How Software Automation in PCBA Manufacturing Helps Quicken Innovation
Manufacturing still takes a large portion of time in the electrical engineering cycle. This article discusses how software-driven automation and the IIoT can help hasten the manufacturing process.
The manufacturing industry has seen few changes since the 1980s. This means that the engineering cycle—from design to manufacturing—still takes months or even years to complete, as it did over 30 years ago. This long turnaround time can stifle engineers’ creativity and their ability to innovate. To improve upon this antiquated process, designers and manufacturers are looking to software-driven automation and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).
With hundreds of IIoT connected devices working together to gather and share data, factories have grown more sophisticated. Combined with software automation, manufacturers are leveraging IIoT-based networks to optimize their operations, find new efficiencies, and ultimately, help encourage more innovation.
Figure 1. Inside Tempo's PCBA manufacturing facility.
One such manufacturer is Tempo, who is working to include software automation in their PCBA manufacturing facilities in an effort to alleviate the prototyping bottleneck.
The Design, Build, and Test Cycle
To manufacture prototypes, manufacturers and engineers work together in a design, build, and test (DBT) cycle (Figure 12. In this process, the engineer first creates his/her design, sends the design to the manufacturer to build and, upon completing an initial prototype, the manufacturer sends the product back to the engineer for testing.
Figure 2. The design, build, test (DBT) cycle is crucial to the prototyping process.
Each time an engineer sends a design through this cycle, ideas are validated, flaws are identified, and solutions are found. In the engineer’s quest to build the best final product, this sequence will often occur in a continuous loop, producing several iterations of the prototype and burning through several cycles.
In traditional manufacturing, this process can stretch out for weeks or even months; it is particularly slow when it comes to electronics and printed circuit board assembly (PCBA) manufacturing.
Unlike software engineers who can create prototypes in seconds or mechanical engineers who can create them in hours with 3D printing, electrical engineers suffer from a more extended build phase and must wait several weeks for their prototypes to become realized.
Possible Causes of Delays
For electrical engineers, delays can occur for many different reasons. Most commonly, errors result when the information being sent to the manufacturer is lost, misinterpreted, or wrongly changed. Rectifying these errors can then further add to the delay, as resolving questions and relaying information can take several more days. Moreover, engineers are often left in the dark as this process occurs, as communication between engineers and manufacturers is slow at best and nonexistent at worst.
Traditional electronics manufacturing processes are further decelerated due to a lack of connectivity. Often, the machines and people comprising the factory are all analog and disconnected, making the factories islands of isolated technology. Not only does this slow down operations, but it locks engineers out of the build phase of the DBT cycle; without insight into the outcome of their designs, it’s more difficult for engineers to improve their design quickly for future iterations.
In order to accelerate PCBA manufacturing and help electrical engineers iterate on their designs more quickly, software-driven automation in factories offers up a solution.
Smart Factories Allow for Faster Prototyping
With new processes that leverage IIoT networks and software automation, smart factories are revolutionizing the traditionally slow PCBA manufacturing cycle.
For example, end-to-end software automation creates a “digital thread” that automates the flow of information from the engineer’s design to the machines and the people on the connected factory floor. This allows electrical engineers to communicate directly with the manufacturer throughout the build process, working with them to complete the DBT cycle with more quality, speed, and accuracy in the PCB assembly.
This type of IIoT network and software automation also helps streamline operations by solving the problem of a lack of connectivity in factories. Imagine a factory has a group of robots and people working together on the floor. If they are analog, communication is slow and inefficient. However, if a factory integrates IIoT devices throughout its operations, it can automatically configure, operate, and monitor all various control systems. Some smart factories also use IIoT to automatically connect every system and machine with every person working on the factory floor; this creates a circular network of connectivity that brings additional efficiency to everyday tasks.
The new model of a smart factory further streamlines operations by gathering and sharing data to continuously improve upon itself. For example, a smart factory with sensors connected throughout can monitor factors like temperature, humidity, equipment status, job progress, and reported defects. All of this data can then be given back to the manufacturers to assess how the factory is operating and look for new ways to optimize the build process.
Utilizing Software Automation in PCBA Manufacturing
Many competitive industries, including aerospace, medical technology, industrial, and automotive, rely on PCBA. However, traditional PCBA manufacturers cannot turnaround prototypes quickly, bottlenecking product development and inhibiting engineers’ ability to iterate faster and innovate more. By leveraging software automation and IIoT networks together, new smart factory manufacturers are able to solve many problems of the traditional PCBA manufacturing procedures that plague electrical engineers.
Example of a PCBA Smart Factory at Work
Tempo has created a PCBA smart factory that runs on a digital thread to connect customer engagement, order processing, parts sourcing, factory operations, and shipment of finished PCBAs into one continuous cycle. This enables Tempo to build and deliver high complexity printed circuit board assemblies in days instead of the weeks typical of other manufacturers.
Figure 3. Inside Tempo's PCBA smart factory.
By leveraging software on both the user front-end for quoting and ordering and on the back-end for factory operations, Tempo’s smart factory is able to create a transparent, unbroken data flow from engineer to manufacturer and back again. This offers electrical engineers better insight into the progress of their prototypes, significantly accelerating the DBT cycle.
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