Manufacturers are leading the way as early adopters of the Internet of Things (IOT). Connectivity, constant communication and data sharing are being used to achieve a greater automation of tasks, a more responsive process and greater efficiency throughout.
The consumer market for IoT may hit the news more regularly but behind the scenes the real developments are taking place in manufacturing.
Within Electronic Manufacturing Services (EMS) all types of machinery are already embedded with sensors, switches and intelligent controls to generate data that is collected in real-time, analysed in the cloud and acted on immediately – and often automatically.
But the benefits of IoT do not just stop at the factory floor. Data on the performance of products, the supply of materials and despatch logistics are creating a smart supply chain that stretches from vendor to consumer.
The IoT is here
The IoT is already transforming manufacturing.
- According to the latest IDC data manufacturing is spending $178 billion a year on IoT – and that’s more than twice as much as transportation, the vertical with the second largest spend.
- It is predicted that manufacturing will lead the way in IoT innovation and implementation all the way into 2020 and beyond.
- Research firm BI Intelligence expects the number of connected machines in manufacturing environments to increase four-fold – from the 237 million there were in in 2015 to 923 million in 2020.
Let’s take a look at what the IoT is being used for in the EMS sector.
What the IoT means for EMS
Here are the smart ways that the IoT will transform EMS providers.
Data can be streamed from sales to production, creating an autonomous assembly line that automatically reconfigures itself to produce products in small batches as demand arises.
Productivity can be optimised by communicating data about system health – and machine learning can automatically act on this for plant-wide process control and maintenance.
Systems can be automated to adjust manufacturing sequences and speeds to help balance lines and match production more closely to customer demand.
Smart supply chain
The IoT can facilitate a transparent supply chain. The production-system portal can be accessible beyond the organisation’s boundaries, to allow suppliers to track consumption and quality issues in materials, for example.
IoT sensors and advanced analytics can make it possible to detect even the smallest error or defect during production, giving EMS providers more control over their output.
Currently, most manufacturers address production issues or equipment failures as they arise, but with IoT and machine learning, systems can be automated to intelligently identify and address issues on their own without the need for human intervention.
Early detection of malfunctioning systems – thanks to sensors and connected devices – can help prevent injury to employees who would have otherwise been unaware of the situation.
PCBs, ICs and the IoT
Before we get too transported into a Brave New World, it’s worth considering some of the challenges that the introduction of the IoT may bring.
Not least of these is the need to identify new protocols and standards across the supply chain.
To illustrate this, here’s some news from the frontline of IoT implementation that may serve as a cautionary tale.
The IoT is poised to enable the linking of wafer fab to the printed-circuit board factory.
EMS companies are increasingly manufacturing products with components such as bare die, MEMS, and optical devices, requiring more IC-like assembly equipment, precision placement processes and two-way communication between tools and factory systems.
In many ways this is blurring the distinction among EMS companies, OSATs and foundries.
Paula Doe, of SEMI, recently called for EMS providers to consider adopting the sort of automation standards already used in wafer fabs if they are to succeed in realising the potential of smart manufacturing.
She argued that vendors must collaborate to ensure their production equipment interoperates and supports factory analytics and data management systems.
This is an interesting snapshot of our times, revealing both the gains and challenges that IoT offers.
- Firstly, it reveals how electronics assembly production has advanced beyond ‘board stuffing’ and is now more akin to fabricating ICs.
- Secondly, it shows how production tools’ ability to communicate with each other can really start to blur the traditional boundaries in manufacturing: what once were discrete operations are increasingly being merged and integrated, creating ever greater efficiencies.
- Finally, it shows some of the challenges that the IoT’s introduction can create. With more systems talking to each other throughout the supply chain there is an obvious need for a range of industries to come together and adopt common standards. Without these there is a very real danger that the full benefits of IoT won’t be realised.
For all the opportunities the IoT offers us, it’s just as important to remain aware of the challenges we face in the present as the potential it promises to deliver in the future.