Peter Bigelow

The pandemic taught us the importance of AI is not on the shop floor but in the ability of people to communicate.

For roughly half a decade, pundits have been waxing poetic about revolutionary changes about to take place in manufacturing – and in society at large – made available by advances in sensor technology that can be driven and manipulated by sophisticated software. Artificial intelligence (AI) and Factory (or Tech) 4.0 often best represent these revolutionary advances. Both have been touted to promise improving productivity, efficiency and speed, resulting in reduced costs and the need for fewer human employees where implemented.

I have never been a fan of any technology that replaces “human employees” but prefer technology that helps people achieve more. Based on the past couple years, that appears to be exactly what these revolutionary advances have actually achieved: using AI to enhance what people can achieve, rather than replacing them. How this has occurred, however, is different from originally imagined.

Many viewed AI and Factory 4.0 as enabling radically new products or game-changing process improvements throughout the manufacturing plant that would result in significant new products. In at least one way this came true, but in so many other ways, the game-changing has been subtler. Possibly the best example of this is in the area of communication.

Technologies that have the power to change how we communicate with each other individually or in groups have existed for almost a decade. Yet Skype, FaceTime, WebEx, Zoom, etc., were used sparingly. It took a pandemic to force a mass switch to cutting-edge communications technology. The promise of Factory 4.0 took a quantum leap forward both in performance and acceptance. However, it did so far from the factory floor.

Similar to Factory 4.0, AI has taken a significant step forward. Most were touting how the application of AI might enable large items such as automobiles to be produced in a fraction of the time with higher quality – or in our industry, maintaining process parameters over all processes on an ongoing, real-time basis, etc.

Indeed, AI has proved to be useful in a very different application. With the world stricken by a pandemic, the medical and pharmaceutical community harnessed AI and put it to work. Searching through vast databases in the cloud and thousands of global servers and computers, scientists developed a vaccine against Covid, a process that historically took years. Thanks to AI, data could be reviewed, sliced, diced and compared to real-time data from those stricken with Covid to develop and rapidly refine vaccinations that proved highly effective. In a short half-year, a monumental task resulting in a revolutionary solution was completed in a fraction of the time vaccinations and medications have been developed and approved in recorded history.

As communication technology has revolutionized and changed business communication, reducing the frequency of needed business travel and broadening locations where employees can work, has it really revolutionized the shop floor? Ditto as new vaccines were rapidly developed and immunization made available to millions of people, little or none of AI and Factory 4.0 has made it onto most manufacturing shop floors.

Maybe these two examples should make us redefine what a revolutionary change really is. Having a factory floor where every piece of equipment is connected, as Factory 4.0 pundits would have it, and software crunching data generated by scores of sophisticated sensors to run a lights-out factory floor, as those who prophesize AI would have it, should not be the goal.

Maybe the goal of investing in and implementing advanced technology should be measured in another way. The ability to increase the number of people who solve problems, implement new processes, or tweak something that is working well but could be better should be utilized 24/7 within the manufacturing environment, so the best solution can be derived more quickly. All the equipment need not be connected on one database, but all people required from all locations – supplier to operator to customer – to improve a product, process or outcome should use the technologies available to best communicate and contribute.

Developing new products or taking a bleeding-edge concept and making it reality should require all parties involved to share data, cloud-based or local, and we should invest in software and people who can slice and dice the extensive and complex data quickly to cut years, not weeks, off the product development process. Keeping people connected by advanced communication technologies and having the tools to assimilate, analyze and leverage immense and rapidly developing data has made a far greater contribution to economic and personal success than assuring all things are connected on the shop floor.

The global challenges for people are never-ending. Harnessing technology to effectively achieve the basics of communication and involvement is success enough, even if not the poster child of Factory 4.0. The need to dream big has never been more apparent. Focusing AI on those large tasks, rather than squandering it on simply moving inventory from A to B a little faster, should be the goal. And after all, it will be people who must manage the revolutionary advanced technology to achieve what is in the best interest of the challenges and the times. 

PETER BIGELOW is president and CEO of IMI Inc.; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. His column appears monthly.

Peter Bigelow

As governments realize the importance of investing in domestic manufacturing, opportunities are coming for EMS firms and PCB fabricators.

It takes time to gain perspective, especially perspective on the industry you are immersed in. In my case, it’s been 30 years since I entered the printed circuit board market. During the first six or seven years, it was heady, upbeat times in North America. Growth was a bounty supporting hundreds of domestic fabricators. Materials, supplies and capital equipment were made “locally” in North America. Then, around the new millennium, everything changed.

Suddenly, work headed to Asia, and fabricators contracted at an unprecedented scale to fewer than 200 within a few short years. The collateral damage was a collapse of materials, supplies and capital equipment companies that supported the industry. Even worse was the exodus of skilled talent who sought careers in more promising industries and never looked back. The relatively few companies that survived did so by hunkering down, focusing on a niche, and investing in only the equipment they needed to support their business base, in some cases taking draconian steps that worked short term but eventually led to their demise. Over the first decade-plus of the new millennium, it was depressing to be a North American circuit board fabricator.

However, times change, and with that change, opportunities emerge – finally!

Read more: Get Ready for New North American Opportunities

Peter Bigelow

To best help customers, suppliers must invest in dedicated software experts.

“Value add” is a term bandied about, especially when a business is in the process of selling its products or services to another one. Likewise, in manufacturing the term “capital investment” describes the process of a business selling its products to another. All too often, much less “value” is derived by the “investment.”

Over the years – decades, in fact – most of the equipment and services I’ve purchased have been of dubious value and less an investment than a needed cost. A significant portion of any capital budget is spent either replacing legacy equipment or on substantial repairs to keep old equipment functioning. While there are times a new technology is truly a game-breaking investment and provides real value for the future, the majority of capital spent is for the same-old, same-old.

Historically, capital equipment used in the fabrication of printed circuit boards has relied heavily on electromechanical/PLC controls to operate. Mechanics in most companies’ maintenance departments can troubleshoot and service or fix this technology reasonably well. Many a scrubber, etcher or drill that may be decades old can be found still chugging along in most established fabrication facilities. Technology and events, however, are impacting the same-old and offering an opportunity for some that, to date, have not been embraced.

When capital is spent to replace older equipment, the operating system of choice is no longer electromechanical PLCs but PC-based software instead. On one level this evolution has enabled greater value as functions and controls are significantly improved, enabling tighter tolerances, better yields and higher throughput. These traits in many ways embody what value add is and what a good investment should be.

However, with advancements comes equally daunting challenges. No longer can a mechanically adept maintenance person service or fix this new technology. Instead, an IT-savvy person may be needed to update software, reprogram if needed, and ensure equipment can communicate with other pieces of equipment or servers to operate effectively, if at all. Herein lies the challenge.

Most companies that develop, produce, sell and (allegedly) service capital equipment come from the paradigm of mechanical adeptness. Often capital equipment developers are experts in the mechanical part and outsource the firmware, software and operator interaction experience development to others that are experts in software applications. The staff that installs capital equipment and trains the operator most often is from the mechanical side of the organization and is proficient in the basics of equipment operation, but not in how to maintain, upgrade and troubleshoot software issues.

Worse, most companies walk away from a sale once the equipment is installed and move to selling the next customer or focusing on the next generation of equipment. Time passes and suddenly an event occurs in which the equipment will not operate, not because of a mechanical issue but because of a software issue. Anything can impact software, from a localized electrical spike to Microsoft, or whichever company is “updating” an underlying software system. When these events occur, the mechanically adept maintenance person and the mechanically adept equipment sales rep are left flatfooted, not having necessary software knowledge or skills.

An added kicker to any software-centric capital equipment is the amount of customer unique information (CUI), intellectual property (IP), etc., stored on the operating software. All this makes traditionally off-the-grid, electromechanical, standalone equipment prone to complying with the latest security protocols, such as NIST-800-171, IPC-1791, CMMC, etc., that demand systems and software are up-to-date, and adequate IT and physical security are in place, and hold the company that owns the equipment, the operator, management and potentially the company that produced the equipment and operating software responsible for the integrity and security of data processed on the equipment. In short, the majority of capital historically spent on replacing the same-old is now spent on software-centric equipment that demands a different type of maintenance service.

Still, most companies that produce or supply current-generation capital equipment fail to understand the critical need and responsibility to be able to service and support the various operating software systems, as much as in the past they serviced the mechanical systems. In many cases, upgrading software replaces spare parts. Being able to provide scripting support to customers when software upgrades disable existing programs is as important as it used to be to have an inventory of spare parts on hand. Having access to tech support for software not loading properly is as important as being able to walk a customer through replacing a mechanical part when it breaks.

There’s an opportunity to provide true value add and make replacing the same-old become a true investment. It’s called service, not necessarily old-fashioned service, but support of customers who have invested serious money on capital equipment and need a new level of assistance: software support. And, when the world shifts from one level of Windows to the next, for better or worse, the equipment that runs on it must have dedicated effort to transition all customers to the next generation. This is a paradigm shift. This requires investment. This demands commitment.

My prediction is the capital equipment providers that offer dedicated staff to support the operating software – akin to the tech support for applications and mechanical repairs and maintenance – will be those that can charge the most for their products, providing both superior value-add and a true capital investment to their customers. 

PETER BIGELOW is president and CEO of IMI Inc.; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. His column appears monthly.

Peter Bigelow

Working unconventional hours in remote locations disrupts business more than material shortages.

As we enter the third year of our pandemic-altered world, more chains are strained than just supplies. With people working remotely during odd hours, changing careers, or stepping out of the workforce altogether to care for loved ones, the basic chain becoming strained is communication.

Communication has been transitioning over the past couple decades. Time, culture and technology have dramatically transformed. Long gone are the storied two-martini business lunches where colleagues, customers and suppliers met, broke bread and discussed one-on-one issues that needed ironing out. Over the past decades, face time (not FaceTime) with any business client has become extremely difficult to arrange. Today with Covid, meeting face to face is all but impossible for many. Long-changing trends compounded by recent events have had a negative impact on the ability to communicate effectively, which in turn has strained the quality of relationships in too many cases.

For years, a typical customer service or salesperson would spend so much time on the phone with clients, they were jokingly referred to as having “cauliflower ear.” The ongoing constant chatter between people – most business, but some social – helped build strong relationships. How times have changed. The phone-savvy businessperson and bonding over long lunches are no more. Over the past two decades, email has become the communication vehicle of choice. And the pandemic scattered employees, customers, suppliers – everyone – to remote offices, usually in their homes, hopefully with a quiet room from which to log on to Zoom, GoToMeeting and WebEx.

Read more: Strained Communication

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