Today, any modern vehicle or mobility device is a moving data disk, constantly transmitting information about a system’s functionalities and parameters to the manufacturer or operator – both for quality control and safety. The miniature electronic components used for this, in cars for example, are hidden in the dashboard, but also installed in e-bikes or e-scooters, cell phones as well pay TV consoles, for example. They have to be completely reliable and 100% secure – but most importantly, each one has to be personalized, so that it’s traceable and data can be assigned correctly to a specific unit / vehicle only.
These components usually holding a chip are called Embedded Secure Elements (eSE), designed to collect and transmit large quantities of both fixed and variable data. Assembling, personalizing and testing these highly fragile electrical components are challenging procedures. But while these have been performed by smart systems for quite some time already, even today, these tasks are being completed in three separate steps, i.e. various systems/machines in a mix of manual and half-automated processes. This approach not only is fairly cost and time consuming, but also greatly increasing the risk of errors, mismatches and damages due to the repeated handling of each component. In addition, the systems currently available only allow for a tedious change of different components as well as the disposal of bad or mismatched eSEs. To date, there has been no fully automated, easy-to-handle system, leveraging the various technologies available to create a truly efficient personalization and testing process.
But that changed in 2018, when the French company Smartware, based in Les Ulis near Paris, introduced the industry’s first, fully automated, robot-assisted system, integrating all three steps. Since 1986, Smartware has been a key actor in the business of personalization and testing of contact/contactless secure elements (smart cards, NFC microSD, M2M). Developed in 2017 and then first installed in Japan only a couple of months later, the company’s highly innovative PerSE (Personalization of Secure Element) system, which is manufactured by its partner hardware company Usimeca (also based in France), integrates the assembly, personalization and testing of eSEs in just one single process, with the robot having to handle each eSE only twice in its pick-and-place application. To date, nine of these systems have been installed at automotive and IoT suppliers around the world.
The PerSE is a robust, modular industrial equipment cell, measuring 1.6 m by 1 m (height: 2.2 m) with a DENSO Robotics 4-axis HS-045 SCARA robot at its center. In a nutshell, the PerSE, with an input of blank chips, personalizes each of these on two levels, while also testing their security and functionality, and delivering a fully secure eSE as output placed in sequence.
The PerSE cell setup is fairly straightforward: To the left side of the cell, a reel with a conveyer tape carrying the chips (usually measuring down to 2 x 2mm mm) is feeding them into the cell onto a rotating turntable containing electrical test and programming socket plates for each eSE, measuring up to 10 x 4 mm. The DENSO robot, mounted above, is placing blank chips from the tape reel (four at a time) into each socket plate without even touching it. On average, each chip itself carries 800 KB of specific firmware and variable data (depending on the client / operator), downloaded by the PerSE via a cloud.
Speed, positioning and precision are of essence here. Monitored by a camera mounted above the turntable, the precise positioning of the robot’s pick-and-place operations are being monitored. Optical inspection and control of all parts handled are being performed at each step from above and below: Directly integrated into the turntable, just under each programming plate, Smartware’s testers (US-CMT2) allow for various advanced electrical parametric testing and personalization of each eSE. At the end of the process, a marker laser engraves a serial number and/or a data matrix barcode onto each eSE, thereby adding two levels of secure personalization. Finally, the robot places the completed eSE onto the outgoing tape reel. In case of rejected parts, a buffer tray can be used to temporarily store the eSE items in order to maintain the right sequencing without a gap in the output tape.
The decision for DENSO Robotics was an easy one, explains Stéphane Medioni, founder and Managing Director of Smartware. “We chose DENSO’s SCARA robots due to their flexibility and easy programming. In addition, the robot allows for a highly manageable acceleration and smooth movements with easy software control.” In fact, the four-axis SCARA robots by DENSO are specifically designed for high-performance, automated applications such as this one – as the robot can implement a very high number of cycles per minute, while responding promptly even in a highly complex industrial application, operating continuously at optimum speed, still completing each operation precisely. Offering a repeatability of ± 0.02 mm and a cycle time of up to 0.29 sec., DENSO’s incredibly fast and reliable SCARA HS-045 robots were the perfect choice for this application at the time of its development. Add an arm length of 450 (225+225) mm and a payload of up to 5 kg to the HS-045 key features and you can rely on this SCARA robot as a most suitable combination of speed, precision and capacity for this job. As another important topic, DENSO´s HS SCARAs are available in clean room protection ISO 3.
In the PerSE, the robot is controlled via DENSO´s powerful, compact and highly flexible open system architecture of the RC8A controller. Communicating with the other system components works via a Smartware-developed Open Software architecture, offering a user-friendly interface, optimized for industrial and secure elements production.
On site, the operator can access and control the system via a master PC’s desktop panel, thereby communicating with the PMC (PCI mezzanine card), which, in turn, communicates with the robot. On a second level, the PC is being used by Smartware to program and safeguard its (software) operations, allowing for adjustments or trouble-shooting (i.e. de-bugging). In addition, the system can also be remote-controlled by Smartware, if needed. Last but not least, the PerSE allows for a quick job setup and form factor change without requiring any hand tools. Inside, the PerSE cell operates in a clean room environment with temperature and humidity control: “We believe that our system currently is the safest in the market when it comes to personalization and product quality control”, says Stéphane Medioni.
By limiting the handling of the sensitive and fragile eSE to a minimum to being touched only twice and and by integrating three different steps into a single process flow, an exciting new level of personalized eSE product quality has been achieved. The key advantages of the PerSE system are twofold: First off, with a maximum hourly output of up to 6,000 components (usually, though, for top quality, 4,000-5,000), compared to only 3,000 on regular machines, it is highly cost- and time-efficient: According to Smartware, the PerSE currently is the market’s best performance / cost ratio system of its kind. As a result, it provides for a higher throughput / higher yield (4200 and 5500 UPH versions are available) with a 22 sec personalization time and 2 sec verification after marking. It can accommodate the programming of up to 40 different component heads – even in one cycle.
At the same time, the PerSE offers a much higher level of both product safety and security: As each component is being handled only twice in one single process, the risk of damaging the fragile devices is significantly decreased when compared to step-by-step machines where the testing and personalization is being carried out in different processes. Thanks to the integrated marker laser and the two-level personalization as well as the continuous quality control, the possibility of mismatches is greatly reduced, while non-functioning components are being disposed of easily into trash bins installed below the turntable – without having to stop the system. The seamless data tracking prevents any mismatch, while also making trouble-shooting much easier.
As our environment is increasingly turning into a heavily individualized matrix, personalized devices will become the new normal in every day life, both at the workplace and industry. Thus the future opportunities for the PerSE seem to be limitless in the market for highly personalized, data-focused smart devices.