By Luke Bower
This case study looks at the role of the ‘human factor’ in extracting the most from X-ray inspection systems and other advanced-technology equipment installations.
X-ray inspection machines can bring great benefits to CEMs and OEMs in both quality control and troubleshooting applications. However, the most powerful machines are complex, advanced-technology devices, so their users need excellent training and support to optimise their day-to-day performance.
This aspect is well-recognised by Newport-based CEM Axiom Manufacturing Services, as they have always given great emphasis to the role of the ‘human factor’. Their people-based approach to their workforce, customers and suppliers has facilitated a remarkable growth in recent years; from a zero starting point in 2002, sales have climbed to £50.1m in 2019 – and this growth is continuing through 2020, in spite of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In practice, their policy means that they continuously nurture and enable their workforce, while offering extremely high service levels to their customers. They also seek to work with suppliers who share their ideals, because this allows them to rapidly absorb and obtain competitive advantages from advanced technology machines such as X-ray inspection equipment.
This case study looks at Axiom’s organisation and approach, and accordingly shows how they have worked with inspection solution provider Cupio to achieve an X-ray inspection facility that truly benefits their business.
Axiom’s approach to technology and people
Axiom’s 300,000 square feet factory is just a short drive north of Newport, yet deep in the Welsh valleys. Sited on a custom-built Technology Park facility that was originally developed in 1995, the company started in its present form and entered the CEM market in 2000. It now has a workforce of around 320, and, with 24-hour security, is an HM Government-approved facility.
Fig.1: Axiom’s 300,000 square feet facility in Newport, Wales
The company now supplies specialised and mission critical solutions to the medical, defence, aerospace, industrial and transport sectors. These are often high-technology, IP-sensitive products delivered in low to medium volumes – as complete, box-level solutions if required.
Axiom’s service offering is also comprehensive in covering a product’s full life cycle, from original design, manufacture, and test, through to production manufacturing, supply chain management and after sales support.
In spite of its growth, Axiom remains a 100 per cent privately-owned company, with David Davies MBE as Managing Director, and three other Directors. With no-one else to answer to, and with two of this team being ex-engineers, the company is extremely agile in responding to business opportunities or indeed, problems.
Half of the workforce is in service-oriented roles, which explains why Axiom can offer such high service levels. Also, the company operates a flat organisation, with minimal hierarchy. Staff across the business are empowered to speak out when they see something that needs fixing, or could be improved; if a machine is performing sub-optimally, no-one has better insight into the problem than its operator.
Axiom is set up to win business by taking on challenges that are particularly demanding in terms of complexity or timescales. This attitude, down to individual employee level, was recently demonstrated in a critical period from the end of March until the end of June, when the company participated as part of Ventilator Challenge UK in Project Oyster, working to produce 90,000 ventilator printed circuit board assemblies. This called for a sustained seven day a week effort, which staff willingly committed to.
Fig.2: Part of Axiom’s production area
In a culture that has taken 20 years to develop, the company ensures staff are well-suited to their roles by rotating apprentices through every department, so that their best fit becomes mutually apparent. They are then encouraged to take responsibility for their ongoing contribution to the enterprise: empowering people rather than micro-managing them promotes creative, innovative and effective responses to opportunities and problems. Axiom believes that relationships are only truly tested when issues arise that need solving, and invest in their service capability accordingly.
Another aspect of the company’s high service level approach involves a continuous and significant level of investment in new technology and equipment; over £5m in the last three years. This comprises both ad hoc purchases to provide fast and efficient answers to customers’ specific needs or problems, and strategic purchasing to maintain Axiom’s position as a leading solution provider.
However, for this continuous and rapid absorption of new, often complex technology to be sustainable, the technology suppliers must work to the same levels of integrity and service as Axiom itself. Primarily, Axiom must be confident that if a machine fails, the supplier will be on hand quickly to minimise any production stoppage or risk to their relationship with their customer. Additionally, though, the company wants to be assured that their staff have been adequately trained in all that the machine has to offer.
Optimised X-ray inspection capability
Axiom has benefited from such a supplier relationship while upgrading their X-ray inspection facility. They use X-ray inspection for troubleshooting, first-off products, and batch sampling of any products containing BGA or QFN devices – as well as in response to customers’ requests for proof of inspection during manufacturing. For some time, they had had an older Dage XD7500VR machine, which worked well and is in fact still in service. However, the machine was being maintained by a third-party company who were unable to make Axiom’s staff fully aware of all its capabilities.
This was alleviated when Axiom, being aware of Cupio as a supplier of inspection, production, and test solutions, including AOI and X-ray inspection, invited them in to discuss an X-ray inspection upgrade. As a first step, Cupio reviewed the existing machine, and advised Axiom on all its capabilities; accordingly, it remains in service, with Axiom being better able to realise its full potential.
However, Cupio also showed how the advanced technology built into Nordson Dage’s Quadra 7 X-ray inspection and failure analysis machine would enhance both their production and troubleshooting activities.
Fig.3: Nordson Dage Quadra 7 X-ray inspection machine as installed at Axiom
As well as the Quadra 7’s 100 nm resolution and 4k image quality, Axiom has found it to be a massive improvement for their higher volume production because of its throughput. It is easily programmable with automated routines, and, once set up, can accept up to five boards simultaneously. The machine then rapidly runs through the inspection sequence, and stores the resulting images for offline review while the machine inspects the next batch. This parallel processing is valuable in an environment with a 50,000 boards/month typical throughput, and a sampling rate of 20 – 30 boards for each batch.
For troubleshooting, Axiom likes the CT scan capability, which allows dissection from the inside out. It is useful for permanently potted products that cannot be non-destructively dismantled for visual inspection. Axiom also employs it in checking for open and short circuits on BGA and QFN packages, as well as void detection and automatic void measurement; the machine is programmed to detect void areas greater than 20 per cent.
In situations where they really need a clear and detailed view, Axiom regards the Quadra 7’s image quality as second to none.
Axiom is investing in all the Quadra 7’s optional extras, such as a carbon fibre tray and a dose rate filter – and, as for the earlier machine, they appreciate Cupio’s input in realising its full potential. “We regard Cupio’s ongoing training as absolutely crucial to our success with X-ray inspection” comments Rob Taylor, Production Manager.
“16 Members across the business have already completed our basic training, from SMT inspection, BGA, QFN, and voiding measurements for customers, to through hole fill measuring. Next, we will be training for the Quadra 7’s X-Plane CT functionality. Finally, by the end of September, we plan to finish our training by learning about µCT, encompassing 3D as well as 2D imaging. We will also ensure that we cover all of the machine’s more advanced capabilities.
“We believe that this will allow us to add more value for our customers in the future, offering them real investigation using the best X-ray technology on the market.
“However, I would also comment on how Cupio’s support is helping us achieve both the old and the new machines’ full potential. They have exceeded expectations as a new supplier; their advice and training has been invaluable ever since we invited them in to see how we used the old machine, and then develop a training plan to include the Quadra 7.
“We look forward with confidence to our ongoing relationship, as Cupio’s commitment to integrity of service and customer support so closely matches our own.”