Critical Actuator Technology
In the emerging economy there is a critical dependency on linear actuator technology. Not just linear actuators, but linear actuators that give high performance at low cost.
I am intentionally vague on the performance. Performance can mean many things. For heavy machinery and forestry industry machinery, hydraulic actuators with high force and high power density are required. For semiconductor and electronic assembly applications linear motors with extremely high resolution positioning and incredible acceleration capabilities are more the norm. These are diametrically opposite requirements, yet they are based in the same technology arena.
Industry is faced with a need to reduce amortization cost. The investment in very expensive production machinery leads to the requirement to build only those devices which can be solid in sufficient quantity to pay for the expensive tool up. When 40,000,000 hard disk drives a year are needed, the electronics industry gears up to meet the demand. If a $400,000.000 investment is required across the industry, that only represents $10 per disk drive.
What happens if the market for something is 10,000 units? The cost efficiency of mass production can’t get the supplier where he wants to go. So the road to innovation includes conceptualizing new production methods that can reduce the barriers to new markets.
There are at least 4 major markets that I can think of where linear actuator technology provides a critical path to innovation; 3 D printing for production and sintered metal parts, next generation CNCs, electronic assembly and laboratory automation systems. These markets are extremely sensitive to the investment cost or amortization cost going in to their businesses.
In the future economy, when metal parts are made with 3D laser sintering, which is a version of 3D printing, rough production parts will be accurate to tolerances finer than 0.010″ on the rough part. For the next generation of CNC that will be required, large volumetric material removal will not be a part of the equation. So the high force, super heavy frame and machine tool are no longer required. Finish machining will be based on accuracy and speed. Accuracy in 3 dimensions will depend on lightweight actuators that have great stiffness so that they can be used over large work envelopes. Inexpensive closed loop feedback on all axes will be required, something we don’t see very much today.
The laser sintering machines currently in use require high precision linear actuators. As do the electronic assembly machines of suppliers like Universal Instruments. In fact, Universal Instruments holds patents in and produces it’s own linear motors for the high precision assembly machines they manufacture. But when machinery of the caliber costs from $150K to $450K per system, you have to run a lot of printed circuits through to recover the investment.
As with 3D printing, an order magnitude cost reduction from $20K+ to $2K changes that equation for everyone. And the challenge we have to meet and master is the next generation of machinery for major industries that will lower the amortization cost so that the technology can proliferate and bring high quality and performance to smaller markets.
I like a good challenge.