Smart Factory Insights: Changing Roles in the Digital Factory

Obviously, the level of maturity within the electronics assembly industry, in terms of core technologies, is high and relatively stable. Experts once required to have a specialized knowledge of materials and processes are giving way to those experienced in the application of automated and computerized solutions. It is time to reinvent the expectations and qualifications that we seek in managers, engineers, and production operators to attract and support a different kind of manufacturing innovation.

When SMT first came along, I naively thought that it could not be that difficult to pick up a component and place it on a PCB in the desired location, though there did seem to be challenges at times. Technology and expertise flourished, machines became faster, and materials became smaller. With PCB dimensions and spacing reducing in line with the material sizes, we saw the same challenges coming around, over and over again, related to cleaning and access for testing and inspection, for example.

After 30 years of SMT production, with an immense contribution of technology and work by people far cleverer than myself in these specialized areas, I still maintain that PCB assembly is not complicated. This perspective comes from the observation that the location at which this know-how resides has changed from once being needed in each and every SMT factory across the world to now being within the domain of the machine vendor and materials suppliers. Today, we trust the machines and materials that we buy—sophisticated, matured, yet progressive commodities that simply perform the intended work efficiently and reliably. Creating an SMT configuration to meet any line configuration requirement is as easy today as ordering off-the-shelf products, selecting the best tools for the job from any one of many vendors.

This has all coincided with the trend of experts in the core technologies leaving manufacturing either to go on to work with machine vendors or simply retiring. The key question is, “Does this create a void?” Up to fairly recently, perhaps yes, but now I don’t think that it is such a serious issue. If our minds stay in the “analog” factory of yesterday, we have everything pretty much covered, with results in terms of efficiency, productivity, flexibility, and quality being as good as they ever can be. Any incremental challenges today are met predominantly by vendors, and manufacturing can continue as is.

Of course, this is not an option. Factory-centric improvements now become the differentiators. In many areas, the consequence of variation continues to present challenges, but the details needed to identify anomalies in a timely fashion and then track the root causes are not practically possible for humans to do unaided. In areas of low labor cost, we have already seen many people with relatively low skills being thrown at these challenges, such as material and product logistics, as well as planning optimization and quality control.

As product-mix has increased, the whole of the shop floor gets into a mess, with continuous fire-fighting. This is not the profile of people that we need for smart manufacturing; in other words, we cannot replace the skilled experts that we once had with unskilled workers. As the industry has trended away from mass production toward the extreme of mass-customization, we need to reinvent the technologies that are associated with these factory-level functions.

As automated machines reduced the need for manual work in terms of core manufacturing technology and assembly activities, software automation replaces the dull and repetitive calculations done currently by people who are using tools such as Excel to perform their planning, material management, and quality control, in addition to legacy ERP or even MES systems. The way going forward in terms of factory operational improvement is digital, and the people needed are those who understand how to utilize software and systems to improve manufacturing and how to differentiate between them.

The use of real-time data within manufacturing thus far has been limited; it has been constrained by a lack of timely availability of data that has a consistent meaning and can be trusted to be used for investigative processes and decision making. The main driver toward digitalization for most companies has been the gathering of traceability data, which itself has been a haphazard affair. Thankfully, the digital manufacturing world is finally going through the revolution long promised by Industry 4.0 and smart manufacturing. Industry standards—most notably from IPC in the form of the Connected Factory Exchange (CFX), the IPC Digital Twin, exact traceability of IPC-1782, as well as the Digital Product Model Exchange (DPMX), which is also known as IPC-2581—enable completely reliable interoperability of data when used with the right tools.

Having standards in place, however, is only the start. Few applications in the realm of MES, etc., have been ready for these technology changes, but the volunteer companies behind these open industry standards are clearly setting the pace, providing an unprecedented opportunity for factory visibility, control, optimization, and quality, as well as further automation opportunity. What is really needed now in manufacturing are people with the skills to understand the use of data in manufacturing, the difference and consequence of selecting technologies, and how to bring about changes and manage manufacturing based on what the data shows.

It is quite fortunate that skills and experience in computing are growing, but manufacturing is not the most famous or attractive place to which people with those skills are attracted. But this is something that needs to change, as this is the way in which factories will differentiate themselves within the industry against their peers. The whole approach to recruitment and role definition needs to change to take advantage of technologies that are now available. We all now need to market manufacturing careers in context with this new digital age and be less concerned about the loss of past dependencies.

There is still one final challenge, however. The momentum with legacy practices within manufacturing remains strong. As manufacturing has been slow to have easy access to good data, managers within manufacturing and the supply chain have become introspective, with the whole of their professional world contained within the four walls of the factory, believing—with very decreasing merit—that many that propose such pioneering digital technologies represent a risky path and that so-called experts are simply trying to make their bad business work. For sure, unless you have the skills in-house to know what technologies and solutions are out there—which work and which do not and how they specifically relate to the needs of production—it is very easy to make a mistake and go with a company name that “you will never get fired for choosing” only to find yourself locked into a solution that is isolated from the rest of the industry, including from machines themselves that you depend on.

Trust needs to be built between incumbent senior management and the new profile of manufacturing engineers, managers, and operators. Successfully addressing new challenges always works best with an open mind. The reality is that with these new skills in new roles comes the need for training and experience in manufacturing itself. The incumbent skills are at least as important as the new ones. The successful companies will be those that create the right balance of hybrid sets of skills, manufacturing, and digital technology formed by communication, trust, and mutual respect. This is not politics, after all.

This column originally appeared in the December 2020 issue of SMT007 Magazine.

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2020

Smart Factory Insights: Changing Roles in the Digital Factory

12-01-2020

Experts once required to have a knowledge of specialized materials and processes are giving way to those experienced in the application of automated and computerized solutions. Michael Ford describes how it is time to reinvent the expectations and qualifications that we seek in managers, engineers, and production operators to attract and support a different kind of manufacturing innovation.

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Smart Factory Insights: Smart Factories—Indirectly the Death of Test and Inspection

11-04-2020

In the smart factory, test and inspection are reinvented, contributing direct added value, playing a new and critically important role where defects are avoided through the use of data, and creating a completely different value proposition. Michael Ford explains how the digitalized Deming Theory can be explained to those managing budgets and investments to ensure that we move our operations forward digitally in the best way possible.

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Smart Factory Insights: Trust in Time

08-05-2020

We’ve all heard of “just in time” as applied to the supply chain, but with ongoing disruption due to COVID-19, increasing risk motivates us to return to the bad habit of hoarding excess inventory. Michael Ford introduces the concept of "trust in time"—a concept that any operation, regardless of size or location, can utilize today.

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Smart Factory Insights: It’s Not What You Have—It’s How You Use It

06-03-2020

According to the reports, all the machines in the factory are performing well, but the factory itself appears to be in a coma, unable to fulfill critical delivery requirements. Is this a nightmare scenario, or is it happening every day? Trying to help, some managers are requesting further investment in automation, while others are demanding better machine data that explains where it all went wrong. Digital technology to the rescue, or is it making the problem worse?

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Smart Factory Insights: Seeing Around Corners

04-20-2020

Each of us has limitations, strengths, and weaknesses. Our associations with social groups—including our friends, family, teams, schools, companies, towns, counties, countries, etc.—enable us to combine our strengths into a collective, such that we all contribute to an overall measure of excellence. There is strength in numbers. Michael Ford explains how this most human of principles needs to apply to IIoT, smart manufacturing, and AI if we are to reach the next step of smart manufacturing achievement.

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Smart Factory Insights: Size Matters—The Digital Twin

02-01-2020

In the electronics manufacturing space, at least, less is more. Michael Ford considers what the true digital twin is really all about—including the components, uses, and benefits—and emphasizes that it is not just an excuse to show some cool 3D graphics.

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Smart Factory Insights: What You No Longer Need to Learn

01-14-2020

Naturally evolving layers of technological applications allow us to build and make progress, layer by layer, rather than staying relatively stagnant with only incremental improvement. To gain ground in manufacturing, Michael Ford explains how we need to embrace next-layer hardware and software technologies now so that we can focus on applying these solutions as part of a digital factory.

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2019

Smart Factory Insights: Dromology—Time-space Compression in Manufacturing

11-25-2019

Dromology is a new word for many, including Microsoft Word. Dromology resonates as an interesting way to describe changes in the manufacturing process due to technical and business innovation over the last few years, leading us towards Industry 4.0. Michael Ford explores dromology in the assembly factory today.

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Smart Factory Insights: Trends and Opportunities at SMTAI 2019

10-14-2019

SMTAI is more than just a simple trade show. For me, it is an opportunity to meet face to face with colleagues and friends in the industry to talk about and discuss exciting new industry trends, needs, technologies, and ideas.

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Smart Factory Insights: Recognizing the Need for Change

09-24-2019

We are reminded many times in manufacturing, that "you cannot fix what you cannot see" and "you cannot improve what you cannot measure." These annoying aphorisms are all very well as a motivational quip for gaining better visibility of the operation. However, the reality is that there is a lot going on that no-one is seeing.

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Accelerating Tech: Standards-driven, Digital Design Flow for Industry 4.0

04-24-2019

The term “fragmented manufacturing” is a good way to describe current assembly manufacturing challenges in an Industry 4.0 environment. Even in Germany, productivity reportedly continues to decline. To reach the upside of Industry 4.0, data flows relating to design play a major role—one that brings significant opportunity to the overall assembly business.

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The Truth Behind AI

02-28-2019

The term "artificial intelligence" or "AI" has become a source of confusion for many—heralded as part of Industry 4.0, yet associated with the threat of automation replacing human workers. AI is software rather than hardware, and it's time to put these elements of AI into context, enabling us as an industry to embrace the opportunities that so-called AI represents without being drawn in, or pushed away, by the hype.

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2018

Resolving the Productivity Paradox

12-22-2018

The productivity paradox continues to thrive. To a growing number of people and companies, this does not come as a surprise because investment in automation alone is still just an extension of Industry 3.0. There has been a failure to understand and execute what Industry 4.0 really is, which represents fundamental changes to factory operation before any of the clever automation and AI tools can begin to work effectively.

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The Truth About CFX

10-23-2018

A great milestone in digital assembly manufacturing has been reached by having the IPC Connected Factory Exchange (CFX) industrial internet of things (IIoT) standard in place with an established, compelling commitment of adoption. What's the next step?

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Advanced Digitalization Makes Best Practice, Part 2: Adaptive Planning

08-27-2018

For Industry 4.0 operations, Adaptive Planning has the capability of replacing both legacy APS tools, simulations, and even Excel solutions. As time goes on, with increases in the scope, quality and reliability of live data coming from the shop-floor, using for example the CFX, it is expected that Adaptive Planning solutions will become progressively smarter, offering greater guidance while managing constraints as well as optimization.

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Advanced Digitalization Makes Best Practice Part 1: Digital Remastering

07-02-2018

As digitalization and the use of IoT in the manufacturing environment continues to pick up speed, critical changes are enabled, which are needed to achieve the levels of performance and flexibility expected with Industry 4.0. This first part of a series on new digital best practices looks at examples of the traditional barriers to flexibility and value creation, and suggests new digital best practices to see how these barriers can be avoided, or even eliminated.

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Configure to Order: Different by Design

01-15-2018

Perhaps in the future, sentient robots looking back at humans today will consider that we were a somewhat random bunch of people as no two of us are the same. Human actions and choices cannot be predicted reliably, worse even than the weather. As with any team however, our ability to rationalize in many different ways in parallel is, in fact, our strength, creating a kind of biological “fuzzy logic.”

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2017

Counterfeit: A Quality Conundrum

10-01-2017

There is an imminent, critical challenge facing every manufacturer in the industry. The rise in the ingress of counterfeit materials into the supply chain has made them prolific, though yet, the extent is understated. What needs to be faced now is the need for incoming inspection, but at what cost to industry, and does anyone remember how to do it?

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