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‘Future Factories’ Require Thinking ‘Smart’ Today

T

wenty years has passed since the US was a world leader in printed circuit board fabrication production. And not just in revenues, which tended to run neck-and-neck with Japan. The US also had the capability and capacity to build the largest-format boards in volume.

That was 2000.

I remember talking with Jack Fisher, then the technical director of the tech consortium ITRI, about the coming year. We were reviewing the latest bullish industry forecasts, in which some of the major fabricators were quoting lead-times of six to 12 months(!).

That unbridled optimism prompted Jack to observe that any hope of the US investing in HDI technology would be pushed out at least another year. Since order books were full for large boards, fabs saw no need to invest in next-generation technology.

Or so they thought. Because, as we all know, then the dot-com crash occurred.

It’s hard to believe that was 20 years ago. But we might be edging toward history repeating.

Smart manufacturing, which is generally defined as the use of fully integrated, collaborative manufacturing systems that respond in real time to meet changing demands and conditions in the smart factory, in the supply network, and in customer needs, is quickly becoming reality.

It’s been a long time coming. OEMs of assembly process equipment have long had the capability to see inside a customer’s factory to perform software upgrades, view maintenance reports, and verify their machines were performing to spec. Manufacturer IT personnel, on the other hand, have historically resisted such intrusions to their networks. With IT and IP security recognized as intrinsic to operational success, most manufacturers have checked suppliers at the proverbial door.

In some of the largest EMS companies, that’s changed, and it’s working its way down to mid-tier companies as well. As we report in our cover story this month, Universal Scientific Industrial, which ranks 12th in the CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY Top 50, is all-in on an all-digital platform. Its Worldwide 5 Star Management System is bringing Industry 4.0 principles to every layer of the company. USI uses a common platform strategy to standardize the data automation protocols and equipment, and develop lead times and costs. They are making tremendous progress toward a true lights-out operation, having already reduced headcount in certain operations from the hundreds to single digits. AGVs move product from component stores to SMT lines several floors away, and inventory replenishment and vendor orders are triggered by software, not humans.

With its acquisition of AsteelFlash complete, USI can now roll out 5 Star to more than 25 manufacturing facilities worldwide.

As we reported in November, Lacroix Electronics is undertaking a similar transformation.

It has started work on the Symbiose smart factory in France, a greenfield project predicted to have 60% more output than similar-sized plants yet with the same number (450) of staff when it opens this year. The company is committing $30 million toward a 205,000 sq. ft. (19,000 sq. m.) facility that it expects to generate annual revenues of more than $120 million. Lacroix will use industry-developed open source IoT communications standards for its digital factory.

At its Shanghai smart factory, USI builds SIPs for smartwatches. Lacroix is heavily vested in automotive. Both are lower-mix, high-volume segments. It is predictable, then, that domestic North American assemblers will say, “Good for them, but it doesn’t apply to me.”

That’s what we heard from fabricators two decades ago.

One person who has studied the implementation of the smart factory matter deeply over the past year believes the US is five to seven years behind Europe and as much as 10 years behind the leaders in Asia.

How many fabricators wish they could go back in time and invest in a laser drill or five? The US misplayed the technology game at immense cost to the region. The idea that assembly is somehow insulated from a similar outcome is wholly misguided.

The US shouldn’t cede entire markets, as it currently does with consumer and mobile, thinking that aerospace, defense and medical are permanently sustainable and impervious to foreign competition. Fabricators learned the hard way that you can’t always depend on what you have now.

Instead of saying, “Convince me,” it would behoove North American shops to say, “Catch me up.” And then act accordingly.

Mike Buetow
P.S. We are pleased to bring back the PCB East conference and exhibition to the Boston area in May. Check out the details at pcbeast.com.