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Full digitalisation in electronics manufacturing

Feature

By Caren Potter and Louisa Lou, Siemens Digital Industries Software

TEXT:             It’s safe to say that electronic devices run our lives to a great degree. And, consumer electronics innovations continue at a fast pace, which is positive and exciting for the consumer, but for the electronics maker the picture can be mixed. Whilst there’s potential for success, competition can be daunting as customers expect new devices at an accelerating pace, with added choice of customisation. This could potentially lead to personalised devices that connect widely to other devices. In addition, the modern age of immediate and potentially viral negative reviews of a minor malfunction or a significant launch delay can spell a disaster for a product. Hence, here are some of the main factors that manufacturers contend with today:

  • Greater product and process complexity: Newer technologies such as 3D printing, knowledge automation/digital assistants, big data/data analytics and advanced robotics have emerged to enhance innovation and accelerate manufacturing processes. Although these offer significant advantages, they also increase the complexity of both products and processes required to manufacture them.
  • Cycle-time pressures: Today’s short time-to-market timescales make it difficult to prove in advance that manufacturing processes will work, whilst the increasing frequency of production ramp-up cycles leaves little to no room for error.
  • Difficulty shifting from mass production to mass customisation: The inflexibility of current manufacturing systems prevents mass customisation.
  • Strict data and documentation requirements: Proof of compliance is essential in industries such as automotive and medical, and for working with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) that require strict, high level of quality and standardisation.
  • The effect of globalisation on resources and materials: Decisions about where to manufacture have become more complicated as some low-cost regions have been unable to keep pace with increased product demand and/or cost expectations. Profit margins drop when low-cost labour sites are no longer cost-effective and shipping costs counteract any cost savings. Global sourcing offers the potential to reduce costs, but also makes it harder to optimise material replenishment.

Industry response

Most electronics manufacturers have applied digitalisation to various stages of their product development process. These efforts include one or more of the following solutions:

  • Integrated planning and management for PCB assembly and test;
  • Production ramp-up, virtual design and process verification test management and execution;
  • Production optimisation with integrated layout and simulation;
  • Model-driven processes for advanced part and mould manufacturing;
  • Supplier collaboration for PCB contract manufacturing;
  • Manufacturing execution system (MES) for box build and shopfloor connection.

Digitalisation clearly supports better planning and faster validation of production alternatives, increasing the effectiveness and performance of manufacturing operations. However, research by CEB Global (now Gartner) indicates that, so far, digitalisation is not having the anticipated bottom-line impact. In a 2017 survey, the analysis firm found that more than 80% of the senior executives it contacted had some sort of digital initiative underway, yet 44% also noted that digital investments were not improving net profit.

“Digitalisation success depends less on having the most advanced technologies and more on having the right operating systems,” stated Gartner in its report. “Business skills, incentives and operating models have 15 times more impact on the likelihood of success in digitalisation than changes in digital technologies.”

Next steps

Realising the full potential of digitalisation requires a new manufacturing operating model. At Siemens, this concept is named the “Digital Enterprise”, which is an integrated platform that unites all the domains required to engineer, manufacture and deliver today’s smart products. Its foundation rests on two streams: digital thread and digital twin.

Digital thread: Digital thread is a chain of information that connects all the participants and information involved in designing, building and supporting a product. A collaboration backbone, such as Teamcenter software, weaves the digital thread through all the involved disciplines, applications, tools and systems.

Digital twin: This is a highly-accurate virtual model of either the product (digital product twin) or its manufacturing process (digital manufacturing twin). These models are used to simulate real-world conditions prior to building a product or developing manufacturing operations, with the goal of optimising as much as possible in software, where multiple what-if scenarios can be evaluated inexpensively.

Thanks to information coming from the digital thread, digital twins can be constantly updated for maximum accuracy. For example, customer feedback can be captured to inform the design and testing of future products. Similarly, by collecting information from real-life manufacturing processes, manufacturing simulations can be improved, resulting in more efficient manufacturing processes.

Digital twins are also an excellent way to capture and replicate manufacturing best practices.

Smart manufacturing

Smart manufacturing for electronics eliminates physical prototypes, disconnected systems, paper-based work instructions and silos of information to enable a continuous, integrated flow from design and planning to production.

The difference between this approach, which generates and distributes accurate, validated product and process models across the company, and current piece-meal digitalisation strategies, can be seen at every stage of product development. Some key differences include:

  • More reliable and manufacturable designs;
  • Better collaboration between design, engineering and manufacturing departments;
  • Lower data redundancy;
  • Fewer shop-floor planning mistakes;
  • Fewer error-prone manual data entries;
  • Optimised inventory and JIT use of materials;
  • Enforced manufacturing best practices;
  • Accurate and up-to-date work instructions;
  • Plug-and-play data collection and key performance indicators (KPI) monitoring;
  • Fast time to root-cause identification;
  • Transition toward higher product mix without loss of factory performance.

Competitive advantages

By digitalising the entire product development process – from design to production, and connecting a digital thread through all the steps in between, the smart manufacturing for electronics strategy informs that a design can be made, the manufacturing plan is up-to-date and synchronised, and the production system is optimised and performing as planned. This information delivers significant competitive advantages over conventional, partially-digitialised approaches, including:

  • Faster time-to-market and more frequent new product introductions: Product development activities that used to take weeks can be done in hours when connected by a digital thread. Simulations and analyses performed on digital twins ensure right-first-time production. Overall, because a smart manufacturing strategy can reduce time-to-market by as much as 50%, and it enables successful competing in a market that demands frequent innovation.
  • Quality improvements through left-shift: Left-shift refers to performing tasks that would normally occur later in the design process at an earlier stage. An example in electronics development is PCB design for manufacturing (DFM) analyses, which are performed early and regularly rather than waiting until the design is complete. Each time an analysis is performed, the overall design improves, and the greater the degree of the shift, the greater the benefit.
  • More responsive manufacturing: Bylinking product design and manufacturing with a digital thread, planning can be performed earlier in development so, by the time the design is complete, manufacturing can quickly follow. This opens the door to product customisation and personalisation.
  • Smarter decision-making: More informed decisions are made possible by better visibility into the manufacturing and having analysis tools that fully exploit manufacturing data.
  • Cost control: By improving the efficiency of the manufacturing processes and materials – at individual sites as well the global enterprise – the smart manufacturing for electronics strategy can reduce the overall manufacturing costs, ultimately keeping products affordable for the consumer.

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