X-Rayted Inspection: Manufacturing in the Eye of a Pandemic

I usually write about X-ray inspection, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and how it all connects to Industry 4.0. This month, however, I’m shifting gears. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in our economy greatly disrupted our business. In this column, I’ll share some of the things our company been doing to weather this storm. Hopefully, some of these strategies can be useful to you. As such, please let me know what you have been doing to adapt your business to shelter-in-place policies and to an overall economy that quickly entered a recession. The bottom line is that we won’t stop working hard.

Planning

Our leadership team had been monitoring the situation in Asia—and the consequent disruption to life and manufacturing—since November last year. At that point in time, we knew things could get pretty bad in the U.S. However, we didn’t know when (or if) the coronavirus would land in the U.S. After all, we had weathered ebola, SARS, avian flu, and other outbreaks with little to no impact in our life here in the U.S.

But our motto “plan for the worst and hope for the best” led us to start thinking about the possible scenario of closing down our facility. Because of that, we started looking for smaller facilities near our team’s houses, as we suspected very limited travel ability. Our manufacturing cells, as shown in Figure 1, allow us to build a machine from the ground up in a single location (contrary to a production line, where the machine would move from station to station). We planned on how to move several cells from one large facility to a set of smaller facilities.

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Figure 1: One of several manufacturing cells at Creative Electron’s headquarters in San Marcos, California.

Now, the coronavirus had landed in the U.S, but some leaders are still downplaying its impact in the country and calling it a “mild flu.” The gravity of the situation gained clarity when San Francisco issued a shelter-in-place order on March 16, 2020. That’s when our plan to move out of our facility was placed in motion. It was a matter of when, not if, the same shelter-in-place order was to be issued for San Diego.

Executing

On the evening of March 19, Governor Gavin Newsom announced a statewide shelter-in-place policy for California. That triggered the start of our moving plan, and machines in several different stages of completion were moved to eight different facilities around San Diego (Figure 2). At these facilities, smaller teams could continue to work while following the social distancing rules set by California’s policy.

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Figure 2: Time to move! All packed to set up the new manufacturing facilities.

During

That’s where we are now. We continue to manufacture X-ray machines (Figure 3). We have lost some efficiency, as we needed to distribute inventory for all eight facilities. Our quality control system was already on the cloud, so it was straightforward to scale and distribute it, and the same was true for the assembly instructions and inventory control.

The main challenge has been communication, as we can no longer walk around the cells and share information (Figure 4). Most of our team would come to one facility every day to work. The idea of working from different places, mostly by ourselves, is a big change for us. We’re still adapting.

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Figure 3: One of our eight manufacturing cells in San Diego.

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Figure 4: Our weekly (now daily) leadership meeting, which used to happen face to face.

Aftermath

We still don’t know how long it will take until we can reopen our facility in San Marcos. It’s hard to think about an almost 30,000 square foot facility sitting idle as we wait for this virus to run its course. I think a lot about the lessons we are learning now, which we’ll be able to use after these dark clouds clear.

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Figure 5: A note found in a manufacturing cell at headquarters that fits the occasion (a quote from Hunter S. Thompson).

I’m sure you’re compiling a list of things that are better (and worse) about your business and your team during this crisis. Some of these things we’ll want to keep; others we will need to change. Here are a few things we are considering.

1. Work From Home

Our software team had been coming to the office every day. Their efficiency has increased during the shutdown period, mostly attributed to the lack of office distractions. That’s a department we can see working from home more often.

2. Distributed Manufacturing Cells

Our whole development and manufacturing team worked under one roof. I didn’t see any other way since this “experiment.” There are some advantages of having somewhat isolated, smaller teams. Some have gained in speed (perhaps because of fewer distractions). A set of eight facilities is too much, but maybe two or three to minimize commutes to a central location might make sense going forward. Some of our assemblers were driving over one hour each way to work. Communication between these cells would definitely be a long-term challenge.

3. Quality Control

We started with a great set of quality control and assembly instructions. If we continue with this structure, how do we ensure the continuation of quality documentation and control? Since we can’t compromise on quality, this will be a critical point of attention to management.

Conclusion

These are challenging times that are stretching the capabilities of every business. The past two weeks have registered over 10 million unemployment claims. There is a lot of fear out there. People are afraid for their health and for their jobs. That hits the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. As business leaders, these fears further complicate how we navigate these turbulent waters. Historia est Magistra Vitae; history is life’s teacher. What lessons are we learning today?

Dr. Bill Cardoso is CEO of Creative Electron.

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2020

X-Rayted Inspection: Manufacturing in the Eye of a Pandemic

04-08-2020

Dr. Bill Cardoso usually writes about X-ray inspection, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and how it all connects to Industry 4.0. This month, however, he shifts gears and shares some of the things Creative Electron has been doing during the COVID-19 outbreak.

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X-rayted Files: X-ray and AI—A Match Made In Heaven, Part 2

03-18-2020

In Part 1, Dr. Bill Cardoso covered the basics of the relationship between X-ray inspection and artificial intelligence (AI). In Part 2, Cardoso takes a step forward to cover some of the practical ways we use AI to improve the efficiency of our X-ray inspections.

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X-Rayted Files: X-Ray and AI—A Match Made In Heaven, Part 1

02-05-2020

Dr. Bill Cardoso has been working with AI for a while now and seen real application and success in X-ray inspection, as well as failures. In Part 1 of this column series, he shares how AI is changing the way we think about X-ray inspection.

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X-Rayted Files: When SMT Lines Develop Line Conscience

01-22-2020

Bill Cardoso explores the history of Henry Ford's assembly line, how this may be the end of the automation era, and the future of autonomous systems, AI, machine learning, etc.

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2019

X-Rayted Files: Will Radiation Damage My Electronic Component?

12-17-2019

Before I start talking about radiation damage on electronic components, let me warn you: if you are looking for a simple “yes” or “no” answer to the question, "Will radiation damage my electronic component?" stop reading now. Things will get complicated. You may feel like I did not answer the question at all, and you would be correct. There are whole conferences dedicated to this question (check IEEE’s Nuclear and Space Radiation Effects Conference), so the goal of this column is to give you some background to guide you to the right answer for your specific situation. Ultimately, the best way is to ask an expert.

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X-Rayted Files: The Currency of Technology

11-11-2019

In the ever-moving tide of technology, the need to innovate requires a constant shift in vision, and this need has never been more evident than in PCB manufacturing. In fact, innovation has become so valuable that PCBs are quickly becoming the currency of technology. Dr. Bill Cardoso explains.

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X-Rayted Files: The Risk of Installing Counterfeit Parts

10-02-2019

In high-tech manufacturing, the use of sub-standard components can be catastrophic. There is no greater need for quality control than in PCBs, as they are only as good as the components installed on them; therein lies the problem. Some components shipped to manufacturers are counterfeit!

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X-Rayted Files: Just Because You Can't See the Problem Doesn't Mean It's Not There!

08-20-2019

In this new column, Dr. Bill Cardoso will cover everything related to X-rays from cool historical facts to the latest in technological advancements, starting with the discovery of X-rays in 1895.

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