Training and Education: Key to Improving Electronics Assembly
For this month's issue of SMT Magazine, we spoke with Luis Ramirez, COO, and Dan Prina, project manager of Lean enterprises and continuous improvement, at EMS firm MC Assembly to discuss the challenges of and strategies in improving the PCB assembly process from an EMS provider’s perspective. We also spoke with Manncorp's Tom Beck, director of marketing, and Chris Ellis, Eastern sales manager, to get their viewpoints on the subject as an equipment provider.
"From my perspective, from a management standpoint, first and foremost, improvement is a philosophy, and whatever you're doing today there’s always a better way to do it tomorrow. One of the biggest paradigms that we see across the industry is that one thing that may have worked in the past, we keep trying it and we keep trying it, and it may not work today because variables may have changed and the environment may have changed. That’s one of the biggest paradigms that, from a management standpoint in manufacturing, we have to remove, because what worked in the past not necessarily is going to work in the future," explains Ramirez. "For us, first we want to have a standard. We want to make sure that we partner with our suppliers of equipment and create standards so that we know when there is a problem, when there is an event that is outside a standard, it is easier to troubleshoot and easier to determine the root cause. Having said that, once you have a standard established, then you have to measure. You have to create a metric to understand whether or not you’re meeting your expected output out of that standard. With that measurement, then you are able to provide real-time feedback. That’s what drives a lot of the continuous improvement activities when we see trends. For example, when we look at the work that has been done in the previous day and we see a problem that keeps repeating that triggers a review, and triggers a team meeting or a kaizen event for the team to get together and figure out the root cause. What could be causing the problem and then second, what actions we could implement to eliminate or minimize the problem."
Ramirez notes that in today’s world of electronics, the PCBA real estate has become more and more critical. There are now a lot of low-profile BGAs. There are a lot of very small components that are all in very difficult areas inside a circuit board. "Even if you have great equipment, you still need to have that human intelligence that is able to figure out the right process to minimize any problem," Ramirez says.
He notes, though, that it does require having the equipment that is capable, but so is having the technical and the expertise and experience to be able to look at a problem and say, 'Yes, I know I can do A, B or C.'
"If you cannot figure it out, you should be able to pick up the phone and call the manufacturer of the equipment, call the manufacturer of the part, and even invite all of them and tell them, 'Hey, I’ve got this problem. How do you guys think we can solve it?' Again, sometimes what we think is a simple problem actually may require a very complex solution. In our world, there is no such thing as a simple problem," adds Ramirez.
One of the key measurements they base their improvements on is the overall cycle time. "Initially, what we wanted to do was to just feed it into our machines, we’ve always had a big focus on the technology of it. We’ve invested pretty heavily in some really good equipment. What we’ve found lately though is there’s a lot to be said for the simplicity," says Prina. "We definitely manage from a point where we look at running simulations and we know where our expected run times are on our equipment, but if you fail to manage the downtime, if you fail to manage the hand touch labor further on down the line, it can create a lot of problems. We have a phase-gate controlled process NPI release that goes step-by-step through the process. We try to identify what our problems are upfront but there’s certainly still quite a bit being done out on the floor once it’s released, and we go through that process. That’s when we try to get our operators engaged and getting that feedback from them, where we can minimize times lost, where we can engage some efficiency, and just getting that feedback back up to the PDM group to rewrite those processes or to engineering for review is really critical."
Do they go back to their customers and suggest some modifications for future revisions? Ramirez says they do. "As Dan explained, in a perfect world during the pre-production type run, there are a lot of these sins that should have been identified and, in theory, should have been corrected. What we’re finding is, in many cases, many of our customers’ development phase take more time than projected in their tollgate process to bring a product to life. They consume all the work for one reason or the other in the design phase to the point that by the time you want to prove your design, it’s way too late. In many instances, we are facing a situation in which the product has launched, even with a fault or deficiency we may have identified, because there is a pressure for that customer to launch a product," Ramirez explains. "We like to view ourselves as adding value to our customer. At MC, we’re going to do our best to provide you, based on your design, a good product. However, we’ve got to work together. We’ve got to be partners so that, at the end of the day, if we can improve your design and it's going to make our assembly process better, that is going to be an economical benefit for both companies. For the most part, most customers tend to take that feedback and in the next revision they fix it."
But he says they have other customers who are facing difficulty in changing the design because of third-party approvals or very long testing.
"Again, we have a mix of some that early in the process as we are doing the prototypes. We're able to provide feedback, which then they use to refine their design versus the other ones that they get the feedback but they realize that, 'Hey, I don't have the time.' It's going to be changed in the next revision. Then we have to live with that situation. Therefore, that's where it's critical to have all the controls that we put in place, like Dan was mentioning, we've got to figure out how to do it and how to do it well," says Ramirez.
Ellis agrees, saying that a lot of customers just don’t know how to design for manufacturability. "We often have to guide them so that their designs are consistent with their capabilities and available resources. For example, a customer may have a BOM with 175 different part numbers, which would necessitate multiple pick-and-place machines, when they really don’t have the budget for that. We can often assist them in designing their product in a way that meets the capability of equipment they can afford," he says.
Beck adds that many of their customers, especially the larger companies, will invest in their own prototyping equipment to be able to work out a lot of these issues in advance, before turning a product over to an assembler, who would produce the boards on a much larger scale when necessary.
Training and Education is Key
Overall, one of the key factors that these experts point to when it comes to improving the PCB assembly process is training and better education, as most of the people in the line just don’t have any formal training in electronics assembly methods.
"I think one very important area is better education, to be honest," says Beck. "If you're an OEM, you have a lot of different processes that you’re trying to integrate to build a finished product. Electronic assembly is only one aspect of that. We find with a lot of our small- and medium-volume customers that they’ll have people who are performing a wide variety of job functions. Many of them, for whatever reason, just don’t have any formal training in electronic assembly methods and best practices.
"When we do installs, we very often find that there's quite a bit of hand-holding required because a lot of the operators simply lack experience and training. Many don't take advantage of the industry resources that are out there and really educate themselves. Not all of them; some certainly do. Some get semi-annual training and have experts come in and conduct reviews and training classes and the whole bit, but a lot of them don’t. I think better overall education is extremely important."
MC Assembly, for their part, does a lot of internal training, according to Prina, especially when it comes to continuous improvement. "Things like the IPC's and the soldering classes; but I think to echo what we’re talking about, as far as education, we do a ton of benchmarking. I think you need to get out of your own skin and live in a little bigger world. You go see some of these other plants. I’ve been here since 1994. If this is where I lived and I never got out of our plant, I would see things that would be considered to be common place, this is the way people do things, and you don’t realize that there are better methods and better ideas out there," he explains. "It’s not about stealing, because you have to go back and you have to adapt it to what works for you. I was at Toyota recently, again, just benchmarking to see their ideas on assembly. MC Assembly is never going to be Toyota. We’re never going to buy billions of dollars’ worth of tooling; but again, there are a lot of small things that we can take away from that and learn. We belong to AME (Association of Manufacturing Excellence) and ‘share, learn, grow’ is their mantra. Just getting out and seeing how other people are doing things and then adapting them to what works best for your process is fantastic."
Prina says that in addition to benchmarking, they also send large groups of people for things like Excel training. "People knew how to load an Excel worksheet and do some basic manipulations, but they didn’t realize or even know what a macro was. We can save them hours on simple things like data entry just by doing that kind of training. We spend a lot of time and we encourage the supervisors to go out and search for things from which people would benefit and who should go."
Teaching people to think differently often results in new ideas and improved process—leading to overall improvement in processes.
The education process also can come out of getting people from different sides of the spectrum to sit down and really talk about the manufacturing challenges.
"For example, we recently had a customer that we have had for years and their designs are very, very challenging," narrates Ramirez. "One day, we took a group of our manufacturing engineers and we went and had lunch with their engineers. Slowly, the ideas started flowing engineer to engineer. It was not rocket science. It was just getting the people that are designing talking to the people that are manufacturing it, and it was fantastic. We were able to solve chronic problems by having these guys talking. From my perspective, I think that OEMs need to treat their contract manufacturers (CMs) as partners. They’re part of your organization, not just another vendor that is making you parts, but they’ve got to be a partnership, sharing ideas and having improvement activities and kaizen events together. Not just once in a quarter, let’s see what your price is and let’s see your quality, etc. The more involved the OEM is with their partner CM the better the results are going to be for both organizations."
Ramirez adds that in their results, the customers that are involved have better yields, and they have better reliability. "For the ones that are not involved, there is a little bit of struggle. We do our best but you can see a difference between the customers that are completely involved versus the ones that are not involved with the manufacturer."
"I was just going to add on to what we were saying about education. I think what Luis was just saying is really important because it’s not just about education in a single discipline like SMT technology, for example. You can't just operate in a vacuum. A manufacturer who is using an EMS should know about the day-to-day challenges that an EMS has to deal with from a practical standpoint. Beyond the technology itself. Communication, education, it all goes hand in hand," says Ellis.
When it comes to education in the assembly process, software, the continuous improvement, the level of education can be mainly comprehensive in a lot of fronts to continue to improve the process.
"I think a key thing that is very important is finding a supplier that can provide remote access and diagnostics for their equipment. Even if you only have a component with a 3% rejection rate, why is it being rejected that 3%? Sometimes it could be something as simple as your tolerances not being set exactly right on the pick and place machine. The amount that those components are supposedly out of tolerance may be totally insignificant from a process standpoint, yet it’s reducing your efficiency. These are the kind of things that our technicians can easily pinpoint and rectify through a quick diagnostic assessment of the machine’s performance. All we need is a quick phone call and an internet connection," says Ellis.
"For us, it's the same message. Reach out. Sometimes, I have to remind engineers that they’re not God and they don’t necessarily know everything. I know sometimes for the technical people, it’s a little bit harder for them to admit they don’t know everything. We try to encourage everyone to pick up the phone and call the manufacturer. I think that giving our suppliers a call and saying, 'Can you help us? I’m struggling. I don't understand.' It is very valuable," says Ramirez.
Understand Your Improvement Goals
You have to have a clear goal when you set out to improve a process. It may be a quality challenge, a cycle time challenge, or a set up challenge. It may be multiple things, according to Ramirez. "If you look at the fishbone, it could be multiple spines causing one problem. At the end of the day, what we want to do is have the product built, flow, and able to meet or exceed any quality requirements. That’s what we want to accomplish," he explains. "It’s interesting because we were talking earlier about the machine cycle times. Some of our machines run 100,000 or a gazillion components, but interestingly enough, we have found that in some instances, slowing down the equipment significantly improves the output and the flow. It is a compromise. Back to your question about the goal, it could be many different aspects. It’s just a matter of understanding what is it that you’re trying to accomplish and what could be negatively impacting the goal."
"We're rabid about reducing waste and we sit down, we value-stream map, we do some measurements, and we see where we should focus first," says Prina. "The tough part is always how you make sure that whatever you’ve done sticks. We try to use multiple events and things like that. Get people involved and then go back and just get that standard work written down and then checked daily at a supervisor or lead level, and check monthly at an executive level. Did we stink? Are we still headed in the right direction? What’s our next step? Okay, we reduced 50% of the waste, how do we get 50% out of there again?"
So, what are the best practices to consider when improving the electronic assembly process? Prina says its "measure what matters."
"For years, we’ve picked out a number of KPIs and we just took some numbers here, took some numbers there, and didn’t really do much with them," he says. "We didn’t get much effect for it. We built some KPI trees, decided what key processes we really want to monitor and what we’re going to do with that information once we have it."
"Back to fundamentals," notes Ramirez. "The theory of constraints. There is one thing that is making your whole process slow. If you focus on that area, then you measure that area, you know that everything else flows. Listen to your employees. That guy or gal that is spending eight hours in front of that machine can probably tell you more about what is causing the problem. Maybe he or she doesn’t know what exactly the problem is, but by getting their inputs, understanding under what circumstances these problems happened, they typically can tell you a lot of information and help you actually fix the problem. That is something that we have to keep repeating all the time to our management team. The more your people know, the more you involve them, the better your results are going to be."
This article was originally published in the August 2017 issue of SMT Magazine.