Sometimes going backwards is the best way to move forward!
Industry 4.0, AI and CircuitData
This article written by our CTO, Andreas Lydersen was first published in the PCB Magazine.
In Norway, a recent survey showed that 1 out of 7 engineers thought that their job could be done by artificial intelligence (AI) within 10 years. If we look at the engineers in the business we’re in, I would say it’s fair to assume that the numbers are even higher and that it will happen faster. But that will be nothing compared to what will happen to the rest of the players in the supply chain. To explain why we need to look at the underlying needs that drive the supply chain itself:
Automation vs humans
As automation eats its way into the shop floors, a fact long acknowledged and embraced, it still struggles to replace humans in the supporting roles like designers, purchasers, brokers, back office staff etc. Because where automation on the shop floor replaces humans in doing repetitive manual tasks, the supporting roles (at least some of them) requires intelligence – to understand and utilize information.
Even as tech-savvy as our industry is, it still builds upon old technology (Just a quick look at the expressions still used confirms this; like screens and stencils) and the human brain is great at making sense out of unstructured information. Some tasks are slowly being taken over by machines, but not particularly intelligent ones.
Like ERP systems that are atomizing procurement and doing push and pull requests on deliveries or predicts needs and place orders.
The 50-year-old legacy
The PCB industry has a different challenge than e.g. the components they will hold: They have to be manufactured, and they carry the legacy of more than 50 years of development and language. To reach a point where it can be manufactured, PCBs depends on people understanding them, comparing them with their generic requirements, finding partners for assembly or manufacturing them, and then disclose all off this these partners. Add to that the secrecy needed and the different formats used, and humans are pretty much your only option, for now.
This is where Artificial Intelligence comes into play. This universe of formats, languages, dialects, and expressions is complex but still operates within a set of rules. As AI slowly learns these rules, it helps humans out making sense of it. Gradually, as the intelligence expands, it replaces humans altogether. Integr8tor by Ucamco is an example of this. Although it could be argued that this is not actual intelligence – just a set of algorithms and code – it replaces humans in building understanding. There are a number of other examples of software that does the same thing or performs related tasks, there will be more and they will become better. They won’t take your job though, they will simply allow you to be more efficient. In order for them to replace humans, they need to step it up and integrate with other systems, and the confidence in them needs to grow.
Again – this will happen, and hundreds of developers are already working on it.
In this chaos of formats, languages, and dialects, AI is not the only path to choose, and it is not an “all or nothing” choice. CircuitData is an open source project that uses standardization to replace brain power.
A substantial challenge
My colleague Jan Pedersen, Senior Technical Advisor, has more than 40+ years in the industry of Printed Circuits, receiving each week numerous files with manufacturing data. The pattern is quite repetitive, and not in a good way. There is one substantial challenge that keeps coming back: insufficient – or even totally wrong – Article Specifications.
When he receives manufacturing data from 10 customers, he often gets 10 different ways to present and explain what’s asked for.
Tolerances are expressed differently. Fabrication Drawings are explained differently. Solder mask is called green mask or even green oil. A component notation is called legend, silk-screen, silk layer or something else.
We can live with a different word, but not a missing requirement!
At Elmatica we have decided to challenge the world and make this issue better. We have started to create a standard PCB specification, a new language to share information. We offer this new standard – or language – as an open source to the PCB industry. It is free of charge and will be a valuable source of information, for any PCB designer, user or not.
A language in addition to, not instead of…
So what does it do? To begin with, it aims to be a supplement to the files that are currently sent, such as Gerbers, ODB++ and IPC-2581, so that all aspects of the manufacturing not provided is answered. As the standard evolves, we want it to replace the need for transmitting the files throughout the supply chain. This can be done by providing the different parties with only the information they need, and leave the exchanging of files to the first and last part of a set supply chain – the OEM and the manufacturer.
But, as all free, and community-driven projects the value of the language increases simultaneously, as the number of contributors and users rises. It needs to be developed, maintained and fueled like an old and beloved sports car.
Because, communicating PCB specifications is a dialog, not a monolog. It requires several pieces of information to come together so that all the facts are presented – correctly. But, the specifications are just part of what is needed, they need to fit with profiles (requirements) and capabilities.
How to use the format?
To use the format, you start out by reading the documentation. Then you prepare your internal systems to be able to both send and receive this kind of information. Over time, we believe that there will be several systems available that will help you utilize the format.
Another way to use the language is to specify profiles. Profiles are meant to replace the current way of exchanging PDFs with “requirements”. The current method involves writing down in your own words the defaults, “do’s” and “dont’s” that every part of the supply chain needs to know. With this format, you can set your requirements in a machine-readable format that ensures compliance.
The third way of using this is to specify a capability. This allows you to send out a set of manufacturing capabilities to your clients. The goal is to minimize the number of RFQs that are sent out to non-capable suppliers, to benefit both the suppliers and the clients.
The strict teacher
So, what does the language consist of? To make it more easy to understand, we can divide it into three parts: The Dictionary – which is the words, The Syntax which is the grammar and the Schema which is the strict teacher.
At this point, and thinking of automation and AI, you might wonder: What’s in it for me? Because in the end, that’s everyone’s main concern.
What’s in it for me?
Let me briefly give you some thoughts on this.
You would get a computer readable PCB Specification, a language, and tools that you easily can link with your existing software.
Files can be added on-the-go from design, through OEM, EMS, Broker to PCB factory but seamlessly fit together. It is all community driven – we would all “own” it together. A common language – developed and maintained by the industry.
There would be no need for PDFs or other spec files that must be re-typed manually. It can easily be imported into existing ERP systems – in your own language! The best part and my favorite is that it would save us all for lots of time and money. And, we would avoid issues late in the supply chain.
Sounds like something you are used to seeing in futuristic movies, where robots take over systems and make the world better? It’s not.
Automation will keep on happening, driven by standardization and AI. It is the obvious choice in a supply chain where people are the most expensive asset. As companies are finding their place in this new ecosystem, I’m sure that we will see both companies and software have great rises and massive falls. The focus needs to stay outwards – how am I contributing to a better supply chain? Are our products making life less complicated for whoever receives it? Self-centred companies will lose out in the long run.
Technology changes everything
So, what does Industry 4.0 have to do with all this? The fourth industrial revolution is about computers talking to computers. As they are simply better than us to keep track of products through the flow of a supply chain, they can automate processes between partners. This allows orders to be made and rescheduled, needs to be analyzed and reacted upon, whole production processes to speed up or slow down. In the PCB industry, this means that the goal is to be an interconnected part of the supply chain. Fabricators will have to adjust their shop floor setup automatically based on customer needs and focus on robotics beyond each station on the floor. Product owners must understand that the old approach of product lifecycle management is a thing of the past – there will be no traditional path from prototype to volume. The agile players in this industry will realize that by focusing two ways; outwards to their partner and inwards to each product and what is to its best interest – they are contributing to a successful supply chain. The traditional game of margins is a losing game. The new game is making your contribution count in an industry where products never move out of prototype.
Technology changes everything and often exponentially. Both AI and standardization projects like CircuitData has amazing potential to contribute, but are not goals in themselves. The goal is to work smarter, have less impact on the environment and moving in tune with demand. In my mind, this is Industry 4.0.