A recent Forbes article highlights the major challenges companies face when it comes to new product introduction (NPI), while also addressing how these problems can be solved with an innovative approach towards the whole NPI process. The article highlights that 85% of respondents in a PWC survey claim they are focused on gaining near-term operational efficiencies to drive revenue growth. However, if research numbers are to be believed, 91% of the market still uses spreadsheets and electronic tools to track product requirements!

The data from Forbes clearly showcases that while effort is being put towards making production processes across industry segments more efficient, the NPI process on the whole is left far behind from an Industry 4.0, and innovation perspective. The solution suggested is the active inculcation of innovation, leveraging modern IT solutions and AI, along with cross-functional and cross-organizational collaboration as a means of improving NPI cycle times and its overall effectiveness.

On this article, we will focus on specific issues which make NPI complex for electronics manufacturers, and how a modern MES platform can help bring Industry 4.0 to the NPI process.

NPI Challenges Explained

The electronics industry as a manufacturing segment faces pressures unlike any other when it comes to new product introduction. Yet, the process involved in delivering better NPI results is far from perfect. Challenges begin with the sheer nature of the industry, where rapid technological improvements mean OEMs must deliver new and improved products faster than ever. The smart devices segment bears testament to this, with some companies introducing multiple models of their smartphones or tablets in one year. The need to introduce enhanced products which are more technologically advanced is the tip of the NPI iceberg.

The next challenge is being able to rally the entire supply chain to coordinate, from conceptualization to prototyping, resulting in a workable design. It means the supplied product should be created with minimum revisions to the specifications and the BOM. The need to collaborate without organizational boundaries to ensure what is envisioned gets delivered as a product requires hyper-connectivity, hyper-collaboration and hyper-standardization across the entire supply chain. Further, the collaboration must extend after development, across multiple production units which may be spread across the world and may have local norms dictating what raw materials or subassembly configurations may or may not be used.

Manufacturers are pressured now more than ever to deliver customized products at affordable prices. This exerts pressure on design, engineering and ultimately on production to incorporate customizations, such that economies of scale can still be realized and the bottom line doesn’t get impacted.

Another aspect of great importance when it comes to incorporating complex material inputs and technologies in products is the possibility of errors creeping into the production, if everything from specifications to BOM and recipes to routes aren’t standardized and version controlled. Unless the NPI process is configured to deliver a zero-fault production, quality errors in actual, assembled products malfunctioning at the customer’s end can do far more damage than a simple monetary loss.

So, how does an OEM or an EMS provider ensure that they not only reduce their cycle time for NPI, but deliver and design products fit for supply? How do they ensure the NPI entails minimum possible iterations and a high degree of success across multiple manufacturing locations?

What a modern MES brings: Industry 4.0 to the NPI process

Product CAD visualization – Critical Manufacturing MES

The Forbes article referenced finds spreadsheets and a lack of cross-functional collaboration to be the biggest hurdles in improving NPI. It claims that 91% of companies still use a pre-Industry 4.0 approach towards NPI, which leads to delay in BOM finalization and contributes to errors in manufacturing.

For the electronics industry, an MES platform, designed specifically to meet the industry’s NPI and production management needs, might be the key to improving their time to market (TTM), with assured quality in high volume production. Let’s understand how.

Integration & collaboration.  MES as a platform is an overarching application which not only delivers/enables all technologies in the Industry 4.0 gamut; it integrates with other IT applications from design to automation and from the ERP to the SCM. When the NPI process executes through the MES, it allows all inputs from design to prototyping to be recorded, versioned and controlled. However, what the MES delivers as a softer but perhaps more important result is bringing all stakeholders on the same page from an NPI perspective.

Case in point; consider that after initial conceptualization, changes are made to the product design by Engineering. Such changes could reflect in the production process or sub-assemblies, which impacts the BOM and the eventual product quality. With the MES, any change made is not only documented but is communicated to relevant stakeholders. This includes suppliers and external stakeholders, which allows for changes to be made at their end faster, modifications to happen and new inputs to be received at the manufacturer’s end. It enables the expedient execution of the planned iteration/change/upgrade. This end-to-end visibility leads to tighter collaboration and spurs innovation through the better use of IT infrastructure across the supply chain. 

Collaboration is also improved within the internal team. It becomes truly cross-functional, when the same application which controls production execution is also the one that delivers NPI projects. Mobile and user-friendly applications in the MES allows users to make changes on the go, yet ensures standards set are being met and all changes recorded. It ensures any revisions to the design or through production engineering, which affect the BOM or eventual product quality, are always captured and version controlled.

Assured quality and zero fault production. MES brings AI to the electronics assembly industry and helps improve quality-related results by referencing issues encountered in previous product industrializations. MES helps manufacturers avoid making the same mistakes, be it in design, process configuration, sourcing or the delivery mechanism. Forbes highlights AI as a game-changer in NPI, and with MES, AI delivers better quality results achieved with far fewer iterations. Each industrialization success forms the basis for a faster, more informed development cycle for the next time.

MES records every single transaction for all NPI related activities, which delivers two distinct advantages. First, it allows for design for manufacturing (DFM) to be followed and for quality parameters and deliverables to be determined as the new product is prototyped and goes through performance testing. Second, with all quality related aspects under control, production for the newly developed SKU can be configured as a zero fault production, as the application controls everything from BOM to production execution.   The development cycle shortens while quality becomes better defined, as learnings from the development stage is captured and converted to a tangible process or material improvement. This expedites not only the development cycle, but helps NPI projects to complete faster, with new product variants reaching the market faster than ever, and a production which is set for zero errors across the board, from SMT to packaging.

MES makes including complex material inputs easier for electronics manufacturers by allowing them to review all aspects of quality and performance in real-time and request enhancements or changes from the get go, right at the development stage. This greatly impacts the overall quality and costs related to it.

Standardized production and version control. The ability to control and interlock versions of BOMs, process routes and recipes can prove critical for any NPI project. With the intense and rapid miniaturization of electronic and electrical components which form the basis of any assembled electronic product, it becomes critical to track each material input, process step and production recipe. Each BOM is now versioned, and the versions of routes, recipes and process steps can be interlocked, based on product type and variant. This is vital for mass customized products and should be addressed during the NPI project itself.

A common challenge faced by OEMs is the need to work with several EMS providers, or work with a combination of their own facilities and partner plants to execute production of an approved product. This challenge can be addressed optimally when the MES being used for manufacturing the new product is the same which allows for process standardization to be established across multiple plants. With a modern MES platform, which is cloud-based and IoT enabled, users across multiple plants can not only execute production exactly to the spec irrespective of their plant’s geographical location, but also collaborate to share learnings and possible improvements in process management.

Transparent process and shorter product industrializations. For electronics manufacturers, the key to reducing NPI lead time and increasing its success rate hinges on the ability to deliver not just a well-designed and technologically advanced product, but ensuring that the production process being used is optimal and delivers the requisite quality.

MES brings all the data pertaining to each iteration in manufacturing together, and with advanced analytics allows for changes to be made and a clear, optimized production plan to be developed. Each process step, each component and each task/operation to be performed can be reviewed in a transparent manner, with clearly defined versions.  This enables for an error free, optimized process to be set. 

When everything from design to bulk production is through a single, overarching MES application, product industrialization becomes shorter with each new development. This is how MES brings both innovation and collaboration to the NPI process for electronics manufacturers. So, if you are looking to bring all the benefits of Industry 4.0 to your NPI process, look long and hard at your MES. If you still need to use spreadsheets to record your BOMs, it is time to look for a change, and turn to a modern MES.