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Electronics: recognising Industry 4.0’s potential

10 minutes | 15 Nov 2018

Close up of microchip

The second in our series on how different sectors are exploring the opportunities this fourth industrial revolution has to offer

Electronics is a sector that is eagerly embracing Industry 4.0 (I4.0) because it can see where the benefits clearly lie. Manufacturers around the globe are genuinely excited about its transformative power. KPMG in its 2017 Rethink Manufacturing Report revealed that 56% of UK manufacturers believed that I4.0 represented an ‘unprecedented’ opportunity to revitalise the manufacturing process.

In the US, according to a recent HSRC (Homeland Security Market Research) report on Industry 4.0, the US is also building up a strong head of steam in the sector. It stated that US tech giants were increasingly investing in R&D using smart machines, factories and storage systems. Between 2018 and 2023, HSRC expects the US Industry 4.0 sector to grow at a CAGR of 12.9% helping it replace China as the world’s largest manufacturer.

Improving efficiency

The electronics sector is driving much of the global growth. The gains for electronics manufacturers, wherever they are located, are clear.

France

French electronic manufacturing services firm Asteelflash outlined in a recent blog post (Introducing Smart Factories into Electronic Manufacturing Services) that industrial automation would transform factories by improving production accuracy and enabling more complex products and tasks to be carried out by robots instead of humans.

Industry 4.0 creation of a circuit board

Artificial intelligence (AI) printed circuit board designs and engineering processes would also, it believes, create new products and improve factory effectiveness, with cloud software allowing data to be stored more efficiently. 3D printing could also be advantageous in reducing the manufacturing time of printed circuit board prototypes and customisation. This will all be done in a smart factory where machines are connected to each other, linked to production lines and ERP software.

USA

In the US, Rice Electronics is using Industry 4.0 slightly differently. It has teamed up with Intel to create a smart IoT connected worker solution to increase productivity and safety. It involved the development of Android smartphones with external sensors which Rice workers would wear in factories and when working remotely on client sites. Through inbuilt sensors and remote analytics, near time data about the working environment can be accessed.

Singapore

Last year, Singapore launched the Electronics Industry Transformation Map (ITM). Under it, the government will work with companies to improve their manufacturing efficiency and adopt advanced smart manufacturing technologies. The ITM targets for 100% of manufacturing plants in Singapore to be best-in-class compared to their global operations.

3D printing

There are a number of firms providing the I4.0 equipment to drive the change. One is Kuka Robotics whose machines, on a 24/7 basis, can assemble CPU and memory modules on a circuit board and carry out micro screws fastening at, it claims, a faster speed than a human. Swedish manufacturing company Atlas Copco hails the benefits of smart electric screwdrivers for increasing productivity and reducing costs. Nano Dimension, among others, through its DragonFly 2020 3D printer is allowing electronics manufacturers to print professional circuit boards.

3D printing is highlighted by Russell Poppe, Director of Technology at electronics manufacturer JJS Manufacturing.

“We are increasingly getting requests from our customers to 3D print their designs and products,” he states. “But as a medium-size firm working on low to medium size batches we can’t just go out and buy a 3D printer, especially with so many technologies on the market that are suitable for different applications. You have specialist machines for plastics, ceramics and metals, so it is hard to invest in just one that is going to give you the best return. So, although we are looking at investing in this area for the jobs to date, we are subbing the work out to 3D printing specialists. But we will see more customer requests as 3D printing offers them a great opportunity to customise and personalise products, so at some point we will bring the capability in-house.”

Poppe continues his point about investment. “We operate in a tight margin world and we need to be sure that any new technology we implement has a very clear benefit and payback before it gets signed off,” he explains. “Industry 4.0 can often seem a bit vague, so it can be hard to define those benefits clearly.”

Do your research

JJS is looking at the Hermes standard for surface mount equipment communication. This uses modern cables and data formats to allow data sharing across SMT (surface mount) machines. “It means not having to scan the same barcode at every machine or process point and, in essence, means the machines can speak to each other. You get quality data,” he explains. “The next step we and the industry are looking at is automating the placement accuracy on circuit boards based on feedback from automated inspection.”

The company is already implementing automation in soldering machines and is looking to extend this to storage systems for materials such as surface mount components.

Automated soldering of circuit board

“We’ll have a connection between the system and the machines on the factory floor where we can get pre-warning of the need for replacement or new parts,” he explains. “It should greatly improve downtime and stock accuracy and is exactly the kind of clear benefit we need to see.”

Poppe advises fellow electronic manufacturers to do their research before they spend, including looking at what rivals are doing and visiting ‘reference sites’.

“The best way to gauge whether a new piece of equipment will benefit you is to go and see it in action,” he says. “Some fellow manufacturers are happy to let you come in and see their equipment working because they see it as a way of keeping the whole industry healthy, but others will just shut their doors to perceived competitors. As long as you are respectful with the information you glean, then it is an approach that works quite well.”