The Challenges of Electronics Manufacturing Services

“Last week I attended the IPEC 2017 and gave a speech about our vision of the future of electronics manufacturing and the challenges we need to first overcome to start moving towards it. Here are part of my thoughts to share in written form.
– Terry London

The Future of Electronics Manufacturing

Like everything in this world, electronics manufacturing is in constant change. In all likelihood, the methods in electronics manufacturing management in the future will be drastically different compared to today.

Automated factories

We already see a movement towards fully automated “lights out” factories, where a major share of manual workplaces are automated and human workers replaced by robots. Complex manufacturing environments themselves are turning into enormous autonomous machines. And operating this kind of a shop floor will be as simple as operating a dedicated machine where we just have to focus on inputs and outputs – not how the insides are operating.

Therefore when looking at a global network of manufacturing, shop floors may be viewed as a network of huge production points, some, like machines on a shop floor, as logically linked as a daisy chain – and all virtually connected to each other.

Electronics production management and virtual factories

We see the future of electronics production management as virtual factories – located in economically reasonable locations, their production can be managed from virtually anywhere via the Internet. As a company or private user you can host or rent a virtual manufacturing service and manage it despite the distance between you and the physical entity.

What about electronics manufacturing services?

Lights out manufacturing expects that the environment rarely needs any major re-configuration or setup change. This is the exact opposite of how EMS (electronics manufacturing service) works.

Electronics manufacturing services companies must get by with a very high mix of products that are mostly produced in minimal amounts. For example, bigger tier 2 EMS companies may produce 50,000 different product designs and 50 million products a year (so the average lot size is around 1,000 pieces) by using 5 billion components globally.

This is a huge picture with many details to focus on, especially when production is shared between tens of globally distributed manufacturing plants, and those, in turn, consist of multiple shop floors and hundreds of machines that have to work perfectly.

Electronics manufacturing is a complex process. You must focus on big picture and the production line and even machine-level details, all at the same time. But the reality is that those two perspectives are rarely aligned at the same moment in time.

The challenges of electronics manufacturing services

So why is it so hard to keep an eye on the big picture and focus on details at the same time? What separates us from a future of full automation and virtual manufacturing? There are many reasons, but everything starts with simple yet complex challenges.

We have identified two main “pain points” that almost every electronics manufacturer faces today:
• Data collected inconsistently
• Fragmented visibility of analytic data

Interviews we conducted with electronics manufacturers have revealed two key numbers:
• 19 out of 20 companies admit that they possess data but feel that they are rarely using it to learn
• 18 of 20 companies feel they cannot view the big picture fast enough, and have to rely on outdated data

Causes and Amplifiers for challenges in electronics manufacturing services

The reasons why we face these challenges are simple – there is no standard way to collect data from machines. There are locally-generated log files, a variety of databases, and limited connectivity due to the lack of options or proprietary protocols, etc. This causes lots of manual work and micro-management with Excel sheets to prepare the collected data for analysis. The analytics exist but how you see it is scattered – like comparing 10 different Excel sheets from different departments, because each one has their own format for reporting the status.

Most machines in a production line are already digitized; they produce tons of numbers every second. Huge amounts of data are generated by a production line every day. But as the data are not unified it’s very difficult to get real-time value out of it – all because we must use time wasting, semi-automatic methods to see details in the bigger picture.

Also, the methods we use for data visualization are relatively static. When we look at our production management dashboards, we see dry KPIs that are more oriented toward showing what happened yesterday, rather than attempting to project what will happen today. For example, OEE: it is good to know it and understand what’s behind it, but learning from this KPI takes just too much time, especially in environments where mistakes on the shop floor may cost thousands of euros per second.

There are also amplifiers for the challenges. When there are only one or two lines with less than 100 workers in a manufacturing plant, it is easier to handle both the big picture and those pesky technical details, because the production manager can ask for updates from shop-floor operators and engineers whenever needed. But when production grows by a number of different products, the management process becomes exponentially more complex.

The trend is that the mix gets higher and volumes much lower. The more technologies advance the more they support mass customization. This, in turn, demands much higher scaling capability, plus greater flexibility, as there is a larger variety of products to manufacture at the same time. Issues that may be solvable by simple communication between people are no more – because it just takes too much time and is not accurate enough for the company’s growing needs.

A shop floor is like the kitchen in a restaurant. If you have seen the reality show “My Kitchen Rules,” you probably know that precise planning and domain experience are crucial to succeed, but in the kitchen there is time pressure. Things don’t go the way they’re expected, and if the customer is not served well he may go to another place. It’s a great example of focusing on the big picture and keeping track of the details at the same time.

You want to be aware of what’s going on and see multiple steps ahead at the same time. It’s easy when you have prepared and everything goes as planned. But conditions tend to change at the most inconvenient moments.

Data-driven approach in electronics manufacturing services

We want to solve these challenges and make shop-floor management much more transparent and forward-looking than it is today. As the two main challenges are basically lack of data at a given moment in time, we focus on data.

The first mission is to make use of existing data. In most cases the data exists, but managers or other responsible parties cannot view it the moment they need it. In some cases there are no real time views – only reports from the previous day or week. We want to change it by taking the data and visualizing it for you.

As the machines in production lines produce a huge amount of data, we only have to collect it and use it as wisely as possible. Our point is not to put too much effort into improving KPIs, but rather focus on what actually happens on the shop floor.

By combining the activities of different parts of the shop floor, we create a virtual shop floor out of connected machines and production points. This is a purely data-driven approach and will likely change how we see shop floor management in the near future – as it has changed how we see information technology today, compared to 10 years ago.

Electronics manufacturing and information technology

When joining electronics manufacturing and information technology, we see electronics factories as our development partners and advisors.

In essence, electronics manufacturing service is a global business. Connected factories are located in a variety of countries around the world so that the meaning of a single manufacturing plant has diminished slightly. Therefore, the approach to problem solving must also be global. As different regions have their own perspectives on production, to solve challenges is possible only with a cross-border knowledge exchange.

Our solution is a cloud service that connects factories around the world within one virtual environment. It functions as one central service, but at the same time each factory can be individually managed.

It is important to understand that the digital transformation of a production environment is an iterative process – there is no silver bullet. Solutions come only with deep cooperation between IT and manufacturing disciplines.

Connect with us!

We’re open to cooperation with electronics manufacturers who face similar challenges. Contact us by signing up for the demo on our website to receive more information about simFactory.

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