Peter Bigelow
What happens when manufacturing depends more on software than hardware?

As I get older I am ever more amazed at sudden change, especially when it takes only 20 years to happen.

Change, as they say, is the only true constant, something we all must deal with in our day-to-day businesses. Some change is for the better, some not so much.

Sudden change is the type that leaves you speechless – those “aha” moments that come but only occasionally – and ushers in a new paradigm that makes you
really rethink how things are done.

But not all sudden change is, well, sudden. I have been walking manufacturing shop floors for literally decades. At different stages of my career that shop floor time has included being involved in the introduction of cutting-edge technology. Some of that technology involved state-of-the-art capital equipment designed to perform tasks faster, more accurately and with higher yield throughput than anyone could have previously imagined. More recently, that cutting-edge technology has been the product of tried-and-true capital equipment and processes that, managed and operated by amazingly ingenious, highly talented people, are consistently producing cutting- if not bleeding-edge product. It is in this latter scenario that sudden change has finally arrived.

The sudden change of which I speak is the transition of manufacturing facilities that historically required discrete cameras, etchers, plating tanks and processes, drill machines, lamination presses, developers, scrubbers, routers, and various test and verification equipment to produce quality product, on time and cost-effectively, to manufacturing facilities of the “future” that demand all that stuff be connected to a server, talking to each other via computerized – and secure – intranets.   

I know none of this is new. The Internet became mainstream 20 years ago. E-commerce quickly followed, along with a slew of consumer-oriented, social media enriched “touch point” opportunities that we children of the digital age flocked to with zeal and lust. At first it was how small a phone could we get? Then, how smart a phone could we get? And finally, how big and smart a phone could we manage? These technologies became “must haves” in our personal lives but seemingly useless on the dated shop floors where we work.

But isn’t that what makes change sometimes seem so sudden? We take advantage of intelligent, handheld connectivity technology for fun, while not visualizing that same technology in place where we spend most of our time: work. Let’s face it. The shop floor of most fabricators is filled with 20-year-old equipment designed 10 years prior to that, which today is still operating as it produces product unimaginable to those who designed or built that same equipment. That flexible transition over decades was made possible in no small part because each piece of equipment is a standalone, electromechanical marvel. But those times have changed!

The capital equipment coming online in our shops today is a different breed. It covers less real estate; has far greater built-in flexibility due to computer processing capabilities that simply were not economically feasible in decades past; and boasts firmware and software written to be operated and manipulated by anyone on the shop floor, not just a skilled programmer. To fully utilize all the power, flexibility and convenience that today’s capital equipment can provide, however, it must be connected through a server and related intranet. And therein the challenges arise.

Industry practice is using standalone, electromechanical machines to produce state-of-the-art product. Our facilities, training and skillsets are more than comfortable with discrete equipment. However, our future success will depend on how well we can transition to the new paradigm of connected equipment throughout our manufacturing facilities and with the capabilities to effectively connect our shop floor equipment to our customers and suppliers.

Of the challenges this shift brings, none is more daunting than the realization that software and its communications platform, not hardware, may be the single most important key to completive advantage. The loss of a single server could jeopardize a company’s ability to manufacture product. A sudden power surge could wipe out the software that enables a piece of equipment to function. And the need to take advantage of the latest software may make a machine’s lifespan much shorter than that of the generation it replaces.

So the sudden part of this change is that the world of disposable electronic devices has finally reached the shop floor. To do our jobs we require the latest software technology, as well as nuts-and-bolts equipment. Machines will need to talk to each other, so the weakest link in your manufacturing chain may indeed be an old, dying desktop computer or server with no additional capacity. Employees will need to learn new skills based on software and programming workarounds, rather than understanding etch or shrink factors. It took 20 years, but sudden change is here.

Now for the scary news. Even after all that our industry has been through over these past 20 years or so, we may have another (perhaps final) shakeout of companies ahead of us. Companies that do not, will not or cannot invest in the next generation of technology – including all the soft costs of retraining staff and hiring people with newly needed talents – may well not be here in a few short years. And as poetic justice would have it, for those companies that founder, it will be only after their tried-and-true, freestanding electromechanical equipment of choice finally dies.

Sudden change may not be sudden and may take decades to take place right under your nose, but it nevertheless is change. The next generation of printed circuit board companies will need to choose their equipment wisely and will need to be even wiser with those they hire to operate that new equipment. This much is certain: We all must embrace the world of connectivity, servers, software and all that goes with it if we are going to be successful in the new manufacturing world that is unfolding.

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI (; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. His column appears monthly.

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