The manufacturing industry is seeing a turning-point in its growth and development, moving from decades-old operational processes to new implementations of IoT and connected technology such as smart robotics and industrial systems. A report from Statista reports that the smart manufacturing market is expected to grow to approximately $480 billion USD by 2023, from just a few hundred billion in 2018. As more systems become connected, the industrial and manufacturing industries, as well as the whole supply chain, must continue to mature to give manufacturers a set of tools for optimizing and increasing efficiencies in their connected factories that help them compete in the market and ultimately enable greater innovation.
At the heart of these industrial connected systems is the technology that comprises their infrastructure, networks and other key components. Currently, many factories and industrial settings are focused on optimizing data and networks for increasing operational efficiencies—this includes trends like the growing implementation of IT/OT to converge IT systems with the operational (OT) systems. But in order to drive continued change and growth, manufacturers should consider a software-based approach: streamlining their factories to use software to control systems and provide valuable data analytics while at the same time learning from that data to continuously improve. Software also helps fill knowledge-gaps between personnel working in the factory—from those working in QA/QC on the factory floor up to senior-level management.
In the traditional manufacturing process, particularly in the electronics industry, the process is slow, opaque, and low-quality. This is due in part to the fact that the machines and people are all analog and disconnected, making the factories islands of isolated technology. Without any kind of industrial internet of things (IIoT) or software-based systems, these factories are unable to provide engineers with insight into the outcome of their designs prior to manufacture. A smart factory that implements software in its operations, on the other hand, can automatically configure, operate, and monitor its various control systems – from intake to assembly and dispatch.
The Tempo Automation factory operates in this capacity. We’ve created a printed circuit board assembly (PCBA) smart factory that runs on a “digital thread”—connecting customer engagement, order processing, parts sourcing, factory operations, and shipment of finished PCBAs, building and delivering high complexity printed circuit board assemblies in days instead of the weeks that customers are accustomed to waiting. The Tempo model leverages software on both the back-end of our connected factory platform as well as the user front-end for quoting and ordering. We believe that this level of automation and software intelligence puts us in the unique position of being able to create an unbroken data flow, providing our customers with valuable design and manufacturing feedback.
Besides facilitating transparent communication between designers and manufacturers, a connected IIoT network managed by a software platform also streamlines operations. 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 connected data can give engineers insight into how the factory is operating, which they can then use to optimize the engineering process.
Robotics and other factory-floor systems run on software designed to make them fully self-functioning, but the role of human expertise should not be dismissed in the future of smart manufacturing. There are still gaps between what software can learn and output in a system, such as a robotic arm that assembles a specific part. A level of human oversight is still needed, particularly in situations such as QA/QC that require a secondary pair of eyes and assessment.
At its core, software fills the communication gap between designer and manufacturer by automating the flow of information from the engineer’s design to the machines and the people on the connected factory floor in a continuous cycle of design, build, and test.
In order to ensure the continued growth of manufacturing and the evolution to smart factories, manufacturers should consider moving to a software-first approach in order to realize the true potential of business insight and improvements that it can bring. Only after mass-adoption will we begin to see meaningful change in how factories and manufacturing of the future operate and evolve.
Jeff McAlvay is Co-founder and CEO of Tempo Automation.