X-Rayted Files: Smart vs. Intelligent SMT Factory

Amazon currently employs over 200,000 robots across 175 fulfillment centers around the world. The robot ranks at Amazon grow every year, and in some facilities, they outnumber the humans. As the lights out concept rapidly grows with the giant retailer, automation adoption still finds resistance in the SMT manufacturing world. I don’t know what the future holds for surface mount technology (SMT) manufacturing, but I’m certain it depends on our intelligence. As a community, we spend a lot of time discussing the Smart factory. Instead, we should aim higher: to the “Intelligent factory.”

Industry 4.0 initiatives that connect the production equipment in the SMT line are critical in the design of a Smart factory. So are smart storage towers or smart stencil storage systems. An Intelligent factory, on the other hand, will connect all these smart pockets inside the factory using an artificial intelligence (AI) engine that will run the factory to optimize efficiency. 

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Figure 1: Rendering of an automated warehouse.

SMT factories around the world make a wide range of electronic products, from simple toasters to sophisticated avionics. These factories, independent of size, location, or level of sophistication, do one of three things to the materials they receive: move it around, transform it, or store it. Therefore, inside the factory, materials are either being moved, stored, or transformed. An Intelligent factory must be able not only to fully automate all these functions, but also integrate them intelligently. 

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Figure 2: The SMT line in a Smart factory.

Material transformation is the core of Industry 4.0. It focuses on how materials—in this case electronic components—are transformed as they are assembled onto a printed circuit board (PCB). The SMT line is fully automated today with pick and place machines that can shoot components onto the PCB at warp speeds. Once materials are properly loaded into these machines, no humans are required to enable the transformation performed on these materials from the printer in the beginning of the SMT line to the X-ray machine at the end of the line.   

The current evolution in the Smart factory is the automation of material storage. Although the clear majority of SMT factories still rely on miles of shelving space to store electronic components, a few have started to invest in smart storage. In a smart storage system, no human interaction is needed to insert or retrieve reels from shelves. Instead, a robot picks up the reels placed in an entry port and automatically places them on a specially designed shelving system. 

Please note that we’re discussing the automation of a single first step in a very complex process. Once robots can move reels from the Smart storage system to the pick and place machine, and from there to an X-ray parts counter, we still need to automate loading and unloading feeders. Currently, we still need a human to place the feeders inside the pick-and-place machine, and to remove them once the run is over. 

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Figure 3: The SMT line in an Intelligent factory.

With the transformation of materials nearly fully automated, the move from Smart factory to Intelligent factory will focus on the elements of movement of materials as well as material storage.  In today’s Smart factories, movement and storage are still largely dependent on people. Intelligent factories will incorporate robotics to reduce or eliminate need for humans to do these tasks. This transformation demands that SMT equipment be designed for human free operation. Developing equipment to interact with material handling robots, for tasks such as feeding components into a pick and place machine or stencils into a printer will take time but will result in SMT lines virtually free of human labor. The same robots that deliver material will return them to storage, where parts counting and communicating inventory levels will be automated.  

There will be some key bridges that support the transition from Smart to Intelligent factories. For our part, as X-ray systems manufactures, these will include fully autonomous, AI-enabled inspection systems as well as X-ray parts counters that support smart storage. Autonomous X-ray inspection, when fully integrated into an SMT line, will communicate data used to immediately influence adjustments to process, with or without human intervention. With the pandemic challenging the just-in-time (JIT) approach to inventories, inventory management and parts storage are once again being prioritized. Another knock-on effect of the pandemic has been the labor shortage, and tool such as advanced X-ray parts counters can serve to free talent of the monotony of manual parts counting while improving the accuracy of inventories in real-time.  

The enabling technologies described in this article are just a few of the many pieces needed to realize the Intelligent factory. Further, these intelligent factories will no longer be located based on chasing low-cost labor or talent.  They will likely look more like a FedEx distribution hub than the factories of today, and supply chain considerations will have as much influence on their location as anything.   These are radical changes that will revolutionize the way SMT products are assembled. While a peek inside such a factory will likely be dark, the future of such manufacturing is bright, indeed. 

Dr. Bill Cardoso is CEO of Creative Electron. 

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2022

X-Rayted Files: Smart vs. Intelligent SMT Factory

06-01-2022

Amazon currently employs over 200,000 robots across 175 fulfillment centers around the world. The robot ranks at Amazon grow every year, and in some facilities, they outnumber the humans. As the lights out concept rapidly grows with the giant retailer, automation adoption still finds resistance in the SMT manufacturing world. I don’t know what the future holds for surface mount technology (SMT) manufacturing, but I’m certain it depends on our intelligence. As a community, we spend a lot of time discussing the Smart factory. Instead, we should aim higher to the "Intelligent factory."

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X-Rayted Files: X-ray Everything!

04-27-2022

It should be clear by now that my enthusiasm for X-ray knows no bounds. From fighting counterfeits, inventory management, solder inspection, and quality control for an endless array of manufactured products, the usefulness of X-ray inspection tools is seemingly limitless. So, forgive me for not setting my bias aside, but when it comes to X-ray imaging, you probably fall into one of the following categories: you don’t need X-ray and you know it, you need X-ray but don’t know it, you have X-ray but are underutilizing it, or you are the rarest of birds who has X-ray but just doesn’t need it.

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X-Rayted Files: What’s That Noise? Is it Your Data?

04-05-2022

We are in the era of data, big data, and that should be a good thing. But the sheer volume of data we are collecting can be overwhelming; its meaning and usefulness can become a burden, just more noise. All data is noise until it can be contextualized into actionable information. From that perspective, our goal with data collection should be to reduce the noise and organize data in ways that generate meaningful information that can be used to improve our processes. Take this short quiz to gauge where your organization stands.

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X-Rayted Files: Should I Stay or Should I Go? The Future of Trade Shows

03-02-2022

I’ve heard the question repeatedly over the last couple of years, “Is the trade show dead?” It’s a valid question, and I’m not sure what the answer is, should be, or even what I wish it was. With a couple years under our belts now with canceled live events, some limited in person events, and an absolute tidal wave of virtual events and webinars, I am developing an opinion. Informing this opinion is also the fact that we have experience, and in some cases, success in finding effective alternatives to fill the void left by years of shows being on life support. On the whole, it has me scratching my head on another question. Is there a valid purpose for trade shows?

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X-Rayted Files: Nine and a Half Facts About Unknown Radiation

01-26-2022

As we kick off 2022, we thought it would be a good idea to give you a break from another column, talking about “what’s next” after COVID. Yes, the pandemic still here, inflation is kicking in, labor shortages are an issue, supply chains are still disrupted. But let’s take a break from all that and have some fun with X-rays. How about going over some facts that you may (or may not) know about X-rays?

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2021

X-Rayted Files: 2022's Word of the Year is... Resilience

12-29-2021

On balance, this last year goes down as a pretty good one. While we are not as far along in putting the pandemic behind us as we might have hoped, the progress is promising. The economic recovery has been remarkable, despite persistent supply chain woes and (transitory?) inflationary pressures. With consumer demand high, and signs of relief regarding the supply chain, the coming year and its prospect of a return to “normal” will likely offer substantial opportunities, though we must also be mindful of risks.

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X-Rayted Files: Three or More Intriguing Thoughts on Reshoring

11-29-2021

The ground beneath us is always shifting, and while the term “unprecedented” can be somewhat overused, it does seem to be a little tougher to keep our balance these days. For almost every economic disruption, there emerges some argument for how reshoring can mitigate it. This time around, though, there’s a bit of a tug-o-war between the disruptions that are shaping the manufacturing landscape and the broader economy. I’m no economist, but as a dyed in the wool entrepreneur I’d like to share three thoughts about the future of manufacturing with a focus on reshoring, the talent pool, and the joy of making things.

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The X-Rayted Files: Was CS Model 101 Built on Industry 4.0?

10-27-2021

While smart devices like sleep trackers that monitor the quality of our ZZs are exciting to some, for others it induces the fear of becoming subject to robot overlords. Regardless, the age of IoT is upon us, and as manufacturers, IoT is just one facet of the broader Industry 4.0.

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X-Rayted Files: Radiation’s Effects on Electronic Components

09-22-2021

Whether it’s from naturally occurring sources or induced by modern human ingenuity, electronic components, like everything else, are subject to regular exposure to radiation. It is vital to understand the various sources of radiation exposure as well as their likely effects on today’s microelectronics and the devices they make possible.

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X-Rayted Files: Semiconductor Shortage—Avoiding Counterfeit Components

08-11-2021

From bicycles to sundries, from consumer electronics to automobiles, shortages and supply chain issues have hampered an otherwise strong economic recovery much of the world emerge from the pandemic. Among these challenges, none has received more media attention than the semiconductor shortage.

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X-Rayted Files: Tales from the Files of Lithium-ion Batteries

06-23-2021

Lithium-ion batteries have, in part, enabled the continued miniaturization of the devices we love. They have also played an important role in making practical electric cars a reality. But like other approaches high density energy storage, they do present risks.

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X-Rayted Files: Genius, Evil, or Evil Genius?

05-20-2021

Apple dominates its market in many ways. Is this genius for the consumer, or does it effectively rule out any competition? Columnist Bill Cardoso debates its merits—and disadvantages for other players.

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X-Rayted Files: Crafting Our ‘Next Normal’

04-20-2021

As profound an experience as it has been to lead an enterprise through the pandemic, what’s to come may make every bit as much of an impression. So many things that we took for granted as practices and behaviors etched in stone, were interrupted, suspended, or eliminated entirely. As we exit the tunnel into the light of the post-pandemic, we will be challenged collectively in crafting the next normal.

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X-Rayted Files: The Bright Side of the Chip Shortage

03-17-2021

In his previous column, “The Dark Side of the Chip Shortage: Counterfeits,” Bill addressed one of unanticipated outcome of the crisis: the shortage of electronic components and predictable wave of counterfeit components likely to flood the market. Combating that tsunami of fakes may also accelerate the adoption of advanced techniques for detecting counterfeit components.

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X-Rayted Files: The Dark Side of the Chip Shortage—Counterfeits

02-17-2021

It’s February 2021, and as the world slowly recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, another problem plagues the global economy: the electronic component shortage. What some economists have deemed to be a decade of immense prosperity and growth, the “roaring ‘20s” started with a hiccup.

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2020

X-Rayted Files: Solving for the Limits of Human Visual Inspection

12-16-2020

Because a key element of quality control in manufacturing is still good old-fashioned visual inspection, it’s important to understand the ability of operators to sustain their focus and what we can do to support their success. And while the fallibility of human inspection presents challenges, Dr. Bill Cardoso details how there are many ways to address shortcomings.

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X-Rayted Files: iPhone Transparency—A Window Into SMT

11-17-2020

Though we don’t do them just for fun, teardowns are fun, but they have also taught us more than we could have imagined. Modern teardowns provide critical insights into the nature and construction of these devices. As an example, Dr. Bill Cardoso details the history of the iPhone as told through X-ray.

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X-Rayted Files: A Century of X-Rays in the Automotive Industry, Part 2

10-28-2020

As one of the main users of X-ray inspection, the automotive industry has been one of the main drivers for the development of higher power and higher resolution X-ray imaging systems. Dr. Bill Cardoso continues with Part 2 of this column series.

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X-Rayted Files: A Century of X-Rays in the Automotive Industry, Part 1

09-29-2020

If you have read any of Bill Cardoso's previous columns, you know that he is passionate about X-rays, cars, and electronics. In this column series, he talks about some of his idols, including Curie, Roentgen, Marconi, Galvin, and Ford.

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X-Rayted Files: Is Quality Really Priceless?

08-19-2020

In a day and age when we can learn virtually anything online, manufacturers still manage to be opaque about pricing, especially when it comes to specialty equipment. Some may say, “Quality is priceless,” but Bill Cardoso explains how it isn't.

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X-Rayted Files: Marching Toward 2021, 20 Miles at a Time

07-29-2020

We’re only at the halfway mark, and 2020 has been a real challenge. Our best-laid plans have been cast in doubt by the COVID-19 pandemic. During this transformational time, Dr. Bill Cardoso looks back a century for a bit of inspiration from Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.

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X-Rayted Files: E-Commerce Boom Fraught With Risk—X-Rays to the Rescue

06-17-2020

It’s not news that online sales are increasing dramatically during this global pandemic. However, with increased sales comes the increased risk of return fraud and abuse. Dr. Bill Cardoso explains how X-ray can help detect dummy and counterfeit merchandise.

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X-Rayted Files: Why Do We Break Stuff? Intelligence From Teardowns

05-20-2020

The impulse to break a new gadget to "see what's inside" and to “learn how it works” is often the first sign someone will become an engineer. We’ve learned a lot in over a decade of teardowns, which have helped us to understand how the SMT industry has changed over these years. Bill Cardoso investigates.

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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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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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