Smart Factories Are Smart With Their Components; Are You?

richard_booth.jpgSince the beginning of PCB assembly automation, the focus for manufacturing companies has been to increase production and ultimately reduce costs to become competitive to vendors. This focus has predominantly fallen onto SMT and THT production equipment. New technologies have been released by leading capital equipment companies to increase throughput and technical capabilities in all stages of PCB assembly. This is becoming increasingly important as the move towards a lights-out or smart factory continues to build momentum. This ideal has put a spotlight on improving all activities and processes within a manufacturing site. However, this goal can only be only achieved with significant improvements across all areas of the manufacturing process.

In this column, I will focus on why companies are being smart with their component management, what is available now, and what we should all be aiming for moving forward.

Human Error: Will You Risk It?

Have you ever been in a situation where your production has stopped because you do not have the correct component? How about a significant unknown shortage in your stockroom that cannot be explained by production or the store’s team? Maybe you have been in the difficult situation of trying to explain that the lead time of a product has increased to your end customer? To put this another way, do you feel confident that you have an entirely accurate understanding of the components that are on site today?

For many, the answer is no. No, they don’t have a comprehensive view of what is in stock. No, they don’t have a system that automatically orders components that are running low or required by future production runs. No, they don’t have an automatic stock checking system that directly communicates to their MES. No, they don’t have individual 3D barcodes on components to increase product traceability throughout their lifecycle. The list of negatives goes on.

The typical scenario for many companies who have not begun the improvement journey is as follows. There is a large storage area lined with shelving units and filled with unknown amounts of components, which all take up a significant amount of space. An order is received, and the purchasing team looks at the order and understands what components are required to fulfil it. Next, the supply chain is contacted, and parts are delivered to “goods in.” Goods in accepts the parts, manually books them into their management system, and physically carries the parts to their individual storage locations. Production confirms it requires parts to start assembly, and components are then picked from different locations, checked out of their management system, and sent to production to be populated. Any remaining parts are sent back to goods in, counted, checked in, entered into the management system, and stored until required again—a very long and laborious process.

This outdated process has many issues predominantly because it is a manual process with inevitable human error. Some of the main issues of this process include:

  • It requires high levels of care, but is carried out manually, which increases the risk of human error; for example, a reading error of a single part number across any of the procedures can cause significant problems, and companies run the risk of higher costs further down the line due to mistakes
  • It requires a large amount of human intervention, which is costly; for example, at each stage, an operator is required to communicate with the management system and enter data
  • It is repetitive and takes time, and the time taken to manually count component numbers of used reels returning from production, for example, can be considerable; implementing modern production techniques will free up valuable labour time and ultimately increase output

What Should We Aim For?

Let’s look at the process in a different way. An order comes in, the MES system accepts it automatically, and crosschecks with the production and store database to analyse both the schedule and the available parts in the store. The MES automatically places orders to the supply chain for the required components, which are subsequently delivered. At the same time, the product is programmed into the production schedule with innovative planning software. Operators are alerted to an optimum monthly production plan to meet deadlines and minimize feeder and product changeovers.

Parts arrive and are scanned by a component counter with MES communication and 3D barcode labelling. This contains all of the required information (part number, location, product, expiry, etc.) and is checked off the order list. An assistant robot transports the required components to production ready for production. Once production has taken place on a job, the parts component information is automatically updated, and any remaining components are stored and relabelled for later use.


Figure 1: An algorithm is used to correct counts that might otherwise be wrong. The unit has machine learning, and its capacity continually increases.

This automated process has many advantages:

  • It is significantly less labour intensive with the added benefit of the software acting like an information gatekeeper which reduces the risk of human error and stops costly mistakes
  • It results in accurate component traceability
  • It is quick, which helps to achieve higher output and a reduction in working hours
  • Components are stored, relabelled, and ready for the next job


Figure 2: Through the use of an automated component counter, output increases. The integrated software helps reduce human error.

What is Available Now?

All of the elements that make up the perfect component counting model are on the market, and those in the know are already implementing them. MES and software companies can provide custom solutions with most manufacturers already using some level of capability. Less common, but gaining recognition, are a range of X-ray component counting units—the best of which have AI capability for increasing ongoing performance and can scan a variety of different component types in one unit.


Figure 3: Innovative software highlights and explains the graphic user interface using visual indicators.

As for storage towers, endless companies have identified the floorspace issue on their site and moved to this technology. One of the key drivers is to utilize very expensive square footage and make space for entire new production lines by investment in an all-encompassing piece of equipment.

Component management technology can be integrated into all sizes of production and at varying levels, resulting in significant savings in the manufacturing process. Component management forms a fundamental cog in production and is vital to the Industry 4.0 concept. With a variety of innovative systems already on the market, the path to a smart factory ideal is already there to follow.

Richard Booth is the managing director to the Altus Group Companies including Altus Group Ltd and both Danutek Kft/Srl, an electronics production equipment distribution partner in seven territories across Europe. To read past columns or contact Altus Group, click here.



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