Features Articles

Clive Ashmore

Getting machines to talk to each other enhances output and yields.

It’s common sense, really, and probably one of the most familiar sayings of mankind: Communication is key. Good communication is central to productive relationships, effective business strategy … just about everything, honestly. It’s not just communication, however, but communication quality and transparency that result in informed decision-making. This is especially true in the manufacturing setting and is the basis for Industry 4.0. Machines have been cranking out data for decades, but applying them in a meaningful way is, at the core, what Industry 4.0 is all about. Until recently, however, data exchange was largely supplier-specific; proprietary equipment system software could manage tasks rather seamlessly, but communication among disparate equipment brands in relation to PCB movement and traceability was challenging. The IPC-SMEMA-9851 standard provides a solid foundation and is still successfully employed, yet enhancements are required to progress toward a nimbler, automation-friendly solution that permits open and uniform machine-to-machine communication.

How it started. While several stencil printer platforms and everything within their respective ecosystems – board handling equipment, SPI and closed-loop feedback tools – are data rich, self-correcting and optimized for the printing operation, the data generated by printers relating to the PCB characteristics must be passed down the line. That, of course, means the data must be vendor-neutral. Moving beyond simple board recognition from one system to the next, true traceability is required for smart factory effectiveness. Consequently, the Hermes Standard Initiative (IPC-HERMES-9852) was born as the result of more than a dozen equipment vendors unifying behind the cause for an improved open communication protocol, which speaks volumes for the requirement and the customer desire for such a solution. By simplifying the transfer of PCB data between machines regardless of supplier, efficiency and productivity improvement are a given. And, with scalability options, board data can be customized so that when the PCB is passed from, say, the printer to the placement machine, each machine is compelled to recognize the data set, potentially add to it, and transfer that record through the assembly line, making for a more holistic view of the PCB. In fact, these data represent the digital twin of the physical PCB, and Hermes transports the PCB and its digital twin consistently down the SMT line. Integrating Hermes with IPC’s Connected Factory Exchange (CFX) standard broadens this line efficiency and communication transparency to the factory, while other MES systems can extend that to the global enterprise.

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Bob Willis

Gold boards are susceptible to the defect.

This month we look at solder spotting, which is often seen after first- or double-sided reflow, most commonly on gold boards. The two examples below illustrate what happens. FIGURE 1a shows two spots on a nickel/gold pad, and FIGURE 1b shows one spot on a copper OSP pad finish.




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Alun Morgan

Stronger, faster and more robust networks will be one of the positive legacies of the pandemic.

Hopefully, we will soon be able to start living our post-Covid-19 lives. Going forward, some of us want fundamental changes. Others are keen to return to the way things were. Although we will be pleased to put this situation behind us, some things are here to stay. One, obviously, is the lethal group of coronaviruses that will surely continue to take lives after lockdown (we hope at a greatly reduced rate). Another, I believe, is the tendency for many of us to continue working from home (WFH) to a much greater extent than before.

WFH has been one of the headline trends of this crisis. Although clearly not to everyone’s taste, it could turn into a revolution founded on the internet technologies that allow us to meet with colleagues online, access data and tools remotely, and benefit from high connection speeds wherever we are – wired or wireless. That so many can do meaningful work this way also reflects the soft nature of many tasks associated with getting things done in developed economies. These soft deliverables liberate us from location and will be critical to our economic survival of this pandemic.

Many are keen to recover the social dimension to our working lives. While physically working together in the same space and time to achieve shared goals is a powerful part of team building and cohesion, we can also take advantage of the flexibility to ease some of the more stressful aspects, such as traveling and being away from loved ones.  

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Susan Mucha

It’s a drink from an educational firehose, but the lessons will pay off.

Many will disagree with this column’s title this month, especially supply-chain professionals working 24/7 to address a market with varying material constraints, continual logistics challenges and unforecasted demand spikes. That said, over the past few years the electronics manufacturing (EMS) industry has had a changing of the guard. While some replacements are veterans of the last round of market constraints, most haven’t seen the perfect storm that 2021 represents. The lessons learned this year will create invaluable experience for this next generation of leadership. Here are a few examples:

Information technology. Over the past decade, even small EMS companies have upgraded their IT capabilities to provide real-time visibility into most of their critical metrics. However, while an exception-based real-time system is wonderful in situations where exceptions happen in relatively low volumes, it creates information overload when it is identifying hundreds of exceptions in a month. The current market challenges are driving management teams to analyze what data they need to prioritize and how that data can be best formatted to help them stay ahead of shortages or capacity constraints. This will broaden the use of time-saving apps and create management teams with a better understanding of systems strategy strengths and weaknesses.

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Peter Bigelow

Communications interfaces rely on handshakes, but software and simplicity no longer go hand-in-hand.

“Plug-and-play” seems a simple, efficient concept, a beautiful merger of elegant design and high technology. What happened to it?

I forget exactly when I first heard the term plug-and-play, but it was sometime back in the late 1980s. As I recall, consumer electronics had something to do with it – perhaps a VCR player that connected to a TV. Or possibly it was tied to early personal computers, where the various accessories could be mixed and matched, so any brand of monitor, printer or keyboard could be added interchangeably to the system. Wherever the phrase came from, the meaning was universal: You could replace one part of a system with a new or different component, and the system would operate without a hitch.

In business the term seemed to morph in two directions. In administrative office environments, the term was associated with updates or upgrades to software. Transitioning spreadsheet software such as Lotus 1-2-3 to, say, Quattro Pro was seamless, thanks to the elegant design of similar operating commands. Just upload the new software onto your computer and begin using it. Meanwhile, on the manufacturing floor, a new piece of capital equipment could be dropped into the process flow and hooked up, and it fit seamlessly with the existing machines. Voila! New replaced old. Simple, easy, painless.

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Mike Buetow

Munitions are cool again.

Well, maybe they always were. But the emphasis by North American manufacturers on procuring defense contracts has perhaps never been greater.

In the throes of the dotcom meltdown of late 2001 to early 2003, when China and Taiwan hoovered up the vast majority of the Western PCB market, forcing those hardy remaining souls to repurpose their business plans, the Pentagon became an unwitting savior. Manufacturer after manufacturer pivoted from the “3Cs” (computers, communications, consumer) to CET&I (military communications, electronics, telecommunications, and intelligence technologies). They eschewed past complaints of onerous red tape and sprung for the certifications to elbow their way into the Pentagon supply chain.

There wasn’t much choice at the time. It was military or bust.

Going back to 2001, the United States made about 45% of the world’s electronics equipment. Defense and related high-rel sales made up less than 10% of the US domestic fabrication market, which at the time was coming off a record year at around $11 billion in production output spread across 650 or so facilities.

We all know what happened.

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