The TheKer innovative microsoldering robot makes it possible to optimize and automate the PCB and electronic component manufacturing process (photo: UOC)
The project, designed by the start-up TheKer, achieves more efficient and sustainable soldering with minimal energy consumption
The poor quality of some devices results in over 50 million tonnes of electronic waste each year
This device, which includes information and communication technologies and artificial intelligence, can assess the state of the soldering in real time and be used on any PCB
Demand for electronic products has shot up, with an increasing number of ever-smaller components required for the complex assemblies of mobile phones, computers, screens and electric cars. As a result, the electronics industry is constantly conducting research and searching for solutions to optimize resources, reduce energy consumption and further increase the speed and accuracy of its processes. In fact, according to data provided by the UN, the world produces over 50 million tonnes of electronic waste each year, which could be reduced by making better-quality products.
TheKer, an RDI company specializing in robot development, AI and computer vision, has responded by developing a microsoldering robot. The invention has won the jury prize at the 10th edition of SpinUOC, an annual entrepreneurship and knowledge transfer programme of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC).
"We've created a microsoldering and desoldering technology to bring about a paradigm shift in the manufacture of products in the electronics and semiconductor industry," said Carla Gómez, an engineer and student of the Master's Degree in Taxation of the UOC's Faculty of Law and Political Science who, together with Jia Qiang Ye Zhu and Albert Badias, are the brains behind TheKer.
Solutions for the electronics and semiconductor industry
Having met while studying at university, the creators of TheKer have entered and won some of the world's most prestigious robot competitions. This contact with the industry has led them to identify opportunities in the field of soldering. "We saw that there was still much to do in the industrial sector, particularly in the electronics and semiconductor field, so we decided to found TheKer to find solutions to these problems," said Gómez.
Specifically, this THT (through-hole-technology) component microsoldering robot uses holes drilled in the PCB to add components to any kind of PCB thanks to the use of AI for more efficient, optimized and automated soldering. There is currently no efficient solution for this phase of the manufacturing process. In fact, it is often still carried out by hand, slowing down the entire production process.
TheKer has estimated that using this microsoldering robot leads to cost reductions of 25% with a process that produces 20 times more accurate soldering and is up to 100 times faster to set up. All this with a minimal energy consumption of 0.8 kW, making it up to 96.3% more efficient than similar devices, which can need up to 30 kW to operate.
"The use of information and communication technology makes it possible to solder, carry out the quality control process and manage the stored data, all at the same time and using big data, to monitor and optimize the status of each soldering process at any time. This means that we can use any kind of PCB, as it'll be detected automatically. The soldering can be carried out more efficiently and can be checked in real time to ensure it's been properly performed," said Gómez.
As to the improvement of soldering for waste reduction, the UOC student also mentioned that "it's vital for the industry to seek ways to avoid pollution. The electronic waste produced by the world is equivalent to throwing away 1,000 computers every second, which is absurd. The technology we have developed uses fewer raw materials and helps drive the circular economy".
Implementing artificial intelligence
TheKer's innovative robot has potential applications in any industry that uses electronic components - anything from mobiles phones and computers to electric vehicles. In addition, it provides the opportunity to implement the latest robotics and AI advances. "Industry 5.0 seeks to develop artificial intelligence and cognitive computing to combine human and machine abilities for maximum efficiency. This enables us to concentrate on tailored production so that people can focus on tasks involving reasoning and take on jobs that are better valued and more creative and supervisory roles," said the engineer, emphasizing that "we shouldn't be afraid of artificial intelligence taking our jobs".
TheKer has already received several offers from investment funds, but its owners have decided to remain independent during these initial stages of development. "We've decided to fund ourselves in order to avoid diluting the company too much at these early stages. And our product has great potential, because electronics can be found everywhere: from computers and mobile phones to electric cars and even spacecraft. It's an industry that's worth over $3 trillion, equivalent to around €3 trillion a year," said Gómez.
Last June, the TheKer start-up won the jury prize of the SpinUOC and the SPINTeams Idea Competition, an initiative of the European Erasmus+ project SPINTeams, aimed at encouraging the entrepreneurial skills of students at European universities and their alumni coordinated by the Terrassa Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Services with the UOC's involvement.
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Student on the University Master's Degree in Taxation