Already 100 years ago, company founder Ernst Sachs applied for a patent for the first electric soldering iron. Since then, Ersa has developed into a technology leader and global player offering high-performance systems for electronics manufacturing…
Published as: Cover story EPP 11/2022
Author: Jörg Nolte
Already 100 years ago, company founder Ernst Sachs applied for a patent for the first electric soldering iron. Since then, Ersa has developed into a technology leader and global player offering high-performance systems for electronics manufacturing. With the i-CON TRACE, Ersa has now launched the world´s first IoT soldering station for end-to-end documentation of hand soldering processes in a digitally networked environment. Given the many years of experience with the traceability of assemblies in machine soldering this has been a logical step.
Shrinking sizes of assemblies require smaller and smaller electrical components while their variety increases. At the same time, there are still areas where manual soldering processes are indispensable despite advancing automation in electronics manufacturing. For example, when it is necessary to manually correct machine solder joints or to manually place and solder THT components. However, as soon as a soldering iron is used, complete documentation of the entire soldering process and its parameters has not been possible until now. Many electronics manufacturers have therefore often dispensed with a manual soldering process or only permitted it with costly special approval. “In some cases, manual rework and soldering was and still is completely prohibited in individual industries. This can now change,” says Jörg Nolte, Product Manager Soldering Tools, Rework and Inspection Systems at Ersa GmbH.
Traceability is an important factor in electronics manufacturing. After all, it is important to detect and isolate quality deviations in production at an early stage to ensure the delivery of error-free products. Also, in the case of returned assemblies it is helpful if the causes of problems can be traced and thus determined more precisely, even in the case of hand-soldered components.
With the i-CON TRACE, Ersa has therefore now developed a soldering station which allows hand soldering processes to be fundamentally improved from both an economic and an ecological point of view. In developing this soldering station, the experts have applied the specific process know-how they have been building up over many years. i-CON TRACE stands out by a characteristic operating concept and features WLAN and Bluetooth interfaces as well as a network card. And providing a heating power of 150 W it also offers an outstanding soldering performance. Furthermore, the range of available soldering tips has been redesigned and optimized thermally so that the energy transfer into the solder joint is now up to 30% more efficient. The program for controlling the soldering station can be accessed via any mobile device. “During our 100-year history, we have repeatedly developed solutions for our customers that made their technological challenges resolvable. This starts with the soldering iron, continues with many further developments, and ends with today´s i-CON TRACE. In the digital age, the manual soldering process must also be digitized. We have succeeded in doing this with the i-CON TRACE, which creates many advantages for our customers,” Nolte explains further.
Using i-CON TRACE soldering stations, a supervisor can centrally specify the parameters relevant for a complex manufacturing process. This includes the soldering tip, the soldering temperatures as well as the solder wire and flux. The station´s operating software Ersa TRACE Cockpit even allows to assign a soldering task to a specific specialist, to display the set and actual temperatures, and to change them if necessary.
i-CON TRACE is equipped with an on/off switch and three LEDs. A red LED indicates the heating process and a yellow one the standby mode. The operating user receives a green light for an assigned soldering task as soon as he has captured the component and the correct soldering tip, solder wire and flux for the soldering task with a hand scanner. “Thus, the i-CON TRACE ensures complete traceability of the process data. It also eliminates potential errors and increases process reliability. After all, the operator can only start a manual soldering task once all parameters correspond to the task,” Nolte explains and continues: “The employee can thus fully concentrate on the soldering task and be sure that the workpiece is soldered according to the given specifications.”
Central digital control via App
However, i-CON TRACE can also be operated as a stand-alone soldering station with the preset parameters even without connection to the company network. By using the TRACE App, which is available as a free download, the station can be operated intuitively and safely via WLAN. Awkward menus and button operation are a thing of the past! The TRACE App and the Ersa TRACE Cockpit software can also be used together. In this way, it is possible to integrate the soldering station into MES-controlled production processes (MES short for Manufacturing Execution System) via mobile devices such as laptops, tablets or smartphones located in the company network. Common web browsers such as Google Chrome, Firefox or Microsoft Edge serve as the basis for this.
Firmware updates and calibration intervals can be performed centrally. “Server-based communication between the individual soldering stations and the customer´s MES system facilitates the management of individual soldering stations. In addition, it is possible to retrieve the data stored by the software for all manual soldering stations used in the production area via a central PC,” Nolte points out.
The software records and documents the soldering process data completely and generates a visual report which can be exported to a PDF or CSV file. Furthermore, XML data exchange with MES systems is possible in real time. This means that the hand soldering station, which was specially developed for use in a digitally networked environment, can automatically provide all the process data it generates to the customer´s MES system for further processing in a specific file format and store it in a higher-level control system. “With the i-CON TRACE soldering station, we penetrate the last blank area in the electronic manufacturing process,” Nolte says. “The i-CON TRACE is the previously missing link that now allows full traceability of hand soldering processes in industrial electronics production.”
Extremely fast tip changes thanks to completely new development
Another feature of the i-CON TRACE is the specially developed and patented Tip´n´Turn quick-change system for soldering tips. Due to a bayonet lock, soldering tip change becomes quick, easy, and safe: The user just places the soldering tip in the provided opening in the holder and then turns it by approx. 10°. As the tips can be gripped securely, soldering tips can also be changed by hand without any problems – even when hot! The soldering tips are available in different shapes and sizes and can be identified by means of an applied QR code.
The bayonet lock also provides a clamping force, which permanently presses the soldering tip against the heating element and thus ensures a stable temperature accuracy of +/- 2 °C. Moreover, both the long-life heating element and the soldering tip can be replaced independently of each other. This reduces operating costs, as only worn parts need to be replaced. “Ersa has always attached great importance to durable and sustainable quality products,” Nolte emphasizes. “Should a defect nevertheless occur after years, customers will still be reliably supplied with spare parts.”
The Ersa experts are in close exchange with their customers in order to further expand the i-CON TRACE platform. Additional functions such as concepts for predictive maintenance and predictive material ordering are already under discussion.
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