Alex Stepinski: Taking Control of Input Costs


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Barry Matties and Nolan Johnson talk with Alex Stepinski about strategies to lower costs in brownfield facilities. Alex has extensive experience designing and optimizing manufacturing processes and is currently helping companies implement straightforward step-by-step solutions to move into smarter manufacturing across different industries.

Barry Matties: Alex, brownfield factories are stuck with space limitations and automation is a challenge. What could be a different way of thinking about a brownfield site and why it makes sense?

Alex Stepinski: First, I want to address a fundamental bias. Many people associate me with the greenfield sites that I’ve architected over the past years, and which became an Industry 4.0 example in the United States. It’s not because that was the only way to do it, but because that was the business case. The business plan at the time was to build new facilities for OEMs that didn’t have any PCB fab capabilities.

Brownfields do not follow the same plan to implement Industry 4.0. The investments to do so can be done over a longer period based on available monies and can be done to address the biggest opportunities first. I think there’s a little bit of a roadmap that any brownfield can follow.

The first step is serializing your products, and there are many options to do this. The best ones, in my experience, are laser based, using lasers from some of the sensor suppliers in the market, and many of the suppliers can integrate this for you into a piece of equipment so you don’t have to increase your footprint. It’s probably one of the only things that you might need to add. It doesn’t increase your footprint.

Once you serialize your products individually, then everything turns into a sensor-and-software problem, and this doesn’t add to the footprint in most cases. Industry 4.0 is about correlating data and making decisions based on interpolations of data, doing regressions, and things like this. It’s not advanced artificial intelligence. Advanced AI in business is when you do image recognition, natural language processing; this is the forefront right now, as well as very advanced algorithms that are dealing with B2C sales, marketing analytics, self-driving, and so forth. This is where AI is focused because it is the biggest return. You can buy equipment that even has some of these features. You don’t have to touch the concept of AI.

But on the PCB and EMS side, it’s more “AI light,” or ”more-than-Excel algorithms.” Something we called just a normal algorithm 20 years ago is now called AI. It’s a sexy term. Robots aren’t taking over the world any time soon. The fundamental things to do in a brownfield to tease out value from a planning perspective is just a step-by-step approach, one process at a time.

It’s probably a one- or two-person engineering job. You give them subject matter expertise, availability, make sure they know how to do some basic coding, understand sensor options, and then they go process by process. What are some of the interpolations you can do? Well, just getting a time stamp. All you need is a photo sensor to know something went through the machine, and then you can also code at some point when it went through, when it came out. You could do this in one step or multiple steps.

The sensor kit for most processes is generally $5,000 to $10,000 per tool to get time and basic settings, and then you save their recorded data, which is just the serial number that you scanned, the times it went through the machine; you save it into a database. If you can pull the error codes by time out of your machine and put that in a data table, then you can correlate the two together and you can know something happened: “I heard an alarm while this panel was being processed.” Making an API to your other systems adds further interpolations that can then lead to predictive recipes/decisions.

To read this entire conversation, which appeared in the February 2022 issue of PCB007 Magazine, click here.

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