From the Age of Exploration to today's satellite pictures, logic tells us that the world is round. But for a business model of the electronics assembly, industry in this Age of Information, Columbus had it all wrong. Just as the early mapmakers claimed, the world if flat, with dragons lurking at every corner.
The process began in the 1980s, when downsized, 'flat organisations' became the industry watchword, changing both the shape and the role of organisations beyond recognition. The effectiveness of vertically integrated businesses declined as new models based on horizontal linkages soared. These increasingly flat, less hierarchical organisations in turn spawned 'flat value chains,' arguably the watchword of this decade.
The flat value chain is a sensible extension of the leanness, productivity, performance and profitability initiatives that precipitated the earlier business transformation. In the new environment, nimble, focused specialists who are adept at forging alliances and shaping 'virtual corporations' are the ones who will best be able to provide timely, affordable solutions to tomorrow's technology problems.
Meanwhile, the twin dragons on the map of the electronics assembly industry - the maturation of the SMT process and the global economic model - continue to combine to exert unprecedented cost reduction pressures on every element of the value chain. Given this world-view, identification and focus on specialist expertise and core competence has become more significant than ever before.
Against this backdrop, the full speed growth of electronics manufacturing outsourcing and the ever-widening scope of the EMS sector is therefore a logical development. Companies once known as contract manufacturers, where excess capacity was offloaded, have now become broad-based service providers, assuming responsibility for production, design, distribution, order taking and service.
Along with broader scope comes greater influence in the marketplace. The EMS sector dominates the business-driven requirements of the PCBA marketplace. These include advanced technology as a given and, above and beyond that, a strong focus on support, training, process expertise and issues of utilisation and yield.
Process-related requirements for electronics assembly also start with a given: in this case, speed. Why? Time is (still) money. Faster development cycles, faster times to market and, above all, faster production are critical to increased productivity, profitability and corporate survival. But speed alone is not a solution; increased process control is the other critical element in this higher performance/lower selling price = higher profit conundrum equation.
At the same time, accountability (and in many cases traceability) requires that equipment performance data be collected and reported constantly, and that networking capabilities support continuous access to each piece of equipment. Applications are also converging and becoming broader, with surface mount techniques migrating into front-end processes such as wafer bumping.
General trends impacting the marketplace can be summarised in terms of component miniaturisation, rising functionality and lower costs. Advances have tended to come in waves: the revolution of through-hole technology in the 1970s, followed by the evolution of surface mount technology over the past 20 years. The next revolution, occurring right now, is the explosion of high-density array packaging. Through these cycles, pin counts have risen exponentially, pitches have been reduced dramatically and the ratio of passive to active components has increased.
How does a company supplying this dynamic industry respond to the multiplicity of business, process and general trends?
As members of the flattened value chain, supplier organisations must first of all become more transparent - internally accessible, easily understandable and malleable to business partners at both ends of the supply chain. In an increasingly borderless marketplace, responding competitively to business trends as expressed by a worldwide customer base also requires a unified global response - in sales, process expertise, service and training - that is delivered locally and consistently.
In terms of the equipment that is supplied, continuing advances in technology are, as previously stated, a fundamental prerequisite. But they must be tightly focused. In DEK's case, there is a focus on greater accuracy, to meet the demands of advanced packaging technologies, and on broader materials handling abilities, for pre-placement processes involving adhesives, conductive adhesives, encapsulates and underfills. Advances such as DirEKt Imaging provide the technology breakthroughs that support such trends.
Perhaps the most critical focus, however, is on providing improved process information and control. This has led to a concentration on a variety of software and networking capabilities that respond to tomorrow's survival prerequisites on numerous levels, from the immediate needs of the factory floor to the global needs of the worldwide marketplace.
Fundamental to every development in this area is a design philosophy that embraces the concept of open architecture. Traditional 'proprietary' boundaries must inevitably change, as has the shape and scope of the participating organisations. System architecture and software must allow each machine to interconnect and communicate with every other unit, whether it be another manufacturer's piece of assembly equipment downline, a design engineer's desktop, a process engineer's handheld device on the factory floor or a service technician's laptop at a remote location. Information that flows upstream and down on the line, on and off the line, to other lines in the same facility or to other facilities located anywhere in the world.
Industry initiatives such as SMEMA's Standard Recipe File Format specification will provide significant momentum to help facilitate the seamless integration of the production line with factory software systems and the interoperability of individual machines. Both are crucial to achieving the next level of productivity dictated by the new flat, global electronic manufacturing value chain. And a published, standard interface for data exchange is a fundamental integration requirement. Once again, best in class, (often third party) specialists will play increasingly significant roles in this environment, as they have in so many others within the new horizontal organisational hierarchy.
When the information collected or generated through these various capabilities is networked within a facility, or among facilities located on different continents, the result contributes to the organisational transparency that is the foundation of maintaining supplier-customer relationships in today's global electronics marketplace. For any company seeking to explore the latitudes of the flattened value chain, such interconnectivity and communication is essential to survival and, ultimately, success.
Richard Heimsch is President of DEK USA, and served terms as Vice-President and President of SMEMA.
Article supplied by Zetech, exclusive representative in South Africa for DEK.