The road to the integrated smart factory
Freedom for electronics manufacturers
The digital transformation reaches many factories only slowly as many of today’s companies suffer from the same syndromes that created headaches for IT managers headaches already in the 80s and 90s, namely being overly dependent on certain equipment manufacturers with proprietary systems and a lack of standards. With open automation and digital transformation strategies on the rise, however, new hope is on the horizon.
There was a time when technological dependencies had a significant impact on corporate IT policies. The era of the 1980s with its central mainframes and dumb terminals was followed by a period of decentralized client-server designs and finally by openness and interoperability in the form of multi-cloud services. A current look at the production facilities in the manufacturing industry reveals astonishing parallels to the era that was dominated by IBM and Microsoft. Just like others did back then, organizations in the manufacturing industry are now looking for ways to free themselves from the clutches of a few suppliers who provide manufacturing equipment but don’t offer the open, non-proprietary interfaces that would enable users to realize the vision of the intelligently integrated factory.
Digital transformation through openness in electronics production
A mixture of confidence and doubt prevails in the electronics manufacturing industry, a segment with a traditionally high degree of automation. Here, too, the digital transformation is an ever-present topic of discussion. Short product life cycles, global supply chains, new competitors and changing customer demands make it necessary to question established business models and processes. But here, too, proprietary systems, inflexible solutions and dependencies on equipment makers dampen the spirit of the digital transformation. To this day, electronics manufacturing factories have very few options in determining the degree and the speed of their automation on their own. In other words, Industry 4.0 is being implemented with one foot on the brake because established automation strategies make it difficult or impossible to adapt to new market conditions. To a large part, the fault for this lies with the makers of automation solutions themselves. With catchy terms such as zero operator line, dark factory or lights-out factory, they claim that only fully automated, operator-less shop floors can lead to the desired success.
Selective instead of total automation
Reality, however, shows that zero-operator strategies usually consist of solutions from a single equipment manufacturer. They can hardly be retrofitted and require almost all production processes to be redesigned and reconfigured when something changes. Even the most insignificant modifications often make it necessary to re-evaluate the entire production chain. Above all, the last percentages of a total automation strategy tend to be particularly expensive, as proven by exact cost-benefit analyses which have demonstrated that the complete automation of a production line optimizes the unit costs only in the rarest of cases. Rather, it has been shown that 20 percent of the resources deployed generate 80 percent of the results, and each additional percentage point of improvement requires a disproportionate additional effort.
Open Automation: More than a philosophy
All of the above are reasons why more and more voices in the industry are calling for a more pragmatic approach to automation – a plea that has fallen on open ears at ASMPT, a Munich-based process partner for the electronics industry. Advocating more openness and cooperation with customers and between equipment makers, the specialist for integrated smart SMT factories has started its own initiative towards this goal with its Open Automation concept. Depending on each customer’s specific situation, it gives them the ability to determine their most effective and fully modular path to the integrated smart factory. This includes step-by-step automation, the integration of third-party equipment, and the retroactive automation of existing production lines – always with the return on investment in mind. What makes this possible is, among other things, the ability to retrofit and/or convert individual automation components in a modular fashion. Existing lines and elements can be integrated and processes automated in stages in order to achieve sustainable investment protection. The secret of the Munich-based company’s success lies in the unique interaction between its hardware and software. After starting out as a pure hardware supplier to the electronics manufacturing industry, ASMPT has developed into a factory integration partner who is the only supplier in the industry that relies consistently on open standards, an MES backbone tailored to the needs of electronics manufacturers, and industry-wide partnerships and relationships that include other suppliers.
Working together to build the smart factory
ASMPT believes that all makers of machines, equipment and solutions relating to automation have the duty to work together openly and cooperatively – for their own benefit and that of their customers. The success of Industry 4.0 strategies – including those of hardware and software suppliers – is closely tied to the way in which individual customers can design their production environments. Only when the electronics manufacturing industry realizes that progress can be achieved only by working together and eliminating rigid dependencies will the path to the smart factory be cleared. The technological conditions for this exist already today, for example in the form of open and free standards such as IPC Hermes, a modern machine-to-machine communication protocol that was developed especially for PCB assembly lines in the electronics manufacturing industry.
Automation based on the customer’s needs
If these prerequisites are met, automation can be based strictly on the individual customer’s needs, such as his desired return on investment and the increase in efficiency, quality, and flexibility he wants to achieve. When this happens, the chances are good that the electronics manufacturing industry will benefit from the same kind of rapid development that the IT and communication industries experienced from the 1980s to today.