Wow, what a year! On a personal note, I got married and changed my name, how’d that happen? For the industry, another year of solid growth, some real progress towards the smart factory, the increasing development and adoption of AI and much more.
So, what about 2019, what’s coming down the technology track and what will it all mean to the OEMs and EMS companies as well as to the vendors that strive to keep them on the leading edge? Well here’s my take before the holiday season and before we hit the January trade shows, starting with CES in Las Vegas, onto Detroit for the North American International Auto Show (NAIA) 2019 and ending in San Diego with IPC APEX. Yes, that’s just January!
Technology building blocks
I always like to look at the foundation technologies that enable the changes in consumer electronics and in manufacturing. Sometimes they are the same, sometimes not. For me, the largest of these in 2018 was artificial intelligence (AI) and its application. Platforms have arrived that allow companies with a good software development team and real domain expertise to apply AI in ways that were not possible even just two years ago. We’re now seeing AI support the drive to the smart factory, with applications in counterfeit detection, parts counting and materials management, production planning, inspection and even product design. I say with some confidence, that we will be talking about this a great deal during CES at the start of January as well as at APEX in the last three days of the month. I expect AI-enabled solutions to be among the highlights at both shows.
I can’t stress enough the importance of domain knowledge combined with the ability to manipulate data. Bad data in will result in bad data out, so getting the inspection, measurement, or test data right at the start is essential.
Also en-route to smart factory nirvana, is the application of the digital twin as a bridge to the digital transformation of the entire industry. The digital revolution is the engine for the fourth industrial revolution, data is the fuel, and intelligence is the new currency. It all starts with good reliable data, from the different stages of inspection, thermal management, test or measurement. Credit where credit is due, it was from Michael Ford that I heard the term “digital remastering” used in a smart manufacturing context. Digital remastering of every process will drive us to create that digital twin, which will in turn give us offline modeling and planning capabilities.
One process changing the way we think about manufacturing and already digital is additive manufacturing, also called 3D printing. This is by nature a digital process with data being shipped instead of parts, an approach that is practical and environmentally sound at the same time. I am expecting the story of additive, hybrid and distributed manufacturing to move on at a pace in 2019 and I am excited where it can take us in terms of shaking the global distribution of production, but also delivering the opportunity to make things that could not be practically made in the past.
This year, and likely next, supply chains have been challenged by component shortages, by counterfeit devices and by the potential for a trade war and uncertainty over tariffs. Many say these new pressures will become the norm, and are not a short-term problem. This means, as an industry, we need better supply chain management, better counterfeit detection and better in-factory materials management. I expect to see material management top of agenda for many manufacturers, be they OEM or EMS. As a result, there will likely be additional investment in this area as well as some creative solutions to ensure the right parts are in the right place at the right time. Why worry about a few percentage point improvements to line efficiency or changeover speed, when a few missing components value at a few cents can hold up manufacturing for hours.
Perhaps the most important building block in any manufacturing company is the team. Smart Factories need Smart Operators and I have been involved in numerous debates this last twelve months on what the factory of the future looks like from the operator standpoint. One thing is clear, we are in the augmented age and the operator’s daily tasks are changing. Will we need more or fewer operators is a question of much debate, I suspect fewer?
What is clear is that we will need different skills on the factory floor and throughout the value chain. This change in the operator’s skill sets will need buying not just from the employers, but also from academia. The industry will need to work closer with schools and universities to help educate the manufacturing engineers and operators of the future. We’ll need more data analysts, more roboticists, more software developers, more automation engineers and perhaps most importantly more multidisciplinary engineers that have skill that can be adapted to tasks and role we haven’t even thought of yet.
Looming on the horizon
Many have talked about augmented and virtual reality having applications in manufacturing. In fact, some vendors have already deployed it. Right now, it feels a little like a novelty rather than a real value add. Let’s see where that takes us in the future.
Driving the consumer world is the combination of IoT and mobility, with many companies seeing high speed mobile connectivity as the enabler for the smart cities of the future. Enter 5G with almost zero latency and the kind of speed and reliability needed for mission critical applications needing high volumes of data, like autonomous driving. 5G may have applications in manufacturing, but is data transfer speed really an issue right now?
A real issue is data security, especially when intellectual property (IP) is tied up in data that needs to be shared over multiple locations. Blockchain has the potential to meet this challenge, but as yet we are seeing few deploy the technology in the manufacturing or supply chain field. I suspect supply chain will be faster to explore and utilize blockchain, with its need to maintain traceability, spot anomalies, detect counterfeits and manage or mitigate risk.
All in all, 2018 was an exciting year to be part of the electronics manufacturing industry and 2019 looks like it will bring more of the same, plus some new challenges and opportunities. Agility and flexibility continue to be essential skills, but perhaps the most important trait of any player, be they brand, contract manufacturer or vendor, is adaptability. Transformation and disruption will be the watch words of 2019, so ‘adapt or die’ is likely to be a successful mantra for the coming year.