Lean manufacturing’s value is all about reducing waste. It’s based on the idea that if you’re not fully and efficiently taking advantage of all your resources, then your production will suffer. And ultimately, these inefficiencies will hurt your competitive stance in the market. By eliminating or, at least, reducing non-value-added activities (“waste”), you can increase customer value.
Created in Japan during the late 20th century and popularized by Toyota with its “Toyota Production System,” the concept of lean manufacturing has long since guided many industries and companies like Intel and Nike. Now, it is time to bring the principles of lean manufacturing to the world of prototyping – more specifically, printed circuit board assembly (PCBA).
What are the characteristics of lean PCBA manufacturing?
Lean PCBA manufacturing is characterized by three unique features: 1) It leverages software automation; 2) it delivers design data; 3) it makes communication transparent. Together, all of these features transform PCBA manufacturing from what has been a rather stagnantly developed field of manufacturing into an efficient, lean production system that cuts waste and increases value to the customer.
To update PCBA manufacturing from its slow, 1980s-era engineering cycle to a modern, efficient, and–yes–lean system, factories need to incorporate emerging technologies including software automation, algorithmic learning, and robotics, which will help engineers dramatically reduce production time and bring their most innovative ideas to market more quickly.
A smart factory that leverages this technology trio can automatically configure, operate, and monitor its prototyping and low-volume PCBA to streamline production processes and give engineers valuable insight into their designs.
What’s stopping most PCBA manufacturers from getting lean?
The key obstacle preventing most manufacturers from using lean principles in their factories is poor communication and machines that are analog and disconnected. This halts the Design-Build-Test (DBT) cycle, ultimately slowing down production and wasting time, which results in decreased value for the customer.
Why does poor, analog communication result in such a bottleneck? With a disconnected PCBA factory, every time an engineer submits their design to the manufacturer, they must wait weeks or even months for their prototypes. These delays can occur for many different reasons. Most commonly, errors result when the information being sent to the manufacturer is lost, misinterpreted, or wrongly changed. Rectifying these errors can then further add to the delay, as resolving questions and relaying information can take several more days. Moreover, engineers are often left in the dark as this process occurs, as communication between engineers and manufacturer is often slow and even nonexistent.
With so much back-and-forth between engineer and manufacturer, time is wasted. But these problems can be mitigated by leveraging lean manufacturing processes; bringing in software automation, learning processes, and robotics to streamline the design, production, and communications processes.
How will going lean help manufacturers and engineers?
With a smart factory that brings together the aforementioned characteristics, manufacturers can exponentially reduce production time to give engineers their boards back in a matter of days so that manufacturers can deliver the boards predictably and confidently on more efficient timelines. For example, San Francisco-based smart factory Tempo Automation has made this accelerated production time possible with its unique software automation that supports a continuous Design-Build-Test (DBT) cycle.
At the heart of this approach, a bidirectional feedback loop automates the flow of information from the engineer’s design to the machines and the people on the connected factory floor. The engineer uploads their design through a secure web portal, through which most of the interaction between the customer and the factory occurs. Before production begins, the system provides a quote to manufacture as well as a design for manufacturability (DFM) study that identifies any issues with the design that could impact the success of the build. Once given the greenlight by the customer, the smart factory provides information on the status of the build as it works its way through production. With this kind of transparent communication, designers and manufacturers can work synergistically throughout this DBT cycle to mitigate error and ensure quality, speed, and accuracy during the PCBA process.
Because they receive their prototypes more expeditiously, engineers can get their products to market faster. This quick turnaround cycle also empowers them to be more experimental and innovative with their designs: If engineers don’t have to wait weeks or even months to see their designs come to fruition, they will find that they have gained more time to experiment with designs that might otherwise be considered too ambitious from a budgetary or bandwidth perspective.
Automation also enables a flexibility of manufacturing that is designed to facilitate increased opportunities for testing and producing. Besides streamlining production time, a smart factory that combines software automation and learning with robotics further aids engineers by giving them valuable design data to provide insight on any potential critical design flaw or engineering issues. This process further cuts back on “waste” by helping engineers tweak their designs while they’re still at the factory instead of waiting weeks or months to repeat another extended cycle with an updated design.
Why manufacturers and engineers need to go lean now
There has never been a more important time for PCBA manufacturing to go lean. In markets like aerospace, medical technology, and industrial electronics, there is increasingly high-pressure demand for engineers to develop boundary-pushing products at a dependable but accelerated pace. Within the current PCBA manufacturing models, engineers are often stifled by long production times and obtuse communication processes.
In order to maintain the pace of innovation and keep up with industry demands, the future of manufacturing must leverage software automation, learning, and robotics to streamline production and give engineers and designers the design data they need to create better iterations of their designs with greater speed. The future and success of modern manufacturing must be lean.
Ryan Saul is Vice President of Manufacturing at Tempo Automation, where he leads production and logistics at the San Francisco smart factory. Previously, Saul was Chief Electrical Engineer at the product development startup, Prototank.