Onshoring has been a trend in electronics manufacturing in the west for some time. A common perception is that labour costs are still high in Europe, and that a high level of automation is the key to being competitive. We are all influenced by images that often accompany TV reports into the national manufacturing sector, which so often depict impressively robotised equipment executing pre-programmed tasks with relentless efficiency.
The ultimate in automation is lights-out manufacturing, which conjures an attractive vision of a future requiring zero human intervention and giving freedom to manage the gritty business of making things from a more pleasant location – like a cafe or golf course! Of course, investing in the right automation is crucial to remaining competitive. But it’s a fact that building electronics requires a huge amount of human input both before and after the high-speed surface-mount lines have played their part. Actually, this is true in any manufacturing location worldwide, whether labour costs are high or otherwise.
At Active, we provide New Product Introduction services as well as building production assemblies typically up to medium volumes. The projects often involve using advanced components and assembly processes, and satisfying complex regulatory demands. We start with diligent planning that includes assessing all parts on the original Bill Of Materials to identify any that demand special knowledge or handling. This can be as simple as verifying availability from suppliers or checking storage requirements, or some may call for new customer-specific procedures to be put in place. This type of attention to detail is vital to ensure product compliance and, ultimately, performance and reliability in the field. Our feedback report gives each customer a clear insight to the build, and helps identify any aspects that may need to be changed or improved.
We have recently worked with a customer in the automotive sector, to build a board that includes a mix of technologies, and a wide range of component package types and sizes. The nature of the board presents significant challenges to assembly and inspection. We have been able to overcome these challenges, to become the first manufacturer capable of building the board to the customer’s specification. The keys to success have been our careful setup of the assembly processes and optimisation of the test strategy, blending automatic test and inspection with a small number of important procedures performed by experienced operators. The fact that we have been able to do this, while others have failed, proves that successful manufacturing is about more than simply pushing a button to start an SMT Line.
The efficiency improvement brought by automation is important for high-tech manufacturers, but is only one of the factors behind the current success of onshoring.