The efficiency of production lines is crucial for any successful hardware product development. However, several common challenges can significantly derail these processes. This article examines major operational efficiency issues and explores how manual, disjointed workflows, outdated documentation, and a lack of transparent design decisions can adversely affect manufacturing. Do you face these problems, too? Let’s find out!
Before focusing on the challenges mentioned above, let's first look at a few industry trends and how hardware products are being developed to understand the topic's complexity better.
Firstly, you can observe an undeniable surge in the intelligence of devices. Modern hardware is not just about physical components; it's about embedding sophisticated intelligence into every machine. This evolution demands technical prowess and a strategic approach to design and development.
Secondly, the product development timelines have sped up. Remember the 1980s, when launching a new car model took 54 to 60 months? Fast forward to the 2020s, and this timeframe has dramatically shrunk to just 18 to 22 months, sometimes even less. This acceleration is dictated by a necessity to stay competitive and calls for an agile development process where multiple workstreams progress in parallel, demanding rapid iteration and tight collaboration across various engineering disciplines and business functions. The key to success here lies in using simulation and digitization to address issues before they manifest in the physical product.
However, something prevents hardware development teams from responding to these trends, namely the data and technology gap in electronics development. Even with Product Data Management (PDM) systems or Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) tools, discrepancies persist between software and mechanical domains. While tools like Altium Designer facilitate schematic and layout capture, the rest of the process often relies on inefficient, manual methods like PDFs, emails, and paper printouts. This disjointed approach leads to outdated component libraries, misaligned software-hardware integration, and delayed manufacturers' involvement in the process, resulting in designs that may not be production-ready.
This disconnection extends to procurement, which, at the end of a design process, often copes with incomplete parts lists, finding components are unavailable or unaffordable. Mechanical engineers face hours of manual file exchanges, leading to fit and enclosure issues, while engineering managers, product managers, and system architects operate with limited visibility. This fragmented approach is costly and inefficient, underscoring the urgent need for a cohesive digital infrastructure in electronics development.
As we explore the world of manufacturing and product development, it's crucial to address three core challenges that significantly impact operational efficiency:
Our current workflows often suffer from being manual and siloed. Vital information becomes trapped within individual departments, lost in fragmented toolsets and local files. Fragmentation and disjointed communication channels make it challenging to decipher design intents and manage data efficiently. It's like trying to piece together a complex puzzle without having all the pieces in hand.
This situation often leads to inefficient handling of critical design information, such as component lead times and end-of-life notices, which are essential for timely and successful product launches. We've all experienced how prolonged processes can hinder new releases and negatively impact our time-to-market. Such delays mean you're at risk of losing your competitive edge. So, how do you turn these challenges into a smooth workflow and transform the way you handle time from a potential blocker into a strategic advantage?
The answer lies in enhancing connectivity across the processes. Start by implementing cross-functional collaboration to enable a free flow of information between departments. This approach helps break down data silos, ensuring everyone works with the latest data, thereby minimizing rework and fostering iterative improvements.
Next, shift your focus to efficient component selection. By putting the right systems in place, you can manage component information effectively and be sure every part of your design is available, compliant, and optimized for specific needs.
Finally, enhance your workflow visibility and management. When you can see the entire landscape of your project, you can collaborate more effectively, make informed decisions, and manage your processes with precision.
Quality is the foundation of customer trust and satisfaction. Yet, despite our best efforts, defects and quality issues can slip through, jeopardizing the product and your reputation. Why is this happening? Because most of your documentation is static, it often needs more context and is siloed from the design data it supports. This can lead to misinterpretation and a reliance on outdated information–a recipe for errors that only become apparent after production, resulting in waste and rework.
A typical day in a board-mounting department reveals several issues. Determining the quality of an electric board from its image alone is challenging without additional context. To make an informed decision, you need access to design information, part lists, ordering data, datasheets, identification of designators, analysis of nets, and test results. However, this information often resides in disparate systems, necessitating time-consuming searches and interpretation. This process, known as a 'media break,' is evident in nearly every stage of the board mounting assembly line, yet it often goes unnoticed.
The key to overcoming this challenge lies in leveraging the background provided by your design data, transitioning to digital documentation, and automating its management. Doing so ensures that your documents are always up-to-date and offer the context for your designs. It’s not just about having the correct data; it’s about understanding it within the framework of your entire design.
You can also introduce interactive data validation and verification processes. These systems reduce your reliance on human-based checks, which, while important, are prone to error. With automated checks, you can catch potential issues before they escalate. For example, you verify a design before it enters the reflow oven rather than after a flawed product has been fully assembled. This proactive strategy ensures quality is embedded in every stage of your design and manufacturing process.
Integrating advanced technologies like augmented microscopy suggests further improvements in PCB manufacturing. This leap forward promises to enhance quality control by optimizing performance, accuracy, quality, and consistency while reducing operational costs.
Lastly, let’s look at compliance. The challenges we face here are multifaceted. You need to prove accountability in every aspect of your design and manufacturing, which requires a deep understanding of the impact of design changes—the 'where' and the 'scope.' Without this, you risk the integrity of your products and the trust of your clients.
Lack of transparency and predictability in your operations hinders your project management and decision-making. If the 'why' behind your design decisions goes undocumented, it leads to confusion and potential non-compliance, consequences of which might be severe, ranging from penalties to, in the worst cases, businesses having to shut their doors.
The solution? Establishing a system of digital traceability. Having a transparent system for documenting design decisions means you have a clear record that supports your rationale and ensures adherence to standards, giving you an explicit audit trail from conception to production and understanding how every design decision influences the final product.
Implementing automated verification can help you track your project's progress, solidify your compliance framework, anticipate risks, and make informed decisions. This way, you transform risk management from a reactive to a proactive strategy, staying in control even in the face of uncertainties. Integrating your validation processes with compliance measures makes 'where used' visibility and risk management a part of the design journey, not just afterthoughts.
Don’t let these common challenges stop your production lines. Use our insights to implement smooth and efficient workflows. To learn more, watch our webinar or read how Altium 365® accelerates late-minute design changes.