Smart Factories: More Than Robots

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The acceptance of smart factories is a global movement across multiple industries. In electronics manufacturing specifically, China seems to be a key leader in the move to Industry 4.0. Once seen as an industrial heavyweight that depended on a huge labor pool, the environment in China has transformed. Chinese culture has a history of adaptability, and China’s industry-leading implementation of Industry 4.0 concepts is demonstrating that essential skill to the globe once again. What stands out about the Chinese transition is that automation—robotics, in particular—is a surprisingly small part of the whole solution. Don’t get me wrong, automation is a crucial component, but automation alone is not the objective.

This issue's focus on smart factories brought out a number of perspectives from our columnists and other contributors. Together, this issue reads like a roundtable discussion on smart factories from various inside-the-industry voices. Even materials and chemistries are aligning with a move toward further automation, which allows equipment manufacturers to capture and store more data, and software layers to perform more detailed analysis, prediction, and optimization. CFX, Hermes, JARA, and other machine-to-machine protocols might be all the buzz right now, but when it comes to Industry 4.0 in printed circuit fabrication, the work will involve the entire supply chain.

A case in point comes from a statement from Bill Cardoso speaking about Creative Electron’s work with AI. Cardoso said, “Inspection is graduating. Inspection for 20–30 years has been a cost center. In this new generation of connected equipment—thanks to Industry 4.0, CFX, and other initiatives—it is graduating into a data center.” Cardoso continued, “AI is critical for giving pass/ fail decisions instead of just giving them an image they have to figure out…instead of giving the customers data, we like to give them information that they can act on.”

Pressing the point that Industry 4.0 will transform the entire chain, consider this. If a major contract manufacturer implements Industry 4.0, they will pressure their suppliers—fabricators included—to implement Industry 4.0. Once a PCB fabricator follows suit, then the fabricator’s suppliers must do so as well. And once the major participants have made the switch, smaller firms will need to respond or risk being left out of the conversation. This transformation has already begun.

With all of this systemic retooling, it’s an understandable concern that jobs will shift; the age-old concern that robots will leave us all out of work remains. But where operators were a primary job function in the past, engineers and technicians will be increasingly required in manufacturing to fill the gap. To achieve Industry 4.0, machines will manage the automation and staff will use their analytical skills more than their hands. After all, people are also inherently adaptable to their environments. It’s no wonder that educational programs are strongly on the mind of industry leaders and organizations.

To read the full article, which appeared in the March 2019 issue of PCB007 Magazine, click here.


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