By Michael Ford, Aegis Software 

The recent advances towards the realization of digitalized factories in electronics manufacturing must now be the envy of the assembly industry. With the creation of true digital standards, and the “digital remastering” of MES, the potential of Industry 4.0 operation in factories is achievable. Electronics manufacturing is positioned to be the aegis for other manufacturing industries, encouraging and leading key assembly industry verticals forward.

Electronics has evolved into somewhat of an unusual segment within the industry. Rather than being a vertical segment, such as automotive, medical or aerospace, electronics sits horizontally across the verticals. There seem to be far fewer assembled products today that don’t have any electronic component or connection. Compared to other industry segments, electronics is regarded as being “high-tech” in terms of technology, perhaps due to the nature of the products, but mainly due to the size of materials and the sheer number of components assembled, and the vast range of materials used. The application of computerization in some form has been mandatory since the start of SMT operation, albeit mostly in the form of disparate “point solutions”, home-grown, third-party or machine vendor provided software. Today, driven by the need for smart, digitalized Industry 4.0 operation, the creation of digital standards for machine to machine communication including for example, The Hermes Standard as a SMEMA replacement, and IPC’s “Connected Factory Exchange” (CFX) as plug and play IoT solution, were inevitable requirements, both of which work together seamlessly to deliver the total digital factory.

The journey of computerization in electronics assembly manufacturing has been long and hard. Many simple standards for data acquisition have been introduced, but have ultimately failed to be sustained, through lack of content definition, maintenance, and consideration of value to those who produce the data. Middleware solutions also prove to be unreliable and unsustainable, needing extensive and expensive support and customization. This left a huge amount of work necessary on a bespoke level to be continuously developed by machine vendors, third-party solution providers, and manufacturing IT teams alike. It has only been very recently with the advent of IoT technologies, together with the required computing power and networking capability, that has made an all-encompassing content-driven plug and play communication standard possible. Looking at the similar journey in the semi-conductor industry, where there was also a need for the application of technology in manufacturing from an early stage, the machine process and operation was much simpler, and so manufacturing was satisfied earlier with simpler solutions that were effective at the time, considering the required scope. The remainder of the assembly industry has been less concerned with digital MES systems. Data exchange requirements have been at least an order of magnitude smaller, and for most of manufacturing, the bills of materials somewhat simpler. This would continue to be the case today, were it not for the encroachment of electronics across all vertical sectors together with the expectations of Industry 4.0.

Today, the assembly industry beyond electronics needs to catch up. Industry 4.0 will force the catch-up of over ten years of digital communication technology in a very short time. The standards, best practices, and operations learned already in electronics must be applied to these other industry segments, giving them a guiding hand rather than them having to take on their own evolutionary journey. As most electronics manufacturing operations are part of another industry vertical, this will help by avoiding potential conflict and confusion as “end to end” manufacturing automation and communication decisions are made, avoiding whatever turbulence we can in a way that drives digital best practices forward. Design of electronic assemblies now already consists of both electronic and mechanical design models. The physical electronics are a key part of the holistic design vision. We are in the age of mechatronics. Manufacturing essentials, such as quality management and traceability need to be applied consistently and seamlessly throughout the whole product manufacturing process. Digital standards, procedures and best practices that apply to electronics manufacturing should be considered both up and down the manufacturing vertical to which the electronic element belongs.

This is potentially a huge wake-up call for the industry as a whole. Other than electronics, assembly manufacturing is currently struggling to come to terms with demands for Industry 4.0 operation. Small companies are being inventive to create so-called IoT solutions to take data from machines into the cloud in line with the perceived needs of customers, but in an immature and completely proprietary way, without the due diligence to define the content of the data. The result of this activity, as we know well in electronics, will be a mass of questionable formats with unusable, unactionable and valueless data. Having this poor quality data now in the cloud rather than on some local server, is not going to make it any better, just more visible. That particular cloud will soon darken.

 

Seeing the painful journey start to happen all over again signals the need to make a quick change. The lessons learned in electronics manufacturing, which has resulted in excellent initiatives such as the CFX standard for digital factory communication, the Hermes standard, the IPC-2581 standard for the digital product model as well as the IPC-1782 standard for digital traceability and anti-counterfeit, means that the rest of the industry has a really good opportunity to take a short-cut to the finish line, achieving Industry 4.0, meeting expectations in a reasonable time period.

 

It is our duty in the electronics industry, with our collective experience, to start the communication with the respective verticals. If not, then we are accepting the repeat of confusion and inconsistency in our holistic digital vision.