Intelligent automation • Viewpoints

Got Back-End Blues?

Stevan Dobrasevic, Product Marketing Director, Bright Machines
October 10, 2019

Manufacturers today are facing some tough challenges: a rapidly changing geopolitical climate, ever-evolving consumer demands, concerns around labor cost and availability. Just last week, The Institute for Supply Management announced that U.S. manufacturing activity had dipped to its lowest point in a decade. As they grapple with how to approach these macro obstacles and potentially existential threats, most manufacturers I meet with express frustration over two very common (and seemingly niche) pain points: assembly and inspection. In particular, they’re up against the cost and deficiencies of manual labor required to perform these phases at scale, and paradoxically, the expensive but inflexible automation hardware designed to minimize reliance on it.

This is where we come in. Bright Machines Microfactories represent the next generation of automation – what we call Software-Defined Manufacturing – and it isn’t just a “nice to have” upgrade for a factory floor. Microfactories replace both manual labor and traditional hardware-driven automation, thereby lowering labor costs, increasing throughput, decreasing defects, and getting lines up and running faster. Bright Machines’ customers are already seeing a shift in the economics of their manufacturing operations – dramatically improving the bottom line – just by automating these two crucial phases of production.

Lower labor costs

Manual labor has some drawbacks if assembly and inspection rely upon it, especially the reliance on low-cost labor markets around the globe. While people are well suited for some roles on the factory floor, the dexterity and precision required for manual assembly of small electronics, as one example, can quickly become draining for both cost and productivity. And ultimately, these mundane, repetitive tasks lead to low job satisfaction and high turnover. Manufacturers are sinking money into recruiting, training, and maintaining a workforce for assembly and inspection when these two touch points of a line would benefit from fewer touches. Here’s where microfactories come in.

Software-defined microfactories leverage computer vision, machine learning and adaptive robotics to enable intelligent assembly and inspection, which creates the potential to reduce or eliminate dependencies on manual labor (so naturally, it also creates the potential for a huge opportunity to save on labor costs). In fact, one Bright Machines customer lowered human touches to 25% and realized a 50% reduction in assembly-line staff costs when they replaced their manual assembly process with an automated, software-defined microfactory to produce infotainment electronics. Another eliminated human touches altogether.

First generation automation solutions present their own labor cost hurdles: production line engineers are expensive to employ, not to mention difficult to find in many markets. Not only that, but machines often have to be manually configured one at a time, and the software is not easy to configure or troubleshoot, requiring on-site technicians when there is a problem. Because microfactories combine hardware and intelligent software that configures and manages the machines, they also eliminate the need for an army of expensive engineers to deploy automation, further cutting down operational costs.

Increase throughput

How would the economics of your manufacturing operation shift if you were able to increase unit production by 33% per hour? That’s the reality for the same infotainment electronics console manufacturer mentioned above. For them, the layer of intelligent software introduced through software-defined microfactories made it easier to configure, replicate and scale automation, making their line faster and more flexible, and of course, more productive.

By digitizing factory operations, this next generation of automation makes assembly and inspection more transparent and accessible. Data collection from the microfactory provides actionable analytics that help to improve yield and reduce downtime.

Decrease defects and increase quality

With processes that get more intelligent and automated over time, manufacturers are seeing that implementing software-defined microfactories translates to product quality that becomes more consistent and reliable over time. For example, in the infotainment electronics console case, significantly reducing the number of human touches resulted in reducing the defect rate by 88%. That’s huge – the decreased defect rate not only reduces the cost of scrapping those defective units, but it also improves throughput with more good units exiting the manufacturing line and getting shipped to customers.

Advanced technology, like the computer vision that’s embedded in microfactories, provides for more intelligent inspections and also helps reduce scrap (with fewer false positives) and makes it easier to trace materials. With user-friendly overhead displays, operations can collect, monitor and display microfactory production data, allowing them to quickly analyze where they might need to refocus, or what needs to be improved. This data collection makes every microfactory process step easier to control and repeat, ensuring products are assembled correctly every time. Manufacturers can achieve higher product yields, with better quality, that can easily scale.

Enable more business

Microfactories also make an operation more dynamic, nimble and affordable. The flexible building blocks of a microfactory can be reconfigured with a quick changeover from one product to another. This means factories are able to repurpose, not recycle, factory automation robotics. This flexibility, native to microfactories, also means that manufacturers can deliver a wider range of assembly services, including skills like DIMM insertion, heat sink assembly, and product labeling, making it possible to manufacture a wider variety of projects.

Oftentimes the initial investment of automation for assembly and inspection can be daunting, but because microfactories combine hardware and intelligent software that configure and manage the machines, it’s not necessary to hire an army of expensive engineers to deploy automation, greatly cutting down operational costs. Priced competitively to labor costs anywhere, manufacturers are typically able to see a return on their microfactory investment in 14-18 months.

With these real business benefits, it’s no wonder that Bright Machines customers have already deployed more than 30 microfactories across 20 manufacturing sites in 8 countries located in Asia, Europe and North America.  Contact us today to learn more about how microfactories can help transform the back-end of your production line.

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