Intelligent automation • Reshoring • Viewpoints

Reshoring the Assembly of Data Center Infrastructure

Our everyday digital experiences – from the online shopping purchases we make from our couch to cloud-delivered applications we use at work – rely on an elaborate network of firewalls, routers, and switches that move data. These networks have become so integral to both the consumer and business worlds that the global network equipment market is likely to reach $65,788 million by 2032, up from $29,544 million in 2022, progressing at an 8.3% compound annual growth rate (CAGR).

Essential pieces of data center infrastructure help power an array of sophisticated applications, from artificial intelligence to digital payments, yet many manufacturers still build critical assemblies the old-fashioned way: with manual labor. One reason the sector has continued to rely on people for assembly is due to the difficulty of the tasks performed, which historically have been too hard for machines to master. 

That, however, is changing. In fact, it has to change. Ongoing supply chain issues and various macroeconomic factors are influencing a significant shift within the manufacturing industry—one that has manufacturers reshaping their global supply chains, with many moving production home (or closer to demand) in an effort to reduce operational and logistical complexity and implement more sustainable, cost-effective practices and processes.

Moving global operations closer to demand requires a change in the way manufacturers approach production; they need modern solutions that allow them to ramp up quickly, adjust to changes in demand, and reduce reliance on an expensive workforce, especially as the sector continues to grapple with a labor shortage and a skills gap. Now, with intelligent automation capabilities, a more modern, flexible approach to production is already a reality for some manufacturers – increasing speed, precision, and quality and reducing per unit assembly costs and expensive scrap.

The Challenges of Server Board Assembly

Let’s take for example server boards, which require several challenging assembly steps. Large circuit boards need to be fastened to product housings typically using multiple screws at various locations. Since servers require lots of memory, many individual DIMM cards must be inserted into slots available on the circuit board. Other large components like CPUs, heat sinks, fans, power supplies, and hard disk drives also need to be assembled onto the circuit board.

The placement of these vital parts within the server is critical to the performance and quality of these high-end products, which can cost upwards of $1,000 each. And unlike less costly assemblies, any mistake – whether an incorrectly placed or damaged CPU or DIMM card – can result in high-end scrap. For example, if building 25k server units per year, an extra 1% scrap can add $12 per unit cost.

Today’s servers not only contain many expensive components, but the mix of components used in any given server assembly is becoming more customized. Customers expect configure-to-order purchasing flexibility where they can specify the number of CPUs, DIMM cards, etc. that are needed for specific orders. This leads to high mix, low volume work orders, which are more difficult to process on the factory floor.

A Modern, Flexible Future, Made Possible by Intelligent Automation

Manufacturers looking to reshore assembly operations not only have to overcome higher labor costs but also need to find ways to improve product quality and accommodate configure-to-order purchasing. Automation is the answer, but not the way it has been done traditionally, which is too slow and rigid requiring lots of custom engineering work. Today’s software-driven intelligent automation is needed to handle the speed and flexibility required.

Beyond faster ramp-up times, which will be critical for manufacturers moving the location of their facilities, intelligent solutions offer the throughput and cost efficiency needed to reshore. For example, an assembly line combining robot-operated stations with human-operated stations makes it possible to produce server boards in the U.S. using 50% less staff than traditionally required. And because the hybrid line is orchestrated by a common software layer, it’s possible to collect component, product, process, and equipment data at all stages and use that data to reduce scrap cost and improve product quality. The software also enables increased flexibility to help support configure-to-order processing. Multiple product variants can be run on the same assembly line with product changeovers happening in as fast as the 5 seconds it takes for an operator to push a button on a touch screen to select the new product recipe.

Reshoring the assembly of data center infrastructure is a challenging endeavor. Trying to do it using a traditional approach that relies heavily on human operators and/or custom engineering work won’t work. However, it can be done using intelligent automation, which can perform complex assembly tasks using data to drive continuous improvement, and enable flexibility to support high-mix, low-volume work orders.

Ready to learn more about how intelligent automation can help support efficient and cost-effective reshoring of your data center infrastructure assembly operations? Reach out to us at [email protected].


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