The Essential Pioneer's Survival Guide: One Size Fits All?

In the same way that we are not all driving the same car, have the same phones, or use the same SMT equipment in our factories, we are unlikely to all end up using a single smart solution or IoT technology. At the car rental counter, you can be confident that you will be able to drive whatever car is available; and in the same way, you should expect all of your factory technology to be interoperable. Choosing the best tool for the job differentiates the business and enhances competitiveness. Decisions on automation, IoT technologies, and software computerizations need to be based on merit because the choices vary considerably. Interoperability is the key for future-proofing, and this is not the time to be waiting for ultimate decisions while others are moving forward.

Humans–Cannot Live Without Them

Even in the wildest imagination of future smart factories, the reality is that humans remain in charge. We are the ones who will still make the fundamental decisions and choices about which technologies to use. We will have to wait I expect until Industry 5.0 to see factories that design, make, and configure themselves. That scenario may not be too far away once 3D printing technology really starts to evolve; but for the foreseeable future, Industry 4.0, which represents the computerized operation of the factory full of automated processes, is dependent on people.

Humans are quite variable entities. In spite of there being billions of us, we rarely see two people who look the same or dress the same. Because of this “human need” for differentiation, there are many variants in all of the stuff that we buy. For example, each car model can have thousands of variants for something that is just a mechanism for moving the fairly standard human form from one location to another. A distant potential relative of mine once thought that a single model in black should be all that we would need.

Many choices for any particular product also is common now in electronics, such as a smartphone or tablet. We carry these personal preferences with us wherever we go, including into our working lives. Ideas that successfully differentiate one operation against another create an immense amount of satisfaction. The need from humans for more personalized electronic products has led to an increasing number of product variations. Also, where once we saw electronics as a stand-alone industry, it is now a critical part of every other industry. As microelectronics move further into different aspects of our lives, new applications of electronics continue to add to the variation which, in some areas, appears to be increasing exponentially.

Intuition, innovation, ideas, and initiative—all of these words starting with “I” characterize qualities that we look for in engineers and managers. The simple fact that there is more than one factory in the world creates competitiveness. Humans are flexible, able to define and create factories that are appropriate for the product profiles that are being created, and for the human customers that they serve.

Following this chain of flexibility, electronics assembly factories have to be flexible to cope with the many different products and variants and to respond to changes in customer delivery demands in the short-term, perhaps even daily in a perfect Industry 4.0 world. This is contrary, however, to the concept and nature of mass production. Because of mass production and associated economies of scale, we have been able to enjoy affordable products of any type. Now, it seems as though we are being pushed backward to the days when most goods were made on a bespoke basis. In this fast-moving, progressive, throw-away culture, the reality is that this is not practical. These are all the causes of the so-called revolution in manufacturing, and the solution is Industry 4.0. Smart Industry 4.0 factories have to be making products on a demand-driven basis but also need to operate in a mass production mode, albeit in a flexible way. This near impossible task cannot be managed by humans, so Industry 4.0 requires us to use computerization to take over the operational decision-making, to guide the products with their associated resources and dependencies dynamically, in real time.

Computerization Without Knowledge

We often hear the comment that there are “too many” providers of SMT and related equipment on the market, often citing lack of growth in the number of “shipped PCBs” or even an overall decline in recent years. This decline is a debatable measurement. I suspect that it comes from data at the PCB fabrication stage; however, it is never really explained. One modern fabricated PCB panel is normally split into a number of smaller PCB boards, just one of which is normally needed per finished product. The number of boards derived from each panel has increased rapidly in recent years as feature and materials sizes have diminished.

But if you take a look around yourself right now, you can see that the electronics industry is not shrinking; instead, there is growth in new applications for electronics. The simple “shipped PCBs” statistic hides a great deal of the detail, of that I am sure. It is like looking out the window to see what the weather is really like versus trusting the generalized weather report on TV, true especially here in the U.K. Such calculations and computerizations lack the accuracy, detail, and timeliness of hard data. Rather than using a purely market financial approach and saying that there are too many providers of equipment; if you take a real look at electronics manufacturing technology, you will see the range of specialist features and equipment that are applicable and necessary in the various aspects of the operation.

Although we may not be confident to always trust the weather report, or the statistics on the “health” of the electronics industry as a whole, factory shop-floor reporting, in most cases, is even worse. With a multitude of choices of equipment selection and the human element of understanding of what might be the best tool for the job, plus the seemingly unending marketing efforts from all of the companies concerned, it is no surprise that even a modest SMT factory operation features a wide variety of types, vendors, and models of equipment. Also, humans are responsible for production management, performance, quality management, supply chain, and various other disciplines that make up the factory. Each person in his or her role has a different expectation of what they want from data and interoperability on the shop floor.

People today in factories are making the transition from being happy to sit and look at the “weather report” to preferring to focus in on the actual detail, cross-referencing it with other data sources from around the factory with “big data” analysis. The core needs of manufacturing management change over time; again, because they are ultimately driven by humans. Computerizations such as those mandated by Industry 4.0 are today and always will be, created by humans, and so they will change and evolve as time goes by, at different times around the factory. The smart factory is not a static entity, any more than regular production is today.

The Practical Evolution of Being “Smart”

Interoperability is the single most important common factor in a smart, flexible factory. Data that describes events needs to be reliable and timely. Machines need to be able to communicate out data related to process and performance and to get information in about products and work orders, as well as feedback from other machines in the line, whether on a machine-to-machine basis or through a smart computerized function. For the deep analysis associated with evolving Industry 4.0 functions, the information requirement is something that also will evolve. It certainly will not be just a simple set of data like what we got with the development of legacy formats such as CAM-X. The importance of any communication standard is that it is open for use by any and all computerizations, not just a simple, basic dataset where more advanced information is contained in proprietary fields that prevent use by anyone other than the specific machine vendor.

Of course, choices for the data format used in a factory will continue to be available. Even the old CAM-X and its intended update from the IPC can work side by side with more open formats such as the Open Manufacturing Language (OML), by using gateways or adaptors in between. As we said, it is important to use the best tool for the job. If only simple information is required, then many choices will be available. OML, however, will continue to be at the forefront of manufacturing IoT technology, continuously supported by a peer group of end-users and vendors (www.omlcommunity.com), to ensure that the maximum value and opportunity can be obtained. We need to allow the human element to thrive on the shop floor and continue to define automation and smart Industry 4.0 computerizations that every factory will be using.

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2017

The Essential Pioneer's Survival Guide: One Size Fits All?

03-24-2017

In the same way that we are not all driving the same car, have the same phones, or use the same SMT equipment in our factories, we are unlikely to all end up using a single smart solution or IoT technology. Decisions on automation, IoT technologies, and software computerizations need to be based on merit because the choices vary considerably.

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Smart for Smart’s Sake, Part 3: Unification & Traceability

01-06-2017

In the continuation of his "Smart for Smart's Sake" series, Michael Ford writes about another opportunity offered by the move toward digital manufacturing—the complete traceability of the operation. Now, traceability for electronics is defined by a dedicated standard in IPC-1782, which is designed to bring the appropriate levels of traceability without any net cost to the operation, in a smart way.

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2016

Smart for Smart's Sake, Part 2: Material Management

11-25-2016

Data collection in the factory is not just about machine interfaces and gathering data from related assembly processes, it is also about transactional events that directly affect the production operation. In the second part of this series, Michael Ford looks at how Lean supply-chain logistics are an essential component of a "smart factory".

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2015

The 'New Face' of Automotive Traceability

09-04-2015

A quiet revolution is taking place within the automotive electronics industry, driven by a collection of technology advances, the need for further energy efficiency, and ever enhanced safety.

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Industry 4.0: Who Benefits?

07-13-2015

After many cycles of ROI justification have occurred already in most PCB assembly manufacturing companies, people are realizing that innovation and investment in new systems may affect them in ways that are less than optimum, resulting in certain groups within the organization resisting pretty much every major innovation. Along comes Industry 4.0, which, whether fully and properly understood or not, will certainly trigger a significant amount of “automated” objection from the shop floor.

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To Be Lean is to Be Human

05-20-2015

The concepts related to Lean thinking continue to be interpreted in different ways by different people. Relating what happens in real life with principles of Lean as applied to manufacturing can serve to demystify the subject, opening up appreciation and acceptance for the adoption of new Lean ideas in a way that is simple and non-threatening.

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Stop the SMT Conspiracy, Part 2: Abduction

03-25-2015

Tours of SMT factories sometimes make Michael Ford feel like he is in an episode of The XFiles. In Part 1, he focused on information about processes that were often out of this world. In this article, he focuses on a case of abduction.

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2014

The Future of SMT: Welcome to the 4th Dimension

12-24-2014

A revolution in PCB-based electronics manufacturing is about to happen, driven by the same underlying principles behind the more general Industry 4.0 innovation currently discussed in Germany. This will act not only to drive a new wave of manufacturing competitiveness in the market, but will also bring home production traditionally regarded as being more cost-effective from countries with lower labor costs. The catalyst for these changes lies in the 4th dimension.

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Stop the SMT Conspiracy, Pt. I

10-30-2014

Pointing out a line of machines, we are told that these are the very latest technology, the fastest, most accurate, and reliable models available, a significant investment intended to enable the company to satisfy the most demanding of customer needs.

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Stop the SMT Conspiracy, Part I

10-29-2014

Michael Ford writes, "When I take a tour of an SMT factory it feels like being in an episode of "The X-Files." I'm not talking horror stories about glowing green men, nor am I referring to slimy silver life forms that lurk at the bottom of wave solder machines. I would not even dream of mentioning deviant behavior such as the use of AOI machines as photocopiers, production documentation systems to make wedding invitations, or even those people who use ICT fixtures as a strange form of acupuncture."

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The Essential Pioneer's Survival Guide: Stop the SMT Conspiracy, Part I

10-29-2014

Ford writes, "When I take a tour of an SMT factory it feels like an episode of 'The X-Files.' I'm not referring to slimy silver life forms that lurk at the bottom of wave solder machines. I would not even dream of mentioning deviant behavior such as the use of AOI machines as photocopiers, production documentation systems to make wedding invitations, or even those people who use ICT fixtures as a strange form of acupuncture."

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Reshoring Made Simple

09-10-2014

Companies are realizing the pros of offshoring are no longer what once they were and that the cons are becoming more significant. Is reshoring really commercially viable? This reshoring opportunity, coordinated with the seemingly unstoppable current market trends, can either be taken advantage of now, or if delayed, could represent the final loss of onshore manufacturing opportunity.

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Is It OK To Be Human?

07-02-2014

After being stagnant for many years and adopting production principles based on process qualification and repeatability, can automotive find a new way forward, with quality assurance and cost competitiveness, but also with flexibility? Is it the risk of human error that has prevented the industry from moving forward toward highly reactive processes, such as those mandated by Industry 4.0?

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The Essential Pioneer's Survival Guide: Is It OK To Be Human?

07-02-2014

After being stagnant for many years and adopting production principles based on process qualification and repeatability, can automotive find a new way forward, with quality assurance and cost competitiveness, but also with flexibility? Is it the risk of human error that has prevented the industry from moving forward toward highly reactive processes, such as those mandated by Industry 4.0?

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Expanding Your Comfort Zone

04-30-2014

In the engineering world, there is increasing pressure to be a specialist, especially in technical roles. Does this intense focus on specialisation work against us, however, when we consider the wider requirements of the business? How can we bring added value to specialist roles without getting distracted from specific objectives?

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The Essential Pioneer's Survival Guide: Expanding Your Comfort Zone

04-30-2014

In the engineering world, there is increasing pressure to be a specialist, especially in technical roles. Does this intense focus on specialisation work against us, however, when we consider the wider requirements of the business? How can we bring added value to specialist roles without getting distracted from specific objectives?

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Why Are ERP and MES So Limited in Electronics?

03-05-2014

Although the price for enterprise resource planning (ERP) and manufacturing execution systems (MES) tools can cause sticker shock, especially considering the IT muscle needed for their continuous operation, the critical measure of return on investment is compelling--except in the case of electronics manufacturing.

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2013

Production Automation Revolution: Are We Nearly There Yet?

11-13-2013

How great would it be to take a product blueprint and simply command the production facility to "make it for me now!" Will we ever get to the stage where the production operation has the ability to reply and say, "Sure, I'll figure out how to do that and have it to you within the hour?" We may be closer than we think.

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The Essential Pioneer's Survival Guide: Dropping the BOM

09-18-2013

What ends up executing as a bill of materials on the shop floor is the result of several complex and often manual processes, some of which will corrupt the BOM's data integrity. Who takes responsibility for what is actually produced as compared to what the design intended?

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The Essential Pioneer's Survival Guide: Manufacturing Software: Make or Buy?

07-10-2013

From a business perspective, a significant software purchase for the production area can be a difficult decision. Top-heavy systems such suffer from the perception that only a fraction of the functionality will ever be used, so why pay for all of it? Attempts by some lower level solution providers within SMT production have been less than successful, leaving a bitter taste for some.

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