“The first rule of any technology applied in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.” Bill Gates

Industry 4.0 and fully automated operations is something in which every electronics manufacturer aspires to achieve: a self-governing, self-optimizing manufacturing marketplace, where external market changes are ingested automatically by the manufacturing process; changes happen in the workflow with every shopfloor instance adapting to the market stimuli, such that material is re-routed, recipes adjusted and equipment configured, from the start to end of the line, to deliver exactly the product/s needed. This hyper-connectivity is a possibility and was being envisioned much before the pandemic forced companies to expedite their digitalization initiatives.

However, since the pandemic exposed the already appearing weakness in the electronics supply chain and manufacturing, the speed and approach towards digitalization will determine how the industry and individual players within it come out of the pandemic, and perform in the new normal. The rising material and labor costs poses a massive challenge for electronics manufacturers in particular, exerting unprecedented pressure on top management to improve efficiency and increase automation.

A post on Iconnect007 summarises data from IPC, which highlights the severity of supply chain issues, coupled with rising raw material and labor costs exerting pressure on electronics manufacturers. Data shows that a majority of manufacturers believe that both raw material and labor costs are on the rise, and that finding skilled labor is becoming increasingly difficult. Profit margins are getting hit and this clearly means manufacturers need to increase automation and process orchestration, using Industry 4.0 tools, if they are to remain competitive and perform better profit margin -wise.

So, what are the challenges which the electronics assembly manufacturers face in their pursuit of increased automation? How the MES alleviates these challenges through better integration and connected orchestration?    

Challenges in Automation

Electronics manufacturers with already operational plants struggle with many challenges, when it comes to reaping the true benefits of Industry 4.0 and IIoT. Most brownfield manufacturing plants have challenges such as equipment in need of retro-fitting with IIoT sensors, too many point solutions deployed across functions with no real integration, higher level applications completely disconnected from the shop-floor, low capacity to capture and process big data due to legacy MES, and site-based, low capacity servers.

Another challenge which is more subtle but equally important is the lack of organizational impetus toward automation and Industry 4.0 level operations. Departments within an organization tend to focus on their own problems, which neglects the big picture. Having a clear strategy with which to achieve optimum integration, leads to successful automation and process orchestration. The role of top management in enshrining this strategy to make it a part of the company DNA is also extremely important.

Solution through MES led Integration and Process Orchestration

The integration which creates a truly automated operation can self-orchestrate, goes beyond automation applications like SCADA or other equipment level applications through IoT sensors, and is integrated with an MES. The integration of the MES with applications at the higher level, which more often than not are customer facing and carry demand inputs, like the ERP and SCM, is equally important in the Industry 4.0 paradigm.

SMT Integration

Industry week highlighted how the integration of process equipment and automation through MES, with higher level applications like ERP, can help manufacturers truly leverage Industry 4.0 related efficiency gains, and make their operation more agile and thereby more resilient. Today, owing to the pandemic, the arguments made in the post and the potential benefits are amplified. MES as an application plays the role of being the bridge which connects the automation and equipment to the customer and supply chain facing applications, through tools such as Critical Manufacturing’s Connect IoT and  data platform.

In simpler terms, the MES deployed must capture data being generated on the shopfloor, right at the manufacturing edge, analyse the data in real-time to differentiate what data triggers alarms or alerts, while storing regular data within specifications for later analysis in a centralized data repository, preferably on the cloud. Data captured should include every single shop-floor transaction, which includes both automation/equipment and material/manpower related data streams. The data which creates alarms and alerts from the edge.turn into actionable items for shop-floor personnel, while becoming inputs for higher level applications.

For example, a spare part or sub-assembly failure on the electronics assembly shopfloor may trigger multiple actions, varying in their urgency and application. The immediate action would be for plant personnel to replace the part so that production continues smoothly. This is where edge computing has its benefits; reduction of decision; and thereby action. Next, the data pertaining to the failure might be communicated to the EMS supplier through the SCM application, which may help the supplier replenish and even redesign the faulty part.

This is the integration which enables automation beyond manufacturing. The MES itself will store this failure data and compare it with previous failures to derive intelligence, through application of AI/ML, and help management decide the best future course of action. It might be anything, ranging from getting a modified part from the same supplier or changing/adding another supplier for that particular part.

Integration through the MES allows for multiple and unprecedented benefits in both process optimization and supply chain management. When it comes to the customer side, the benefits are equally desirable. In times of uncertainty such as created during the COVID-19 pandemic, integration between the MES and ERP/SCM/WMS/CRM allows for better process orchestration. Per Industry Week, the clear and tangible benefits of integration between process equipment/automation through the MES with ERP can be viewed as real time production adjustments, accurate demand forecast, just in time delivery to avoid rush orders, and seamless change orders.

These benefits occur as data exchange is bi-directional and prioritized based on criticality. In a pandemic like situation, any market input which may potentially effect demand has numerous repercussions; a projected hike in demand of a particular product type, means actions need to be taken beyond the production floor and into the supply chain, not limited to the first tier suppliers. Such connectivity and visibility aren’t possible without having the right MES in place. The application should enable edge data capture and processing, making IoT a part of the process.  Even in brownfield electronics assembly plants, the application should be able to take data from varied sources, standardize it, replace or assimilate point solutions, allow ease of use through configurable UI, thereby expediting the automation of process and actions. Further, the application should be able to connect with multiple high level applications to provide the desired hyper-connectivity, which creates the Industry 4.0 dynamic; a self-regulating and self-optimizing marketplace.   

Choose the right MES

With the right MES platform in place, electronics manufacturers can start gaining the benefits of IoT to the full extent.  Visibility across the value chain comes operational agility and business resilience. Choosing the right application though requires an elaborate process, which should utilize tools such as the Gartner Magic Quadrant and involve a cross-functional team which comprises of senior management, IT and OT professionals, not to mention the need to have expert consultants and potential MES vendors.

The goal for the management team of any world-class OEM and EMS provider should be to go through digital transformation knowing what aspects of the operation need to improve, and with the realization that MES is at the very core of said transformation, as it allows for IoT based automation and delivers integration across applications which ultimately provides the level of needed orchestration.