| 6 min read

Eliminate Surface Engineering Challenges & Design with Freedom

Oftentimes, to boost innovation and improve processes, you have to think outside the common practice. You have to take the restraints off of creativity. Freedom to design and build to the limits of our imaginations is at the core of what makes us human. 

In manufacturing, this kind of creative thinking can result in major leaps forward in products that are more efficient (electric vehicles), more interesting (foldable glass smartphone screens) and improve people’s quality of life (medical devices designed with novel hydrophilic coatings for greater safety and comfort for patients). 

Product development and design can often be hemmed in by manufacturing operations that rely on legacy materials and processes, because, well, that’s just how it’s always been done.

But taking advantage of new assembly methodologies unleashes the design possibilities. Relying on nut and bolt fasteners or even traditional sealing methods severely limits the potential to build products that are more useful, stronger, lighter, faster, more waterproof, and more durable than previous designs.

For example, computer and other devices’ screens have been able to be enlarged by minimizing the bezel, or the frame around the screen, through reducing the reliance on materials that need to be traditionally fastened. There is freedom to increase the size of the screen because there is greater freedom about how to attach the screen to the bezel. 

When manufacturing leans into new, available assembly tech, then new product development teams can lean into designing products that move beyond what is currently thought to be possible.

3 Key Inputs for any Assembly Process 

To build high-performing products, you need high-performance materials that are up to the task of withstanding the most stringent performance requirements. When using advanced materials such as composites or other high-grade materials, there are 3 critical requirements to fully control in order to guarantee optimal performance.

  1. Understand and carefully choose the chemistry you are going to apply to the surface of your material. This refers to any adhesive, coating, sealant or other substance that will be in contact with the surface of the material. For assemblies to remain at high levels of performance for longer periods of time, it’s vital to know the composition of materials being applied to their surfaces.
  2. The physical application and curing of the adhesive, coating, ink, sealant or paint needs to be fully controlled and understood to make sure the process is consistent and in keeping with the adhesive manufacturer’s specifications.
  3. The top molecular structure of the material surface needs to be crafted to bond perfectly with the chemistry of the material being applied to it. The quality of this molecular structure needs to be measured and maintained throughout the manufacturing process.

Remove engineering constraints with high performance materials to build predictable, reliable and innovative products. 

Start by defining the performance requirements of your products applying knowledge of the material surface. This equips you to rapidly select the cleaning process, materials and adhesives that are perfectly suited to build the most boundary-pushing products.

For instance, one of the biggest challenges for electric vehicle manufacturers is to figure out how to design and build lighter batteries. Often the chassis is looked at first for weight removal, but the massive batteries are typically built using many pounds of fasteners alone. If the batteries were able to be designed with high performance materials in mind, it would remove the need for heavy bolts and center the cleanliness of the material surface - which can be controlled and measured easily.

Understand What Type of Surface you are Trying to Create 

The surface of your material drives the adhesives and coatings you choose and the application of those adhesives and coatings. As your material moves throughout the manufacturing process, the surface is being altered just interacting with the air inside the assembly plant or the packaging material when the part is waiting in inventory. Through cleaning and activation steps, a surface can be intentionally controlled and created that is precisely chemically compatible with the adhesive or coating that is to be applied. 

The more understanding and control you have over the material surface, the better the adhesive and coating materials you can select. The most expensive part of an adhesive application is the adhesive or coating itself, so it’s crucial to select the ones that will meet your demands and then engineer the surface of your material to meet the quality of your adhesives and coatings.

Traditional joining or sealing methods add weight, costs and points of stress. Every time a fastener is used, a hole has to be put in the material. This means the thickness of the materials must be increased to compensate for the holes, adding weight and complexity. Adhesives are always better than a fastener when considering weight, strength and flexibility because they allow for thinner materials, streamlined designs and unconventional geometries.

All of these considerations should be handled when creating a design failure mode and effect assessment (D-FMEA) or a process failure mode and effects assessment (P-FMEA) where the risk of changing materials and processes is evaluated. Removing risk is critical to consistent and reliable process design, and risk can be mitigated through systematic and thorough testing and measurement throughout the manufacturing process to ensure that a quality surface has been created and maintained, ensuring that the final assembly will be completely successful.

How Supply Chains Affect Product Quality

The main risk that new product development (NPD) teams need to think about is how their supply chain will affect their material surfaces. In many instances, a development team can test and become confident they can build the product a certain way. Then they outsource their manufacturing and the control they once had over how certain steps are performed is lost, potentially causing quality to suffer. Unforeseen process changes in manufacturing can cause product performance issues that NPD teams didn’t account for. 

Measuring surface quality gives a quantitative determination of whether a change to a cleaning step, surface activation method or other preparation step will result in adhesion failure or other performance degradation.

Scrutiny of surface quality applies to parts created by a supplier that arrive in the final assembly plant in an unknown condition. What appears to be clean and ready for assembly, may not be. Only through rapid, quantitative surface quality measurements can manufacturers be certain that every part is prepared for adhesion.

The Solution That Spans New Product Design Through Manufacturing for Surface Quality

In most cases, it is in the P-FMEA where things break down, because they do not incorporate cleanliness and the supply chain into their risk assessment. 

For NPD, a P-FMEA is really nice because it creates a protective barrier around the design, allowing it to scale efficiently. It allows for particular surface preparation and assembly processes to be quickly selected and qualified. When these decisions are made based on quantitative measurements of surface quality that don’t take the supply chain for granted, new products can scale to market faster because risk is diminished. 

These measurements add a digital record to the P-FMEA of why certain surface preparation processes were selected and demonstrate why they work well. This allows NPD teams to easily defend their decisions and then the same measurement tool can be used in the actual manufacturing of the products to ensure continuity from the development and testing stages to the assembly stage.

This also allows designers to actually, literally protect their designs in a meaningful way. For example, water is an incredibly difficult thing to keep out of electronics. So, instead of spending countless hours designing phones and tablets that are outwardly resistant to moisture, PCBs are conformally coated with hydrophobic coatings in order to make the internal electronic components waterproof. By considering the surfaces of these electronics, manufacturers are able to rapidly select the right materials to solve persistent issues. 

When manufacturing processes are keyed into surface cleanliness and control the quality of their surfaces, then product design can flourish and expand.

Shifting From Old Materials and Processes to New Materials and Processes

Shifting processes and materials can often come from shifting perspectives. For example, many manufacturers may look at a raw part and not really think of the surface of that material as a real component of that part. But shifting the perspective to include the molecular surface of the material allows for greater control over how that part can be attached to the greater assembly or how a coating can be used to enhance the function or performance of the part.

Other examples of how updating materials or processes have improved manufacturing and led to the freedom of product design include:

  • Physical manipulation versus chemical manipulation - For most of the history of manufacturing, physically altering the surfaces of parts through things like sanding or washing were the only options. Any more, chemical preparations through processes such as laser etching, chemical etching and plasma treatments are replacing or augmenting the old methods to create more precise surfaces that can be reliably bonded or coated.
  • Handling procedures have drastically changed overtime where now wearing gloves in a manufacturing setting whenever coming in contact with a part surface is standard procedure.
  • Lightweighting has greatly altered both material choices and processes. Metals have been exchanged in favor of composites. Mechanical fasteners have been given up in favor of adhesives. Thinner materials that are just as strong as legacy materials have had to be developed or manipulated in new ways to replace former materials.
  • Product trends for devices with touch screens have called for novel materials and processes. The use of oleophobic coatings for touch screens prevents fingerprints and smudges on the display glass but it also calls for new processes for characterizing which coating is the best at preventing smudging and how long it takes for the coating to wear off.

Manufacturers with the freedom of design can leverage many new and advanced materials for assembling the most innovative products development teams can conjure. To free up these teams, surface engineering challenges need to be considered while developing the process for building the product. Quantitative surface quality measurements are the mechanism to both create assembly specifications and drive manufacturing validation to ensure the product is built to spec.

To learn more about how BTG Labs can give you the tools and surface engineering control needed to free your product designs from the weight of the past, download our free eBook that walks you through everything you need to know to achieve predictable outcomes in your manufacturing process. Get your copy of Predictable Adhesion in Manufacturing Through Process Verification today.

Predictable Adhesion in Manufacturing Through Process Verification