On the Smart Move: Industry 4.0 in Electronics Production
Industry 4.0—googling this still very young term gives you approximately 200 million hits, almost as many as you get when you enter "automation", a term that has been around for decades. When you add alternative or supplemental terms like industrial Internet, smart factory or Internet of Things (IoT), the number of hits grows even larger. These are indicators that the industrial world is in motion, as we face a revolution in terms of processes, organizational structures, hardware and software in our companies.
Many critics complain that terms like Industry 4.0 and smart factory are rather arbitrary and lack concrete meaning. That is correct. What is also true, however, is that technical progress always starts out with a vision, which is then put into concrete terms as time moves on.
In this paper, I want to help put this visionary force to use while filling these new concepts with life in the field of electronics manufacturing. In concrete terms: what tasks must electronics manufacturers perform in order to implement these new production concepts in their factories?
A Market-Driven Development
Advances in automation have rapidly reduced the costs of mass production while delivering huge jumps in efficiency in recent decades. Refinements like enhanced specialization and the division of labor between companies, lean manufacturing, process and value chain orientation and the use of IT-supported communication have further enhanced its positive impact on cost, quality, product diversity, and cycle times.
But today’s global markets demand even more. Products must be offered in more and increasingly customized variants while product life cycles are getting shorter and shorter. For electronics manufacturers, this means having to accommodate ever smaller lot sizes and more frequent product changeovers. On top of this, globalized markets are extremely volatile. Trendy products must be available in huge quantities immediately after they have been announced (and sometimes long before), while other products disappear shortly after they have been introduced to the market. OEMs regularly outsource their production operations and are quick to shift them to other parts of the world if other service providers can do the job better or adapt more efficiently to the OEM’s processes. Regional, political and economic crises affect markets and demand all over the world.
As a result, production facilities must become more flexible and be able to respond quickly to product changes by scaling their capacities up or down in line with demand. For SMT plants, this means that classic production concepts, rigid line concepts and the inflexible planning and control hierarchies from the age of mass production are no longer capable of keeping up.
It should therefore come as no surprise that the production concepts we are talking about are making headlines all over the world. New technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT), machine-to-machine communication, more flexible software architectures and big data create new opportunities for companies that have to find answers to the changing requirements of their markets.
Part 1: Connectivity and Security
The first prerequisite for the implementation of Industry 4.0 is the consistent networking of machines, production lines and locations. What seems like matter-of-course in an electronics manufacturer’s office turns out to be a challenge on the factory floor, though.
Printers, SPI systems, placement machines, reflow ovens and AOI systems—even single lines often consist of machines from many different manufacturers. Cross-machine data communication is still more the exception than the rule, because there are no generally accepted standards for protocols and interfaces. This is an area where manufacturers and international industry associations must quickly approve and establish minimum standards, because it is the only way to keep integration costs on a reasonable level for electronics manufacturers. If Industry 4.0 is to become reality, networking your production equipment must become a lot easier and simpler.
To put it succinctly, the machine of the future will produce not only products but data, which it then makes available to other systems as an open service on the network. With modern bus systems and contemporary software, this does not pose a technical problem—web interfaces are already a standard feature on many of these machines. The general recommendation for the electronics industry is therefore to establish standards that are based largely on those in the IT industry. The systems must be able to read data from the machine in real time (status and progress messages, error messages, sensor data, etc.) as well as control machine parameters. Initiatives of equipment manufacturers who publish their interfaces are a good start.
Future components in an SMT line should function similar to printers on an office network. They integrate themselves automatically, provide performance, status and diagnostic information to all authorized entities, and can be configured individually and remotely for each process.
The electronics manufacturer can then decide which of this information he wants to use for his processes. For example, many of our customers already use the fill level data from our placement machines to automatically request fresh supplies from the warehouse long before the component reel runs empty. Innovative, modular and highly compact storage systems will soon be able to perform this job directly on the line. Engineers are even working on systems that can set up refills automatically with no human interaction.
Besides this type of horizontal networking on the production and shop floor level, the vertical integration with MES and ERP systems is another point that engineers are working on. Their goal: making the entire production with all its resources fully transparent. Many special tasks in the areas of programming, planning and optimization can be performed anywhere in the world, and the results of this work can be put to use instantly in any of the company’s locations.
The next networking stage will be between companies, which enables customers to call up information from their suppliers directly in the form of regular reports or even in real time via dashboards. Orders from end customers can trigger schedule changes or new production orders at the EMS provider, and suppliers can be notified automatically of any changes in demand.
On the other hand, new capabilities like these also entail new risks, especially with regard to IT security. BOMs, CAD drawings, component prices, production quantities, product plans—all of these are data that needs to be protected. Large EMS companies are already spending a lot of money to keep information from reaching other customers or third parties.
While everyone is talking about the technical opportunities made possible by Industry 4.0 and the Internet, IT security is still getting short shrift—despite the fact that it will be critically important for the success of these new production concepts. Customers and manufacturers must have certainty that their systems can be linked globally while being fully protected against both unauthorized access and IT failures.
Part 2: Role Integration and Augmented Operation
Networked machines and lines in the smart factory of the future will generate huge amounts of data. We must keep in mind, however, that having lots of data is not the same as having transparency. You can manage the data generated by a smart factory only if it is processed in a way that makes people’s jobs easier in their respective roles. Someone in the kitting area, for example, needs different information about upcoming jobs at a different time than someone in the warehouse, in production scheduling, or in controlling. New, more flexible technologies for developing software interfaces harbor lots of opportunities, but here, too, it is important to remember that providing the best possible support for application- and customer-specific processes with interfaces and data structures is only possible if you are intimately familiar with these processes.
The factory of the future will also have to make do with fewer people on the shop floor. As a result, workers must be more flexible and be able to handle a variety of functions from machine operation to maintenance. All these activities require information, but to be able to work effectively, people cannot be forced to constantly run to fixed monitors and terminals and click through menus. Accordingly, tablets and augmented reality will play an important role. Employees will wear smart glasses that present the information they need depending on what they are looking at as in response to voice commands. A look at the SMT line will show live data about the order status, a look at the feeder will show when it can be torn down, and a look inside the machine will display images that guide the user step-by-step through the maintenance sequence.
Intelligent systems will guide employees through processes, assist them when necessary, and help them avoid errors. In short, they will make the processes more reliable. This principle of guided task assistance is not just wishful thinking. We already have LEDs on component feeders that let the operator on the machine or in the kitting area know when the feeder can be torn down or in which sequence it must be installed.
While equipment manufacturers and producers have focused on the development of ever more powerful software in recent years, this software and the related interfaces will have to be increasingly adapted to the individual user and his or her situational and procedural requirements.
Part 3: Virtual Production
While classic mass production allowed you to ramp up processes over time, small lots and lot sizes of 1 will make this impossible. Even the first unit of a new product must leave the SMT line free of faults.
The smart SMT factory makes this possible with simulations and virtual production. New products are initially run in a virtual but highly detailed image of the actual line. With today’s software, we are already able to execute placement programs on the computer and populate a circuit board virtually while taking the machine’s configuration fully into account. This allows us to uncover programming errors before they create costs as a result of discards and faulty placements.
In the future, we will be able to simulate complex manufacturing processes from component ordering to packaging—the more you automate, the more accurate the simulation. This allows you to uncover errors or conflicts with other job, synchronize and optimize production steps, and compute accurate throughput times and costs—long before the first product actually enters the line.
Linking the virtual production with the real one makes the simulation even more accurate. Any performance variations, maintenance intervals, vacation times, machine failures, new machines, and other historical and current data from the production floor are automatically taken into account in the simulation to minimize any deviations between plan and reality. The benefit for the electronics manufacturer: accurate planning provides more informative data and helps all the players in the value chain to optimally synchronize their processes and make them more efficient and agile.
Part 4: Process Control and Expert Systems
Process control and closed-loop systems are well-known methods and tools in automation technology, but the smart factory raises them to an entirely new level.
For example, the combination of sensor technology and software will reduce downtime even further. Many of today’s placement machines already have so-called self-healing features that enable them to fix minor errors automatically and without human interaction. Predictive maintenance functionalities will enable machines to indicate the need for maintenance and schedule it automatically in cooperation with manufacturing execution systems. They will even be able to request any parts they need.
Self-learning expert systems, however, will change process control in its entirety. These systems no longer measure and control on the basis of manually set threshold values, but determine the best possible process parameters by simulating and analyzing historical data. As their database, they can use not only the sensor data from the SPI, vision and AOI systems of a single line, but of all lines, all locations, or even all users. The resulting productivity and quality benefits will be huge.
Let’s look at an example: A manufacturer must introduce a new product. Instead of asking his experienced staff to run in the product and perform the necessary tests and parameter optimizations, he simply imports the PCB, component specifications, etc. into his expert system. The system looks for comparable products, PCB segments and component for which it already has historical data and optimized process parameters. Within a few minutes and without having run a single board, the expert systems adjust relevant process parameters on the line for the new product. The analysis of the first units then provides additional data, which the system uses instantly to make instant parameter improvements. The system does all this much more quickly and reliably than even the most experienced employee would be able to.
And if the product has to be run again months later, possibly in a slightly modified version? No problem. The expert system recognizes the product and makes all necessary modifications automatically. If the manufacturer moves the production to a different location, the new line can run it with maximum quality from the start.
The more often a modern manufacturer has to make product and setup changes, the more important the role of these new process control technologies will become.
Example: Smart logistics in electronics production
People who continue to think in isolated technologies and standalone processes will be unable to fully exploit the benefits of the smart SMT factory and Industry 4.0.
Logistics are a prime example: It is not enough that printers and placement recognize the boards as they enter, load the appropriate programs and optimally configure themselves. To be able to produce something, the machine must have the appropriate components installed. This means that they must have been withdrawn from the component warehouse after being ordered, shipped and delivered. Accordingly, the smart SMT factory must have smart supply logistics. If it doesn’t, much of the line’s performance gets wasted.
Equipment makers are already working on integrated solutions. Orders are grouped in detailed production schedules and distributed over the individual lines as efficiently as possible. Based on the schedule, the system generates path-optimized pick lists and transmits them to the tablets of the warehouse staff. Automated storage systems are controlled accordingly and issue the components in the right order. Even SMT-specific details like MSD exposure times are taken into account. Thanks to the transparent networking of all activities, even a component package that just arrived in receiving can thus be forwarded to the line directly and without delay.
Normally, however, the logistics system uses driverless transport systems to carry the components early enough to the kitting area or the line, because it knows from historical data how long this process takes. On the line, the machines and feeders signal which components are needed for upcoming production runs and which can be torn down. Short-term changes in the production sequence are taken into account instantly.
The feeders can be installed randomly, which means that product B can be set up while product A is still running. Feeder registration, pitch settings—everything takes place automatically without operator interaction. When the time comes to switch to the new product, the line does so without stopping.
If you think that this scenario is nothing but wishful thinking, you are mistaken. Most of the technical components have already been developed. All that is needed is electronics manufacturers who push the networking of their machines and processes in order to take advantage of the smart SMT factory’s potential in cooperation with the suppliers of technology and equipment.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the proceedings of SMTA International.