Smart Factory Insights: An Unblinkered View

For many, blindly going where no one has gone before is just a normal day in the factory. As new products are introduced, manufacturing is expected to provide perfect products based primarily on assumptions and reverse engineering. Without accurate and complete product data, there can be no engineering automation, which results in a complete waste of energy. This should no longer be acceptable in the industry. A lack of adequate contextualizing of product information creates unnecessary cost and risk in manufacturing operations, thereby limiting competitiveness. What’s behind the industry’s reluctance to change on this matter?

The key reason relates to security. Releasing full design data to manufacturing exposes valuable intellectual property (IP), which could make its way to competitors. The current paradigm wherein we trade performance for security needs to be destroyed if we, as an industry, will ever succeed in our business goals. Recently, performance and security considerations have become more urgent and significant, such that we will soon reach a crucial tipping point. On one side, there is a clear expectation for assembly manufacturing to be as efficient as possible. Operational exceptions, compromises, and defect rates that were once acceptable are no longer viable in a successful assembly operation; these include general wastes of time, resources, and investment, including delayed deliveries and poor quality. Any activity that invokes waste of any kind is unacceptable. Perfection is paramount.

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Digital manufacturing technology has now come of age, making automated processing an integral component of manufacturing engineering software. These new processes are meant to eliminate the needless, repetitive, and error-prone conventional methods that have long guided the industry’s decision-making. Product design data has been fully digitized, comprising 3D-CAD data, bills of materials (BOMs), and PCB layouts and specifications for electronics assembly. From a layperson’s perspective, product data simply needs to be converted into instructions needed for the entire assembly operation to take place. Instructions are needed for automated processes, such as those assigned to machines and robots, as well as for human assembly operators; all this is derived from product data. With product design tools and ERP systems already computerized, why is so much work still done manually?

Back in the days of high volumes and limited product mix, manually compiling data worked fine. Today, there are many more product variants, even customized product variants that require tailoring assembly at key operations. For example, each core chassis in a mobile phone has many thousands of active variants. At the other extreme, variability is open-ended, such as the height of a bespoke piece of furniture, or the dimensions of a window blind. Humans can handle all this variation, but it takes time; a lack of automation coupled with an exponential increase in degree of variation makes mistakes inevitable. In addition, people with essential skills are now leaving the manufacturing industry, and there’s little motivation for new people to take on these stressful and repetitive roles for so little reward.

Removing low-level and repetitive critical actions from manufacturing engineering is essential. With digital product data, manufacturing engineering tools now have the opportunity to elevate engineering's contributions. Although digital product design information has been available for some time, few operations have set up the data flows necessary to handle it. Very few tools on the market have the built-in capability to use such data as their core driver, yet digital manufacturing engineering tools offer innumerable benefits, including the ability to quickly expose any exceptions or specialist requirements inherent in a design via the enhanced visibility provided by digital design data. New digital best practices make it possible to automate processes associated with an individual product, including assigning product configurations, selecting materials, and creating work instructions. Automating these processes helps limit operational mistakes, defects, and delays.

This effect of automation on the operation is not restricted to new products. Digital manufacturing engineering allows risk-free, on-the-fly production allocation; these processes now take seconds as opposed to days. Engineering is now in the driver’s seat, replacing the individual who, until now, has blindly pushed the car along the road. Contextualizing designs with data collected from the shop floor enables immediate decision-making, which improves operational effectiveness overall; low-level decisions are now made automatically. And because every data point is precisely considered in the context of the design, variant, material, process, timing, etc., overall value increases. This all sounds great, doesn’t it?

However, most companies are not using digital design data to automate their manufacturing engineering processes. Company profitability and survivability are being compromised in lieu of IP security. Protecting IP is not new. The latest products from competitors are being physically torn down and their features, functions, and technologies analyzed in labs run by all the major product design teams. A competitor’s design data can now be reverse engineered in minutes. The risk of cloned, compromised, and even counterfeit products has become a major concern for the industry.

While these concerns are legitimate, everything comes down to trust between the company owning the product IP and the companies involved in the manufacturing. Such companies are generally diligent about providing contracts and agreements that protect the IP of their customers. It is extremely difficult, however, to ensure that every person with access to that data will refrain from leaking it to the many individuals and companies offering significant incentives to do so. Dealing with sensitive data requires mechanisms that ensure minimum risk and access to a minimum number of people. Engineering automation eliminates the need for a person to have access to the design data itself; instead, they need only have access to the various abstracts created from it. Technologies available today can ensure that holistic design data never leaves the security of its owner’s servers. Authenticated engineering solutions allow secure, selective access on demand, with no need to store core design data locally. Trust is earned through long-term relationships, but as trusted people are always leaving companies, trust can’t always be a part of the equation.

Most companies are now digitally transforming their operations in ways that they consider “safe” for their business. But these changes need to be made as part of an overarching strategy, not as a piecemeal, step-by-step process meant to preserve the balance between performance and security. Sharing design data that is then processed manually offers few benefits, especially because the increased risk of IP leakage is high. In contrast, modern digital manufacturing engineering tools prevent people from manipulating raw design data. Automating low-level jobs means that engineers can work at an abstracted layer from the data. Any design data needed by machines or in work instructions is thereby isolated from the main design IP, which has very little value when it can’t be painstakingly reverse engineered.

With appropriate IT security practices in place, automating manufacturing engineering creates an environment in which products can be reliably made with reduced exceptions and defects. These systems are also very safe from threats to IP leakage, since they can designate or prevent access to core design data as necessary. Trustworthy companies who want their digital transformation projects to remain competitive need to consider updating the entirety of their data flow and automation practices so as not to get caught in this “blind leading the blind” trap of modern information technology.

This column originally appeared in the January 2023 issue of SMT007 Magazine.

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2023

Smart Factory Insights: An Unblinkered View

01-11-2023

For many, blindly going where no one has gone before is just a normal day in the factory. As new products are introduced, manufacturing is expected to provide perfect products based primarily on assumptions and reverse engineering. Without accurate and complete product data, there can be no engineering automation, which results in a complete waste of energy. This should no longer be acceptable in the industry. A lack of adequate contextualizing product information creates unnecessary cost and risk in manufacturing operations, thereby limiting competitiveness. What’s behind the industry’s reluctance to change on this matter?

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2022

Smart Factory Insights: AIs Without Context Are Dumb

12-14-2022

We often discuss the emergence of artificial intelligence in terms of how it will save us or, if movies are to be believed, how it might terminate us. The countless annoyances AIs inject into our daily lives can make us wonder: Do they already have a plan? We need to adequately consider context versus privacy when deciding how to integrate AI technology into our lives, especially within our factories.

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Smart Factory Insights: Clinging to Best Practices in Worst-case Scenarios

11-22-2022

We develop best practices to ensure consistent and optimal operational performance, quality, and consistency. The nemesis of this activity is change, which leads to those best practices becoming stale and eventually becoming shackles to the operation. We must take a more modern approach to best practices, one that embraces the ability to change, and is flexible and adaptable to cope with the unexpected (which are actually expected) issues. Knowing how to create change-centric manufacturing best practices comes from experience.

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Smart Factory Insights: The Progress of Machine Intelligence

09-27-2022

Adversity drives focus, realization, and then innovation. This is especially true in manufacturing, which has felt the effects of recent challenges. For decades, manufacturing has been overly focused on short-term business objectives, with little regard for risk and adaptability. This oversight has persisted into automation projects and digital transformation initiatives. Innovators today realize that there is no way back, that we must embrace the intelligence—the silver linings—that we must have learned.

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Smart Factory Insights: Zombie Cars: The Next Pandemic Is Digital

07-20-2022

In the manufacturing world, we increasingly rely on internal and outsourced security partners to keep our IT networks safe. One report stated that as many as 50% of manufacturing companies have already been the target of ransomware attempts. Therefore, there is more work to do, especially on the neglected OT network. Industry requirements, such as CMMC, invoke costs and difficulties. But like traceability in the past, with the right preparation, this “burden” can be turned around to become a near zero cost, or even a benefit.

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Smart Factory Insights: Fractional Materials and High-Mix Manufacturing

05-25-2022

We used to discuss manufacturing paradigms in terms of high- or low-mix, coupled with high- or low-volume, with many shades of grey in between. Now, we have a new dimension, that of high-volatility, as key dependencies on labour, materials and logistics contribute challenges to production, which in turn, is subject to the volatility of customer demand. Material management more than ever before, is being either the key enabler for business success, or your nemesis in not being able to achieve the necessary recovery plan if not thought out properly.

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Smart Factory Insights: Has the Industry 4.0 Gold Rush Ended?

04-06-2022

Industry 4.0, though only five years old, already has a checkered history. With buzzwords flying, existing technologies—re-branded as Industry 4.0 solutions—have been in demand. Manufacturers embarked on the Industry 4.0 “gold rush” to gather as much data as possible, and by whatever means necessary, to get those nuggets of smart manufacturing credibility. Today, the more mature approach of Industry 4.0 is emerging with consideration of a real return on investment (ROI) as well as sustainability. Taking advantage of such maturity may have been the smartest option all along.

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Smart Factory Insights: CFX IIoT Open-Source Hardware

03-09-2022

The IPC Connected Factory Exchange standard, CFX, has triggered a revolution in the way that industrial machines communicate in a secure, IIoT-based, plug and play environment. Attention now is on how CFX can be connected to older, “dumber” machines, bringing 100% visibility and control across the whole manufacturing floor, thereby avoiding the numerous technical and financial pitfalls historically experienced.

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2021

Smart Factory Insights: Digital Transcendence—Fear of The Unknown

12-22-2021

The first three industrial revolutions have brought us automation of physical tasks through adoption of mechanical and electrical machines, the benefit of which has been quite easy to appreciate. Industry 4.0 automation, however, is driven almost exclusively from the digital realm, representing a whole new world of intangibility. With manufacturing being rather averse to unplanned change or risk, unless there are very compelling reasons, how do we get to fully trust digital technology needed for our businesses today, taking us toward manufacturing digital transcendence?

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Smart Factory Insights: The Costs of Legacy Thinking

12-01-2021

As humans, we learn facts, gain impressions, create solutions, put practices into place, and move onto our next challenge. Over time, our intent is to create a legacy of value, but in many cases, we are creating legacies in a different sense. Our knowledge, experience, and creations age or become superseded, but there is resistance to replace or update. An increasing gap develops between perception and reality. Younger, more agile peers take advantage, get ahead, and we look away, thinking that they don’t know what they are doing. Though a natural human phenomenon, decision-makers in manufacturing today need to bear this mind more than ever.

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Smart Factory Insights: Hands-off Manufacturing

07-12-2021

The use of automation has not eliminated causes of unreliability, nor defects, which ironically continues to drive the need for humans to be hands-on, even as part of SMT operations. There is clearly something missing, so cue our digital twin.

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Smart Factory Insights: Me and My Digital Twin

04-12-2021

A fully functional digital twin involves more than it may initially seem. At first we tend to think about access to information. There is a great deal of trust to be taken into account when creating a digital twin, as there is scope for its use both for good and evil.

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2020

Smart Factory Insights: Changing Roles in the Digital Factory

12-01-2020

Experts once required to have a knowledge of specialized materials and processes are giving way to those experienced in the application of automated and computerized solutions. Michael Ford describes how it is time to reinvent the expectations and qualifications that we seek in managers, engineers, and production operators to attract and support a different kind of manufacturing innovation.

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Smart Factory Insights: Smart Factories—Indirectly the Death of Test and Inspection

11-04-2020

In the smart factory, test and inspection are reinvented, contributing direct added value, playing a new and critically important role where defects are avoided through the use of data, and creating a completely different value proposition. Michael Ford explains how the digitalized Deming Theory can be explained to those managing budgets and investments to ensure that we move our operations forward digitally in the best way possible.

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Smart Factory Insights: Trust in Time

08-05-2020

We’ve all heard of “just in time” as applied to the supply chain, but with ongoing disruption due to COVID-19, increasing risk motivates us to return to the bad habit of hoarding excess inventory. Michael Ford introduces the concept of "trust in time"—a concept that any operation, regardless of size or location, can utilize today.

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Smart Factory Insights: It’s Not What You Have—It’s How You Use It

06-03-2020

According to the reports, all the machines in the factory are performing well, but the factory itself appears to be in a coma, unable to fulfill critical delivery requirements. Is this a nightmare scenario, or is it happening every day? Trying to help, some managers are requesting further investment in automation, while others are demanding better machine data that explains where it all went wrong. Digital technology to the rescue, or is it making the problem worse?

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Smart Factory Insights: Seeing Around Corners

04-20-2020

Each of us has limitations, strengths, and weaknesses. Our associations with social groups—including our friends, family, teams, schools, companies, towns, counties, countries, etc.—enable us to combine our strengths into a collective, such that we all contribute to an overall measure of excellence. There is strength in numbers. Michael Ford explains how this most human of principles needs to apply to IIoT, smart manufacturing, and AI if we are to reach the next step of smart manufacturing achievement.

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Smart Factory Insights: Size Matters—The Digital Twin

02-01-2020

In the electronics manufacturing space, at least, less is more. Michael Ford considers what the true digital twin is really all about—including the components, uses, and benefits—and emphasizes that it is not just an excuse to show some cool 3D graphics.

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Smart Factory Insights: What You No Longer Need to Learn

01-14-2020

Naturally evolving layers of technological applications allow us to build and make progress, layer by layer, rather than staying relatively stagnant with only incremental improvement. To gain ground in manufacturing, Michael Ford explains how we need to embrace next-layer hardware and software technologies now so that we can focus on applying these solutions as part of a digital factory.

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2019

Smart Factory Insights: Dromology—Time-space Compression in Manufacturing

11-25-2019

Dromology is a new word for many, including Microsoft Word. Dromology resonates as an interesting way to describe changes in the manufacturing process due to technical and business innovation over the last few years, leading us towards Industry 4.0. Michael Ford explores dromology in the assembly factory today.

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Smart Factory Insights: Trends and Opportunities at SMTAI 2019

10-14-2019

SMTAI is more than just a simple trade show. For me, it is an opportunity to meet face to face with colleagues and friends in the industry to talk about and discuss exciting new industry trends, needs, technologies, and ideas.

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Smart Factory Insights: Recognizing the Need for Change

09-24-2019

We are reminded many times in manufacturing, that "you cannot fix what you cannot see" and "you cannot improve what you cannot measure." These annoying aphorisms are all very well as a motivational quip for gaining better visibility of the operation. However, the reality is that there is a lot going on that no-one is seeing.

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Accelerating Tech: Standards-driven, Digital Design Flow for Industry 4.0

04-24-2019

The term “fragmented manufacturing” is a good way to describe current assembly manufacturing challenges in an Industry 4.0 environment. Even in Germany, productivity reportedly continues to decline. To reach the upside of Industry 4.0, data flows relating to design play a major role—one that brings significant opportunity to the overall assembly business.

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The Truth Behind AI

02-28-2019

The term "artificial intelligence" or "AI" has become a source of confusion for many—heralded as part of Industry 4.0, yet associated with the threat of automation replacing human workers. AI is software rather than hardware, and it's time to put these elements of AI into context, enabling us as an industry to embrace the opportunities that so-called AI represents without being drawn in, or pushed away, by the hype.

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2018

Resolving the Productivity Paradox

12-22-2018

The productivity paradox continues to thrive. To a growing number of people and companies, this does not come as a surprise because investment in automation alone is still just an extension of Industry 3.0. There has been a failure to understand and execute what Industry 4.0 really is, which represents fundamental changes to factory operation before any of the clever automation and AI tools can begin to work effectively.

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The Truth About CFX

10-23-2018

A great milestone in digital assembly manufacturing has been reached by having the IPC Connected Factory Exchange (CFX) industrial internet of things (IIoT) standard in place with an established, compelling commitment of adoption. What's the next step?

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Advanced Digitalization Makes Best Practice, Part 2: Adaptive Planning

08-27-2018

For Industry 4.0 operations, Adaptive Planning has the capability of replacing both legacy APS tools, simulations, and even Excel solutions. As time goes on, with increases in the scope, quality and reliability of live data coming from the shop-floor, using for example the CFX, it is expected that Adaptive Planning solutions will become progressively smarter, offering greater guidance while managing constraints as well as optimization.

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Advanced Digitalization Makes Best Practice Part 1: Digital Remastering

07-02-2018

As digitalization and the use of IoT in the manufacturing environment continues to pick up speed, critical changes are enabled, which are needed to achieve the levels of performance and flexibility expected with Industry 4.0. This first part of a series on new digital best practices looks at examples of the traditional barriers to flexibility and value creation, and suggests new digital best practices to see how these barriers can be avoided, or even eliminated.

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Configure to Order: Different by Design

01-15-2018

Perhaps in the future, sentient robots looking back at humans today will consider that we were a somewhat random bunch of people as no two of us are the same. Human actions and choices cannot be predicted reliably, worse even than the weather. As with any team however, our ability to rationalize in many different ways in parallel is, in fact, our strength, creating a kind of biological “fuzzy logic.”

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2017

Counterfeit: A Quality Conundrum

10-01-2017

There is an imminent, critical challenge facing every manufacturer in the industry. The rise in the ingress of counterfeit materials into the supply chain has made them prolific, though yet, the extent is understated. What needs to be faced now is the need for incoming inspection, but at what cost to industry, and does anyone remember how to do it?

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