To be totally honest, I'm more of a front-end hardware design engineer. I know that a lot of things go on behind the scenes in order for our designs to be manufactured and transmogrified into real, honest-to-goodness products, but I'm a bit fluffy around the edges when it comes to a lot of the nitty-gritty details. Having said all of this, I was recently introduced to some discontinuities in the PCB manufacturing process that made me gasp in disbelief.
Let me walk you through what I've learned. I would be interested to hear if you are as surprised as I. We start with the concept for a new product and move on to schematic capture and then board layout. At some stage we are the proud owners of a collection of design files (Gerber, Drill, and a bunch of other stuff).
Somewhere in the world is the manufacturing facility we intend to use. On the shop floor where the board fabrication and assembly/population is to take place there are hundreds of incredibly sophisticated machines from different suppliers. Most of these machines aren’t particularly good at talking to each other (paradoxically, this is sometimes due to lack of standards and other times due to too many standards). This is where Mentor's Valor comes into the picture.
Valor facilitates a lean NPI (new product introduction) flow. It starts by ensuring that the design can actually be manufactured, assembled, and tested. If there are any issues, these are fed back to the front-end designers and design tools to be resolved before things go further. (Note that although the above image shows Mentor's Expedition Enterprise as the front-end PCB design suite, you can use PCB tools of your choice.)
The Valor process preparation tools instruct all of the machines on the shop floor how to assemble and test the product. By communicating with all of the different tools from all of the different tool vendors, Valor can track each product down into individual work orders on different machines and also track the product throughout the entire manufacturing process.
Now, all of the above may sound well-and-good, but there is a problem -- a "fly in the soup" as it were. The manufacturing facility will be using some sort of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and Manufacturing Resource Planning (MRP) tools. These tools are in charge of high-level activities and decisions like ensuring that all of the materials (including components like resistors, capacitors, integrated circuits, connectors, and so forth) are available when we need them, and that these materials are where they are supposed to be when we want them to be there.
Unfortunately (and almost unbelievably to me), it seems that -- until now -- there has been an almost complete disconnect between the ERP/MRP systems and the machines on the shop floor. Of course, there have been warehouse management systems in one form or another since the days of the Ford Model T. The problem with producing electronic products is that they are just so complex. There can be thousands of parts on a board (some of them are little larger than dust particles) and the machines are working at a blur. Having said this, the boards can spend a lot of time moving from station-to-station, so it may take quite a while (perhaps days, or even weeks in extreme cases) before an individual board emerges at the end of the process. Traditionally, this is the time when the systems on the shop floor re-synchronize with the ERP/MRP systems -- until that point, the ERP/MRP systems have no clue as to the locations of the materials on the shop floor. (Are the materials waiting to be used? Are they already on boards? How many have been scrapped?)
The main reason for machines being stopped and sitting idle is waiting for materials. A key contributor to this is inventory inaccuracy between the ERP/MPR systems and the shop floor. Wastage and scrap mounts very quickly, but without accurate feedback to the ERP/MRP systems, they end up making decisions based on their incorrect understanding of the situation. A common solution is for the people in the trenches to bloat the stocks of materials on the shop floor in a desperate attempt to ensure the machines don’t stop, but this becomes a major cost in assembly.
In order to address this disconnect, the folks at Mentor have enhanced the Valor solution with the Valor Information Highway and the Valor Warehouse Management products. These two supply-chain-focused tools enhance Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) effectiveness and assist electronics manufacturers in reducing material costs.
It's important to note that these additions to Valor are in no way intended to replace anything to do with the existing ERP/MRP systems -- they are simply (and I use this word advisedly) linking these systems to the shop floor so they have an accurate, real-time view of the materials situation.
To be honest, I'm still reeling from the fact that -- until now -- there hasn’t been a solution for this type of thing. Materials accuracy is a critical factor in PCB assembly operation, since materials make up the bulk of manufacturing costs. If materials are 80 percent of the manufactured product, eliminating the 50 percent average excess material stock at 8 percent investment will contribute an additional 11 percent gross operational profit. As soon as manufacturers see numbers like these, I expect them to be pounding on Mentor's door clamoring for access to these products.
Speaking of which, the Valor Information Highway and the Valor Warehouse Management products will be available in the first quarter of 2014. (Click here for more information on these new products.)