Georgia Tech Creates Ergonomically Superior Interface for International Company

Today's competitive manufacturing environment requires the highest levels of efficiency. And though sophisticated automation can give manufacturers an edge, that equipment is only as effective as the humans operating it.

Jeffrey M. Gerth, a senior research scientist at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI), has been working with DEK, an international machine manufacturer headquartered in Weymouth, England. Gerth's mission: to improve the user interface on screen printers that DEK produces for the circuit-board and electronics-assembly industries worldwide.

User interfaces - the commands or menus that allow people to communicate with a computer or electronic device - are critical to nimble manufacturing. "The job of operators is to monitor machines so they're in constant operation," says Gerth, who specializes in human factors at GTRI's Electronic Systems Laboratory. "If production stops or isn't going as fast as intended, then a manufacturer is losing money."

DEK approached Gerth in 2001 after seeing a project from Georgia Tech's Manufacturing Research Center demonstrated at a trade show. The project included an Internet portal and user interface that Gerth had designed for surface-mount technology (SMT) manufacturing - one of DEK's domains.

Now in its final stages, Gerth's redesigned interface saves time and streamlines production. Some of its advantages include:

• Easier to use. Whereas DEK's former interface was text-based, the new interface uses graphics to reduce dependency on language, which is important for an international player like DEK. What's more, the new interface accommodates a number of functional adjustments made to screen printers over the years - customer requests that didn't take machine operators into account until now.

• Decreases training time. Training materials are embedded in the interface, saving operators from having to reach for a manual whenever they have a question.

• Reduces errors. The new interface is geared to support best practices and circumvent problems. For example, a new alert system tells operators when replenishments, such as cleaning solvents, are dropping too low. The interface not only reports errors, but also provides troubleshooting tips to help operators take appropriate action instead of calling on a process engineer.

In fact, the new interface is so user friendly, DEK has dubbed it the "Instinctiv™." A beta version of Instinctiv debuted this spring at the APEX manufacturing show in Anaheim, Calif., and is now being tested in two of DEK's critical markets.

"The project has been a great success," says Dick Johnson, DEK's software manager. "DEK Instinctiv is a new and easier way of interacting with DEK printers. It's an interface designed for machine operators -- not just engineers."