Automated factories, or so-called smart factories, where machines handle it all just like in the movies from the 80s are no longer utopian. Smart, automated fully digitalized factories are a reality, but it’s not all new.
Defining "Smart Factories"
In 1913, Ford Motor Company introduced a car production assembly line considered to be one of the pioneer types of automation in the manufacturing industry. Previously, the job was done by skilled and unskilled workers. Production automation improved Ford’s production rates and increased profits. The assembly line and mass car production were the first of their kind globally. It reduced the car assembly time from 12 hours per car to about one and a half hours per car .
However, being able to produce cars faster and better was good enough back in 1913, but it’s not today. Automation and connected smart factories are the most recent manufacturing trends. Most processes in a PCB factory can be automated and monitored through implementing Industry 4.0 and IoT trends into PCB manufacturing. An increasingly digital production line will increase the efficiency, rule out mistakes and misinterpretation, and allow the focus to be on quality and innovation, which will create new value for the customers.
So, we hear a lot about smart factories lately, but what are they really? A smart factory is defined by its ability to harness manufacturing data flowing throughout the enterprise and then convert that data into intelligent information that can be used to create improvements in productivity, efficiency, savings, yields, automation, enabled traceability, compliance, and reduced risk of errors and rework. All of these items are crucial factors when manufacturing printed circuits.
In a recent publication on smart factories, Deloitte University Press  stated the following:
"The smart factory represents a leap forward from more traditional automation to a fully connected and flexible system—one that can use a constant stream of data from connected operations and production systems to learn and adapt to new demands. A true smart factory can integrate data from system-wide physical, operational, and human assets to drive manufacturing, maintenance, inventory tracking, digitization of operations through the digital twin, and other types of activities across the entire manufacturing network. The result can be a more efficient and agile system, less production downtime, and a greater ability to predict and adjust to changes in the facility or broader network, possibly leading to better positioning in the competitive marketplace."
Not Necessarily Smart
A factory itself cannot be smart; it needs smart technology to support. For a smart factory to act, it needs data. For this, we need smart technologies that make the appropriate data available so that the machines can do their job. No data input or output. IoT, API, AI, and Industry 4.0 allow large amounts of manufacturing data to be collected, transferred, read, and interpreted through multiple sources and cloud-based, secure storage without any human involvement. However, machines tend to be bad interpreters.
For machines to interpret and make use of data and enable computer-talking-to-computer, they all need to speak the same language. The supply chain has evolved from some points of contact to a complex chain of designers, OEMs, assemblers, brokers, distributors, factories, and subcontractors all sending data back and forward, doing manual labor trying to interpret the data. If we cannot interpret the data correctly, how can we expect the machines to do it?
Still, Rome was not built in a day, and progress is happening as we speak. We saw the need for this common language for specifying printed circuit fabrication data, which is why we initiated CircuitData.
In Need of Robots
Again, smart factories are characterized by adaptability, resource efficiency, and ergonomics as well as the integration of customers and partners in business and value processes. The goal of a smart factory is to optimize the concept generation and transform the production and the production transaction into a more efficient process. It is a subset that employs computer control and high levels of adaptability. When visiting smart factories, the one thing that instantly strikes you is how little human involvement there is at the plant .
But smart factories do not operate by themselves; they still need the workforce, which is where robots enter the picture. However, this is not a new asset to be added to the manufacturing floor. Robots and humans have been working side by side for many years. What’s new about the robots of today is they are smarter, more independent, and can perform several tasks without stopping the workflow and the need for reprogramming. Again, AI is the key.
Connecting the Dots with Data
We all know that the future is all about data. Imagine how things are today—a supply chain built partly on paper and digitally. The tracking and controlling process are time-demanding, and it’s difficult to have full control and a broad overview. In PCB manufacturing plants, large amounts of design and production data are held in many places and different formats.
By connecting the dots, we simply mean that when the supply chain becomes digital with the data input in a common language—and data is accessible, analyzed, modified within the same language—we can use APIs for interpretations and robots can take decisions and actions in real time at the manufacturer. Continued innovation is accelerating the Industry 4.0 transformation of the PCB factory, but we need to solve the question about data language. Otherwise, we will end up with machines doing the job digitally and humans interpreting the mistakes manually. As some say, “Shit in is still shit out.”
Some forecasts expect the smart factory market to exhibit significant growth potential at a CAGR of 9.3% between 2017 and 2022 and get up to $205.42 billion by 2022. The key driving factors for the growth of the smart factory market are the increase in adoption of industrial robots, the evolution of IoT, growth in demand for smart automation solutions, and the increase in emphasis on regulatory compliances. However, factors such as huge capital investments and the risks associated with security of cyber-physical systems are the major factors restraining the growth of this market .
Every year, we visit and audit several PCB factories. Lately, a growing trend spotted is for even more traditional factories to have connected equipment, such as online and real-time monitoring of processes, remote production, and maintenance alarms. China is now making a significant amount of investments in AI and smart automation for PCB manufacturing and other related applications, meaning not just taking over the role of human to load and unload production panels in the production processes. Asia Pacific (APAC) is expected to be the fastest- growing region in the AI in manufacturing and the largest market for industrial robots.
Robots and Humans Working Side by Side
Smart automation identifies which machine is going to be ready, and robots move the panels to the identified machine, unload the completed panels, and load up new panels. Completed panels are then moved to a holding position to be transferred to the next processes. We have seen this in a Chinese factory where panels are checked, stacked, pinned by a machine, and moved by the robot to the respective drilling machine unload and load. The machines are all interconnected where the process cycle time is calculated and planned in real-time.
Another plant in Singapore had the production processes manned by the Smart ERP system not only with robots moving panels from processes in the best sequence but also the system informed the engineers when there are problems detected and require a human decision. Each production lot is tagged with an RFID; thus, the system locates the lot for the engineer. Both examples show an improvement in automation where data is constantly being used to plan and make a decision in real time by the system, which improves efficiency and allows humans to focus on more critical work.
Overall, here are four advantages of smart factories from a PCB perspective:
1. Increased Productivity and Efficiency
People are great (we love people), but people also make mistakes and sometimes make decisions based on the wrong parameters. Automation with the use of an application programming interface (API) and AI will give us the ability to produce at a faster speed with even higher accuracy and no need to worry about human errors during repetitive work. It is a win-win situation for all involved in the purchasing process. It’s no secret that automation is the key to the future. The implementation of AI also permits more customization, minimizing the downtime for retooling, the need to restart or re-program the machines for new operations, which results in continuous operation and enhanced flexibility.
2. Improved Quality and Change of Focus
Production needs to be monitored thoroughly and take an equal amount of time, resources, and production capacity. With automation, the basic manufacturing processes can be performed quicker and more precisely, freeing up time, resources, and production capacity to focus on the complexities. Then human knowledge can be spent more wisely on innovation, improved quality, and developing new technologies.
3. Increased Possibilities for Optimization
As technology develops and the possibilities for more tailoring the customer’s demands increases, the need for more optimization and flexibility in production arises. Automation allows manufacturers to be more flexible in production, and mart robots make the assembly line more efficient, which opens the possibility for tailored mass production due to customer specifications.
4. Product Innovation
The goal of smart factories and automation is not only improved productivity and lower costs during production but also a smarter and more flexible production. The focus is on better products, improved quality, and a supply chain that is agile and can handle the complexity that the products of the future will demand. What can we say about the future? Predicting the future is not easy, but we can definitely say it will be an exciting ride!
1. F. Boisset. May 9, 2018. “The History of Industrial Automation in Manufacturing,” KINGSTAR.
2. Deloitte University Press. 2017. “The Smart Factory: Responsive, Adaptive, Connected Manufacturing—A Deloitte Series on Industry 4.0, Digital Manufacturing Enterprises, and Digital Supply Networks.”
3. XACT PCB. “Smart Factory Solutions for the PCB Industry.”
4. MarketResearch.com. April 2017. “Smart Factory Market by Technology (DCS, PLC, MES, ERP, SDADA, PAM, HMI, PLM), Component (Sensors, Industrial Robots, Machine Vision Systems, Industrial 3D Printing), End-user Industry, and Region: Global Forecast to 2022.”