The scope of Industry 4.0 is so broad that in order to succeed, electronics manufacturers must concentrate on areas of expertise rather than master all new technologies. Otherwise, the industry could be mired in a sea of connected industrial processes.
At the same time, this complexity opens doors for atypical partnerships that can enhance new product development and revenue growth. Flex, a $26.3 billion electronics design and manufacturing (EMS) business, envisions its role as both a services provider and strategic matchmaker. Industry 4.0 is an ecosystem depending on numerous partners leveraging their expertise.
Enabling technologies -- AR/VR, M2M communication, 3D manufacturing, autonomy, simulation, cybersecurity, Big Data and the cloud – are vast. To refine its role in digital transformation, Flex has narrowed its technology strategy to six key pillars, said Hassan Aluraibi, advanced manufacturing engineer for Flex. The company’s focus is enhancing its global manufacturing processes and delivering customer solutions in these critical areas.
Flex’s 4.0 priorities are M2M communication; smart automation and robotics; augmented reality; 3D manufacturing; simulation and visualization and business intelligence.
“If you ask 10 people ‘what is Industry 4.0?’ you’ll get 10 different answers,” said Aluraibi. “Our role is to determine ‘what does it mean to Flex?’ We offer manufacturing services, but we don’t always own the product; we also offer product design and a variety of a la carte services. The blanket [Industry 4.0] term wasn’t going to work for us.”
Flex won’t be able to solve problems associated with emerging technologies, but it will help accelerate their development. More importantly, the EMS will provide new opportunities for its customers.
“We did a lot of discussing and soul searching and decided to focus our vision on what we consider to be the key technology enablers,” Aluraibi said. “Sometimes customers will come in and say, ‘I need all this stuff.’ Our job is to help them put it together.”
Within the company's four walls, technology enhances productivity. “Like most manufacturers (and depending on the situation), downtime can cost thousands of dollars in productivity, production time, and machine maintenance, and strain our manufacturing operations," Aluraibi explained. "Today, in some cases, we are reactive in managing downtime and other unforeseen production related issues, but as we build out the smart factory, enhanced flexibility with production lines will allow us to proactively manage problems, even before they arise.”
Flex’s six pillars
- M2M communication
Most manufacturing operations run on a mishmash of legacy equipment and state-of-the-art machines. Digital manufacturing requires equipment to communicate and exchange data for use in project planning, operations monitoring or flagging necessary repair.
“We can start analyzing data and develop learning models connecting factories and their data,” Aluraibi said. Flex envisions connecting all equipment regardless of its age.
Retrofitting may be one solution. “The goal is to establish a communication backbone so no matter what the machine, we will be able to connect it,” said Aluraibi. “New equipment makes it easy, but we have to consider legacy equipment.”
- Smart automation and robotics
Automated machines excel at completing repetitive tasks. But the lifespan of such equipment is shrinking as new manufacturing methods come online. Making these machines “smart” could extend their useful life, Aluraibi said.
“If we start infusing machines with more sensors, more data or more software, our hope is the equipment won’t have just one purpose. We can reconfigure them quickly. Industrial equipment is designed to last, so we should make use of it for as many hours as possible.”
Smart factories – valued at $75 billion in 2018 -- will grow at a CAGR of over 10 percent from 2019 to 2025, according to Global Market Insights.
- Augmented reality (AR)
In sprawling factory operations, pinpointing a problem is often limited by what operators can see. Once a factory is digital, “data allows us to see things that aren’t there,” Aluraibi said.
“AR also breaks down physical barriers and allows users and machines to work collectively. Once you connect people and the systems you can minimize disruption, repair and downtime.”
- 3D manufacturing
Design and manufacturing teams often have conflicting visions on how a product should be built. 3D manufacturing narrows that gap, providing instant prototypes and models. “For Flex, there’s a lot of value in customers seeing their designs as they are being built,” said Aluraibi.
Additive manufacturing – also referred to as 3D-- provides an almost limitless approach for design teams. Engineers can see every element that is incorporated into their product. As the product is developed, 3D also creates a digital repository for every step in the process. Design changes can be quickly incorporated, and a new 3D model built.
The global 3D printing market, valued at $8.08 billion in 2017, is projected to reach $49.74 billion by 2025, Verified Market Research reported.
- Simulation and visualization
In the digital manufacturing world, a digital twin is created as a product moves through production. Processes and devices can be reviewed and tested in a variety of simulated environments.
“At almost any stage in the cycle we can simulate our own manufacturing line or run scenarios if a customer wants to visualize their product’s development,” Aluraibi explained. “If we are bidding on a job, we can provide simulated versions of products. It’s a low-cost investment for customers to see what they’re building.”
- Business intelligence
Data is currency in Industry 4.0, and EMS companies are in a perfect position to capitalize on it. Data aggregated from a prototype-run can pinpoint cost-savings opportunities or potential problems. Information can then be displayed in different formats.
“You’re not just putting product development on a flow chart – you can show organizations what works and what doesn’t,” Aluraibi said. Upper management can make better decisions.”
Digital transformation is about providing value at every step in the manufacturing pipeline, he added.
To manage that, Flex -- which runs about 100 global operations -- is partnering with businesses in the cloud, robotics and process innovators. “We have to remind ourselves of the business we are in,” Aluraibi said “We must pick and choose what is useful to us. Some of these technologies are areas of great growth; others can be left to develop organically.
“It’s a unique position,” he concluded.