SMART ENGINEERING
Kiss the Mouse Click Goodbye
After 40 years, it’s past time we overhauled our data package processes.
The concept of “smart engineering” has been a major focus of mine these past few years. In the 35 years I have been in the PCB industry, I’ve come to the conclusion we are stuck in a quagmire of unintelligent, unstructured and, frankly, 40-year-old technology of exchanging design data packages. The impact is repetitive, mindless, non-value-add administrative tasks across all facets of the industry. The problem has only been exacerbated with increased technology. All this negatively impacts labor costs, quality and NPI lead times.

Manual and duplicate data entry are the norm, with thousands of keystrokes and mouse clicks performed throughout the process. From quote to pre-CAM, planning methods and CAM, quality checks are abundant. One mistyped character or digit could potentially result in 100% scrap of the product. I’ve watched patiently as many industry proposals for intelligent and structured data packages have come and gone. The waiting has been daunting. We have invested millions of dollars on enhanced software applications for CAM, CAD and engineering to streamline and achieve efficiency and productivity. While these investments and initiatives certainly have improved productivity and cycle times, we are still enveloped in an extensive human-dependent, high-labor-cost operation with extravagant administrative tasks. This has and continues to be our reality.

My passion for consistent and results-oriented continuous improvement motivated a rethinking of the current methodology and defines what I call “smart engineering.” How can we import these unstructured data packages and transform them logically so we have data-driven and amplified automated processes? In essence, how can we attain cohesiveness between the data and software applications engineers use to interact every day. The objective is semiautonomy by focusing on repetitive process automation (RPA), which is catapulted by intelligent database elements.

Technology and software applications exist today that, if integrated and developed appropriately along with a smart process, will be the catalyst to achieve this objective. Industry software applications can autonomously translate, analyze and prepare virtually all data formats used today. Optical character recognition (OCR) can scan, interpret and extract critical information from a fabrication drawing and export it into an XML file, which in turn autonomously populates quote and engineering applications. Specifications and product attributes can drive the CAM pre-production edits. In this scenario engineers are validating and innovating, versus “doing.” Intelligent rules-based software applications perform tasks based on the attributes of the design and related product specifications. Adopting and integrating smart engineering tactics directly impacts the operational performance in which engineering resources are now focused, improving processes and quality that will support business revenue and growth initiatives.

EPIC Front-End Engineering was formed in late 2020, focusing on two fronts. First and foremost, we provide guidance and software development support to PCB frontend engineering with an emphasis on smart engineering. Our primary objectives are helping companies reduce labor costs, improve quality, and enhance productivity and efficiency of engineering resources. Second, we support the industry across all segments, to adopt and integrate intelligent data packages utilizing IPC-2581, which is the catalyst for a giant leap forward for the larger industry.

We are a high-technology industry, building products used in applications that drive the entire world. We are at the cusp of a revolutionary change, as intelligent data package concepts such as IPC-2581 are adopted by large OEMs and CAD software companies. The industry as a whole will reap many benefits. Getting the data package right is the trigger for the I4.0 Smart Factory and, in parallel, smart engineering.

Smart engineering goes beyond a single standard format, of course. In upcoming columns, I will elaborate on smart engineering concepts, with a focus on the benefits and steps we can take today to drive advanced automation within frontend operations.

The future of smart engineering is upon us, and the opportunities are bountiful. Sitting idle is not an option.

Portrait photo of Kent Balius
Kent Balius
is senior consultant at EPIC Front-End Engineering (epicfee.com); kent.balius@epicfee.com. Listen to his PCB Chat podcast on smart engineering at pcbchat.com.