PCBA INDUSTRY – Electronics Manufacturing

Flip the Switch! Lights-On Manufacturing
How Software Sheds Light on the Production Reality

March 17, 2022 - As published in i4.0 Today magazine, Issue 16
Factory intelligence analytics historical analysis
The lights-out manufacturing fantasy has grabbed the imagination of manufacturing engineers around the world since the 1950s. Based on the concept that a production floor would run seamlessly with little to no human intervention, many engineers, and equally hopeful C-level executives, envisioned a lights-out production floor to be the perfect creation – everything running at the highest possible efficiency rates with zero defects to maximize profits.

With the Industry 4.0 revolution, and vast improvements in technology including robotics and automation, the lights-out concept has had a resurgence of sorts in the last couple of years specifically in the electronics manufacturing space. Thanks to major advancements in software and increased IIoT capabilities, today many PCBA manufacturing floors currently operate, and may even operate far better than the early pioneers of lights-out manufacturing ever imagined.
The concept of lights-out manufacturing excels in a predictable environment – something in 2022 we’ve all learned to no longer rely upon. With the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the globe since March 2020, anything that could previously be agreed upon as universal, is no longer so. Our lives have been disrupted in every way possible, both in catastrophic terms, such as losing a loved one, and minor inconveniences, such as wearing a surgical mask to the grocery store. Naturally, the electronics manufacturing industry has felt the COVID pain too.

Shutdowns that last for weeks. Components that are nowhere to be found, and when sourced are either too expensive or counterfeit. Employees that are unable to return to work for one reason or another. Transit and lead times doubling and tripling in some cases.

PCBA manufacturers around the globe are simply struggling to keep the lights on. Forced to do more with less, manufacturers are exploring creative ways to fully maximize all resources – both equipment and people. There are no dark production floors in a successful PCBA manufacturer of 2022, today it’s about shedding light on what’s actually happening in the factory – illuminating that information and intelligence to drive actionable improvements, and encouraging the brilliant talent to lead to the potential of tomorrow.

Shedding light on production to drive action

The best way to get the most out of resources is to first fully understand how they are being utilized. Getting that level of visibility requires getting data from all the elements used on the factory floor. Connecting and collecting data from all equipment, materials, and software systems is not only the foundation to understanding utilization, but also the essential building block to any smart factory.
Getting factory-level data can fundamentally be achieved in one of two ways – with an internal, homegrown system, or through a third-party system, such as Cogiscan’s Co-NECT Platform. Considering resource constraints, many manufacturers today choose the third-party route as this option typically provides connectivity more affordably and efficiently.

“Since Cogiscan is a neutral third party and already has access to the required data for many machine manufacturers... It’s easier and faster for everyone, which hopefully will help customers reap the benefits faster,” said Gerry Padnos, Director of Technology at Juki Automation Systems
If only accessing the data was enough – exported raw from the floor, data always needs to be filtered. To take intelligent action, factory-level data should be consolidated within a central storehouse, enriched with domain appropriate contextualization, and shared through an open architecture platform. This data management step is critical as it establishes the reality or “Truth” in the entire factory – the systems that drive actions and make decisions, including MES, MOM and ERP, must be fed accurately.

With data in-hand, many manufacturers are desperately looking to find ways to make use of it. This is where having the right software solution is key. Through automated material and machine control, advanced tracking and traceability functionality, manufacturers can create more sustainable production processes.
Factory intelligence analytics historical analysis
Precise machine control helps to ensure manufacturing is running exactly as it should – in Cogiscan’s Machine Control application, the software ensures that the right program is loaded for the correct product, the right materials are setup in the right locations, and the right machine settings and process parameters are in place. Validating all elements of the manufacturing process, this application ensures materials are being placed under the right conditions lowering the risk of wasting or scrapping any precious materials that can be near impossible to source.

Visible and accurate inventory management software will shine a bright light on the “blackhole” – where materials can disappear on the manufacturing floor once they are pulled from the stock room. No matter where materials reside in the factory – whether set-up on a trolley waiting for the next job or sitting in a bin next to a repair station – the precise location and available quantity of every component is known.
Factory intelligence analytics historical analysis
Further shedding light on the reality of production, a robust traceability solution tracks and keeps record of all elements – including materials, products, processes, and test results used during manufacturing. Cogiscan’s 360° Traceability solution logs and records all instances for future reference so that in the event of a failure, return, or recall, all information is readily available.

Illuminating intelligence to make improvements

It’s no longer enough to simply track and control the production process; manufacturers need to be hyper-focused on finding the right opportunities to improve every single day. Visualization dashboards are excellent tools to quickly illuminate what’s hindering production, and the best dashboard will extend beyond simple reporting and perform complex KPI calculations to drill down to root cause and drive action. Think of these dashboards as a guiding light clearly pointing a manufacturer in the right direction to make improvements and increase efficiency.

At minimum, a factory dashboard should provide a comprehensive real-time display of factory, line, and machine-level performance. Cogiscan’s Factory Intelligence Real-Time application provides this type of monitoring allowing SMT manufacturers to easily validate that everything is running smoothly. Displaying the actual pulse rate of the line, it enables manufacturers to identify bottlenecks, or negative trends to quickly intervene and keep production running at maximum efficiency.

The right analytics dashboard will also perform historical analyses on the entire production process, including performance and quality metrics, to reveal the best path forward. For example, using Cogiscan’s Factory Intelligence Analytics comparison feature, manufacturers can measure and analyze any manufacturing process changes to determine what’s better.
Factory Intelligence Real Time on display at the front of SMT Lines at Saline Lectronics manufacturing plant in Michigan.
Looking more broadly to the entire scope of operations, an MES or MOM system will function as the bridge between the higher-level enterprise software systems and the shopfloor connectivity and control systems, such as Cogiscan’s Material Control application. Guaranteeing that a product is built as planned, as defined by the installed ERP or PLM system, the right MES/MOM suite will interlink cross-departmental information to ensure a smooth-running production environment that perfectly adheres to the manufacturer’s requirements.

For example, the iTAC.MOM.Suite is a popular choice for electronics manufacturers around the globe – seamlessly integrated with the Cogiscan systems mentioned above, this modular and customizable platform ensures that all data flows seamlessly and accurately from the enterprise system down to the shop-floor programs. Designed to help manufacturers achieve zero-fault production, the iTAC.MOM.Suite highlights a more intelligent and connected manufacturing experience.

Brilliant talent creating tomorrow

Lights-out manufacturing in its simplest form downplays, and even ignores, the power of human contribution. It can’t be denied that the type of human intervention to the manufacturing process has changed over the years – and without argument, largely for the better. In fact, most of the advancements made in automation and robotics have been driven by human ingenuity. Instead of envisioning a future reality where human touch is eliminated altogether; it’s more likely the type of human touch will change.

The variety of jobs available in electronics manufacturing certainly don’t look like they did 10 or 15 years ago, and with further adoption of AI technology, we will continue to see roles evolve. And while this industry is slower to fully incorporate advanced AI technology, whether for proprietary information concerns, costing considerations, or simple fear of the unknown, manufacturers will eventually have to integrate AI into the production process to remain competitive.

Doing so effectively will require the right talent pool and, with the talent shortage crisis plaguing this industry for the last five or so years, work needs to be done today to attract the future manufacturing visionaries driving SMT’s tomorrow. The potential for improvement with AI in electronics manufacturing is vast.

Taking one simple example by looking at the opportunity for effective closed-loop manufacturing where the AOI machine feeds results directly back to the upstream process machine, which then automatically calculates algorithms to fix its uploaded program in real-time during a production job… well, the benefits to manufacturers, and to those who invent both a universally adopted and vendor-neutral solution to make all this possible, are tremendous.
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