Posted on 15 Sep, 2016 by Neil Sharp

electronics_manufacturingNot many people know the answer and, if we are honest, a large number of electronics manufacturing companies still don't fully understand this question. This is surprising given the amount of content being produced around "big data", Industrie 4.0, digital manufacturing, mass customisation and various other subjects.  

So what exactly is a "smart" factory and should you care? And, if you do care, how do you go about assessing your own operation in order to make it smart(er)? In this blog post, we look to answer these questions and provide guidance on how you can assess your manufacturing facility without investing huge amounts of time and money upfront.

What is a smart factory?

Put simply, a smart factory contains a mix of hardware and software solutions, which work seamlessly together to improve results. The hardware - i.e. machines used to produce goods - are fitted with an array of sensors that capture huge amounts of data – often referred to as "big". Software solutions then analyse this data, in real time, enabling the factory to make a series of informed decisions. Of course, when we say "the factory" we really mean the other connected machines, which is where the smart element comes in.

Enhanced machine to machine (M2M) communication enables a higher level of automation, along with self-optimisation and self-configuration. The vision, therefore, is that factories will be able to produce higher quality goods much more efficiently. Machines will be able to monitor and self-diagnose performance issues, even ordering replacement parts before failures occur, preventing machine down-time - a current efficiency killer for any electronics manufacturer. And finally, a smart factory will allow manufacturers to build and deliver highly customised products on a mass scale, processed far more efficiently than ever before, all at a reduced cost of course.

Why should I care if my factory is smart?

The degree to which you care will largely depend on the demands of your customers. Has their behaviour changed over the past five years? Are they pressing you to deliver innovative new products at a reduced price within a shorter timeframe? Are you seeing a shift towards greater personalisation requirements? And more importantly how are your competitors responding to some of these new challenges – do you know?

With Industrie 4.0 continuing to dominate manufacturing headlines, it's difficult to ignore the subject altogether. Of course, you may end up deciding it isn't relevant to you -  the latest buzzword that will never amount to anything tangible. Alternatively, you may believe this newfound disruption could benefit your business and enhance the goods and services you offer customers if you act now. Regardless of where you stand on the matter today, it’s probably worth caring just a little while longer, even if it’s just to prove you were right all along.

How can I make my factory smart(er)?

The best approach is to tackle the subject head-on and I’d recommend you do this in a number of different ways:

  1. Read and digest - as mentioned earlier, the amount of content around these topics is overwhelming. To help give yourself a good grounding in the subject I would recommend reading through Barclays' "Future-proofing UK manufacturing" report, taking a look at the "digital compass" McKinsey & Company have produced, and then completing the "digital capability assessment" questionnaire provided by Accenture. Although these three resources are likely to throw up even more questions, they certainly help to highlight which areas of your business could be impacted by the next "revolution".
  2. Meet the experts - in addition to carrying out your own research, I would recommend talking to automation and robotics suppliers and visiting one or more of the exhibitions around the UK where you can see the technology in action. At Subcon 2016, Mike Wilson, general industry sales manager for ABB, delivered a compelling presentation regarding the growth potential collaborative robots (cobots) can offer to SMEs. Earlier in the year, a number of suppliers, including Rethink Robotics and Applied Automation, exhibited within the robotics demo zone at Drives & Controls 2016. These demonstrations really help visitors to the show visualise how advancements in technology can help to improve efficiency in the workplace. If you didn’t manage to get to either of these shows don’t worry. PPMA Total and Northern Manufacturing and Electronics 2016 are due to take place in the UK at the end of September 2016 with a number of robotic suppliers confirmed to attend. And of course, there is the Smart Factory Expo hosted by The Manufacturer taking place in early November 2016 – a show not to be missed if you are seriously considering your options.
  3. Ask for support - facilities like the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) in Coventry develop and prove innovative manufacturing processes and technologies in partnership with industry, academia and other institutions. Whether you are unsure where to start, or have a specific project in mind, the MTC can probably help with varying levels of professional consultancy. Typically, this would consist of an in-house process review, assessment of the impact automation would have on your business, the provision of cost models and then advising on the full scope of automation options.

Once you have a clearer understanding of the solutions available, and have seen first-hand how similar tasks and processes to your own can be completed using automation, it’s time to walk your own factory floor. Pay close attention to the day-to-day tasks that are being carried out, especially the 3D ones, which are usually classified as:

  • Dull
  • Dangerous
  • Dirty

Try not to dismiss any idea due to the amount of investment it may require or the lack of third party support available to you in turning these ideas into reality. The key is to think big and ignore boundaries (for the time being) - otherwise you will stifle this critical brainstorming session.

Make sure you spend time in every department. It might be tempting to head straight over to the production line but chances are there will be a number of tasks carried out in areas such as Goods Inwards and Despatch that could also benefit from a greater use of automation.

Document every task you feel could be improved and your list of "smart" opportunities should start to build up nicely. However, if you are struggling to spot suitable tasks, or simply want a head start, here are some to get you going:

  • Incoming materials - how are they currently tracked when en route from suppliers? Would an improvement in material visibility benefit your production planning?
  • Production requirements - how do you physically transfer material to the production line? Is stock manually processed and delivered to your operators? Are there any elements that could be automated? Which 3D tasks could be removed or reduced through a software or hardware solution?
  • Component preparation - could tasks, such as device cropping, taping and reeling, pre-forming, programming, oven baking, dry storing or the application of serial number labels, benefit from being automated? What would you save and how would this make you more efficient?
  • Production data - how do you currently monitor and measure production efficiency? Is it available in "real time" or do you have to wait for someone to produce the numbers at the end of each hour/day/week/month? How would an improvement in the availability of critical manufacturing data impact your decision making?
  • Machine tending key pieces of equipment within electronics manufacturers, including wave solder, automated optical inspection, conformal coating, flying probe/in-circuit test machines etc., all need tending. In many cases, these are then run through a pre-determined programme or routine requiring manual intervention. Could a robotic solution be more efficient here?
  • Assembly and test - arguably, this is the biggest opportunity for electronics manufacturers to start seeking out repetitive (dull) tasks. Basic assembly, fitting, and other lower skilled tasks are all areas to focus on. Raising more than a few eyebrows earlier in the year, Foxconn recently announced they were replacing 60,000 of their staff with robots. Possibly an extreme example but one that highlights how advancements in technology combined with a reduction in price for these kinds of solutions are starting to influence key decisions. So the question for you is where do you really need your skilled labour? Are they currently deployed in the correct areas of your business and can they consistently produce the quality of product your customers demand now and in the future?

These are just some examples - you should find plenty more when you start looking at your own organisation.

Once you have collated your findings, it's likely that a handful of opportunities to make your factory smarter should stand out. You may even spot a couple of "quick wins" - requiring minimal time and investment to implement. Any solutions that do require further investigation and/or investment should ideally be split out into separate projects and assigned an owner responsible for establishing the costs, return on investment and timescales for completion. And don’t forget to make use of the expert advice and support networks around you. Before launching into buying any hardware or software solutions, I’d recommend running your newly defined projects back past a couple more companies to make sure you haven't missed anything and your proposed solution is fit for purpose.

I guess now you fall into one of two categories. You have either proved to yourself what you already knew - i.e. Industrie 4.0 and smart factories are the latest buzzwords to cause a stir in the manufacturing world and not worth any more of your attention. Or you are genuinely excited about what the future might look like.

Where do you sit? I’d love to know!

Image by Biblioteca de Arte

Industrial automation

Topics: EMS, Industrial Automation

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About the Author

Neil Sharp
Neil Sharp
Previously holding sales, account management and customer service roles, Neil has over 18 years’ experience within the Electronics Manufacturing Services industry. Neil heads up the marketing departme...read more