Reading time ( words)
At the recent NEPCON South China event in Shenzhen, I interviewed Dr. Ranko Vujosevic, CEO and CTO of Optimal Electronics, to learn more about the latest technology developments at his company, and his plans to sustain growth. We also talked about his presentation on lights-out electronics assembly, the technologies that would support this vision, and the ultimate goal of Industry 4.0.
Stephen Las Marias: Dr. Vujosevic, please tell us more about Optimal Electronics and your role in the company.
Dr. Ranko Vujosevic: I founded the company in 1996. I worked as a research scientist at the University of Iowa, and I wanted to have my own company to develop software in one of the industrial engineering areas. Around that time, I was approached by Rockwell Collins plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to design a production scheduling software for their new SMT lines. They funded my development, and then I decided to dedicate all activities towards electronics assembly, and that’s how we started it. We market ourselves as a provider of smart software solutions for electronics assembly, not only manufacturing execution systems (MES), because we provide more than what a typical MES provides, including dynamic production scheduling and machine optimization. Recently, we became involved in Industry 4.0 and smart factory solutions, robotics, and artificial intelligence. We are now located in Austin, Texas. In 2003, Flextronics and National Instruments plants in Austin bought our software and instead of traveling often away from my family, I just moved the company to Austin.
Las Marias: What are your plans for the China market?
Vujosevic: Our plan for this year was to expand our markets by establishing distribution channels in Europe, China, and South East Asia. We had been focusing mostly on the United States and Mexico, with some Asian customers—but only American companies with plants in Asia. We already signed a distribution agreement for Europe, and we expect to sign agreements for China and South East Asia in October. China expansion is very important for us, and we are working very hard to establish our presence in China and provide local sales and support within a few months. I came here to present my paper and to meet several companies for a potential distribution partnership. I am very happy with the amount of relationships I established here this week.
Las Marias: What took you so long to consider Asia and China?
Vujosevic: We tried China about 10 or 12 year ago, but we didn’t have a good experience, let’s put it that way. We didn’t have a really good experience talking to companies and I was discouraged. We decided we didn’t want to do it, so we settled for the U.S. and Mexico market. But right now, things are a little bit different. Things are a little bit more professional everywhere, and we think we can develop honest and respectable relationships with companies in Asia—in a sense we know that a partner can trust us, we can trust the partner, but also we can trust our customers. Especially regarding intellectual property, which we guard very strongly, not just in Asia, but in Europe and everywhere else. So we’re very careful what kind of partner we pick and what kind of customers we sell to.
Las Marias: Don’t you think you might have missed out on the growth surge that happened about a decade ago?
Vujosevic: I don’t think so. There are still a lot of companies that can use our smart software solutions and appreciate our outstanding support. We also have solutions no other competitor offers, so there is still a large market for our solutions in China and all of Asia. I am very encouraged with the interest and investment Chinese companies are making into Industry 4.0, and we hope to provide smart software solutions to our customers in China and other countries in Asia.
Las Marias: Dr. Vujosevic, earlier this week you presented at the SMTA technical conference about lights-out electronics assembly. Can you please give us a rundown of the whole presentation?
Vujosevic: First of all, I wrote that paper out of frustration. I’m frustrated that there’s not much information about Industry 4.0 as it applies to electronics assembly. You go to seminars, presentations, conferences, and they all talk about disruption, digitization, big data, and nothing really specific. We’ve been doing a lot of applications already related to Industry 4.0 for our customers. I wanted to go and present something that will get people’s attention and maybe inspire someone to do something real even if that means proving I was wrong.
The ultimate goal of Industry 4.0 is a lights-out factory that can run unattended for extended periods of time. That will give us maximum throughput, save the cost of the labor and energy, and we can better meet customer expectations because there aren’t interruptions. That’s the final goal. Well, let’s then go backwards. How do we get to that point? In my paper, I discuss the technologies you need to use, how all that should be designed, and the current technologies that can support that. Because, I think that we can now create lights-out assembly lines, but only for a specific type of components or machines that can place smaller components. We can now design, for example, a lights-out line for sensor manufacturing. You can’t do that for every type of board or component placements because the machine designs don’t support that yet.
In the paper, I discussed the steps the industry needs to take to achieve the goal. My goal was not only to present the paper, but also to summarize my thinking, to put it on paper and share with people, but also to have that as a blueprint for my company. And we’re now following my paper, pretty much, and developing these things with our customers.
Las Marias: The goal is to have a totally unmanned factory?
Vujosevic: That’s going to happen and I know some big companies that are making plans to do that. We know that’s going to happen and I’m not, in my paper, talking about any social implications of that, you know, people are going to lose jobs. But that’s going to happen no matter what, whether we talk or not. We need to talk about it and prepare people to start training for high tech jobs especially younger generations. You can’t hide behind lies that there’s not going to be a loss of jobs. It will happen. Operator-free plants will happen soon.
Las Marias: What are the challenges that will be faced by the industry?
Vujosevic: The challenges are making more intelligent equipment designs and standard machine to machine interfaces. Machines don’t support operator-free processes right now. The pick and place machines cannot be operator-free because you have to put reel on a feeder, and you have to put the feeder into the slot. A robot cannot do that right now. So, we need to eliminate tapes and feeders, and a different design needs to be in place. That’s one challenge. Machines need to be re-designed.
The second challenge is the communications between machines—we need better protocols. They are developing several protocols right now, but everyone has some business interest in the whole process and we are going to end up again with a number of protocols and vendors supporting different protocols. Somehow, we will be able to have machines talk to each other, but it’s not going to be as simple as people think or as standard as people think. It never is. So, those are the two challenges. Social implications are challenging, of course, because if we want to build a plant without people, well, who’s going to give you land to build or tax breaks that everybody’s asking for these days? It’s not going to be from the county or city because you’re not hiring anybody. But, some companies can afford to build plants without that, so that will also be part of the decision making.