EMS 2.0: What's Next for Electronics Manufacturing

December 16, 2019 | 6 min read

Bartosz Mazurek, VP Electronics, Bright Machines

Electronics manufacturing has seen a good deal of transformation in the last few decades – the implementation of advanced pick and place was a revolution that allowed manufacturing to automate front end. Unfortunately, the back end hasn’t seen that same transformation, and as a result, remains labor intensive. 

Today, manufacturing has reached an inflection point, thanks to continuously raising demand from consumers, the rise of the middle class, and new developments in technology, both in product and production. With the proliferation of IoT, there are now an ever-increasing variety of electronic products to produce. At the same time, it’s become more costly to acquire, train and retain employees to perform the tasks needed to build the cutting-edge products that consumers now demand.

The good news? The majority of manufacturing companies understand the issues at hand – 60% plan to invest in new tech. But first-generation automation has reached its limits: each automation solution is so custom, which results in an incredibly long lead time for deployment, while also driving costs. And worse, these solutions are not reusable or flexible, and don’t allow manufacturers to scale production up or down.

We see a bright future for EMS though – a better way to manage the situation.

It begins with shifting the way we think about hardware. Making hardware both modular and standard should be a top priority, so that like Lego bricks, manufacturers are using building blocks of the same construction standard to build their lines. In designing Bright Machines Microfactories, we made sure modularity was a key feature. Our hardware is plug and play, ready-to-go, and comes equipped with a full range of robotics solutions needed to complete tasks – a range of end of arm tools, along with feeding and transport systems – as well as machine vision.

Not only are microfactories configured out of these production-ready building blocks, they’re programmed using Brightware™, our intelligent software, which is pre-integrated with all elements of the hardware. Brightware support for the hardware building blocks makes the overall process of deployment and programming quick and easy, and it doesn’t require a highly skilled expert to complete.

The result of this modular hardware powered by software approach is high quality performance, predictable outcomes, and a super flexible automation solution. Suddenly, scalability and reusability are possible – manufacturers can repurpose or reconfigure a production line for a different configuration of a product, or even an entirely different product.

And this isn’t a hypothetical – we’re already seeing the real-world impact of this type of automation in action.

Case Study: Heatsink Assembly

One leading networking equipment manufacturer was struggling to automate their heatsink assembly line because of many different configurations and variants. They were using seven manual stations to manage 15 different product variations and 11 different heatsinks. This manufacturer knew, too, that the number of configurations would only continue to increase, if they wanted to offer the best support for end customers.

What They Deployed:

A Bright Machines Microfactory that is able to handle all product variants with a minimal one-push changeover and change the software “recipe” to easily reconfigure the solution to accommodate new heatsinks of different sizes.

The process now also benefits from in-process quality control, as the microfactory verifies component serial numbers to confirm recipe alignment, then component quality and physical alignment, through machine vision. Only after double checking all is as it should be will the robotic unit picks up the heatsink and makes the placement operation – while controlling the force of the operation.  While the line currently accommodates 11 different heatsinks and 15 different PCBs, it’s flexible and simple enough to easily add even more. 

The Result:

Implementing a microfactory reduced cycle time from 20 to 15 seconds, and improved output from 180 units per hour to 240 – a 33% increase. They were also able to reduce their seven working stations and the humans needed to staff them by 92% (only ½ an operator to replenish material), and reduced space needed by 85%.

Case Study: Interior Lighting Assembly & Inspection

This automotive manufacturer sought to enable touchless assembly and testing of interior lighting.

What They Deployed:

A microfactory that delivers the flexibility to be able to produce seven different product variants. This solution is managed by using flexible product carriers equipped with RFID for traceability and management, as well as auto-changeover from one product to another.

In this system, first, machine vision performs checks of batch serial number confirming the presence of material for quality control. The system then collects coordinates and adjusts the program, using adaptive robotics controls to pick up component and complete the pick and place operation (again, fully controlling the force of the operation). The modular, software-powered microfactory enables even more flexibility with a dual gripper in one cell, ensuring that the manufacturer is able to meet their high-quality standards regardless of product variant.

The Result:

In designing solutions, we’re always thinking about the full end-to-end process: at the front end, material has to flow and cannot disturb output, so the system is designed to always guarantee material is there, for example, while tray feeders enable one-hour constant production with an easy replenishment station. At the end of the line, a testing and laser engraving station using machine vision once again to confirm product is free from defect. Even better, everything on this line is built with those standard hardware building blocks, making it easy to reconfigure for another product entirely. This is an automation solution that can be used for not just 2-3 years, but upwards of 5-7.  

Next Steps for EMS 2.0

These are only two examples of effectively implemented projects, illustrating the dramatic transformation possible in the EMS sector when automation is deployed from the beginning of product ramp-up. This industry is all about digital transformation, but to enable and harvest the benefits of that transformation, there remains a need to improve the way automation is currently deployed. A modular, flexible approach that enables reusability and short deployment times is key to achieving full transformation.

So how can EMS manufacturers get started on this transformation journey?

  1. Whenever configuring an automation line, the hardware in use should be reusable – whether one cell or many, it should be able to be reused for all deployments moving forward.
  2. Further, manufacturers shouldn’t wait until the hardware hits the shop floor to start programming and testing. With Software-Defined Manufacturing, it’s possible to program hardware offline and in digital twin environments, so the automation can run and ramp up production as soon as hardware arrives.

If you choose modular, Software-Defined Manufacturing to automate your assembly and inspection, the potential of automation can become reality – and with faster deployment and more flexible, reusable solutions. 

To learn more about our capabilities in building the backbone of AI, visit Bright Machines.

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