the globe using Zuken’s E3.series software to help solve some of complex design challenges.
|Jason Brett teaches electronics and materials science in the Technology Teacher Education Program at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. He 13 years of experience in technology education. More...|
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