2026: The future of electronics manufacturing services

No one can accurately predict the future.

However, it’s fair to say that some of the technological advancements we are starting to see will transform how electronics manufacturing services (EMS) providers operate. The race is on for both original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and EMS providers to digest what "big data" really means to them, while trying to increase automation, prepare for Industrie 4.0 and somehow make their factories "smart".

So how far will EMS providers go? Well, with such a broad range of capabilities and a diverse customer base, the answer really should be "far and wide". Unsurprisingly, many are holding back and watching with interest while the Tier 1s make a head start. After all, many of these advancements require significant planning and investment - not something to dive straight into.

While a lot can happen in 10 years, here are my predictions regarding the four major areas that I believe will impact EMS providers supplying industrial products and how they might adapt to them.

1. Made to order 

As we already see in consumer markets, the demand for personalised goods will start to filter into the industrial electronics sector. Today, an athlete can customise and then order a bespoke running shoe online for next day delivery. OEMs will start offering similar services for their products. For example, a range of different material finishes, branding options, software configurations, ancillary items and language options will be readily available. All, of course, on a guaranteed next day (or next hour) delivery service.

In order to compete, EMS providers will rely on their supply chain partners to offer increasingly agile services and solutions. The way electronic and electrical items are purchased in 2016 will radically change. Daily purchase orders, matching customer specific work order requirements will be automatically sent to suppliers and then delivered within 30 minutes "line-ready", via a service such as Amazon Prime Air. Instead of the EMS provider receiving large quantities of electronic components or electrical items in advance and then being expected to decant, re-pack and re-locate the stock, supply chain partners will take responsibility for this service. They will deliver exactly what the EMS company needs, when they need it, in the correct format and packaging to suit their internal assembly processes – the ultimate just-in-time solution with minimal stock holding.  

Additive manufacturing will also be used much more extensively by EMS providers throughout the assembly and test processes. Customer specific production and jest jigs will be produced on-demand, along with any bespoke hand tools or robotic attachments required to complete a job. An array of sensors and switches will be added to these during the 3D printing process, making each item "smart" from the outset. Misplaced a screwdriver? No problem - just call up your virtual toolbox on your tablet and use the tracking software to locate it.

2. Smart materials

Procurement and logistics teams within EMS companies will be notified in advance of all incoming deliveries. Intelligent labelling will be applied to all incoming material, allowing the EMS provider to track deliveries in real-time. And should an unexpected delay occur, alerts will be sent automatically so that the account management team are able to notify customers and operations can redeploy resources and amend build schedules.

Once material has been unloaded, it will pass through a series of readers located within the loading bay and automatically prebook onto the EMS provider's system to show it has been received and awaiting inspection.

Intelligence will be built into the "brain" of electronic and electro-mechanical assemblies – the printed circuit board (PCB). Along with the part number and revision level of the bare board, build documentation for the final assembly will be stored in the circuit itself. As the PCB passes through the varying stages of production, operators will be able to call up the next set of build instructions relevant to their department. Once the product has been fully assembled and tested, details of the manufacturing routing steps, operators responsible for build, any change note information and component traceability records will all be captured within a single "DNA report". This will be stored via the cloud and made available to the customer should they need the information at a later date.   

3. Collaborative working

A much greater use of collaborative robots (co-bots) will appear within the workplace; particularly where lean production lines currently exist. We have already started to see this within the Tier 1 EMS companies like Foxconn, who have recently employed 60,000 robots within their manufacturing facilities. EMS providers across all tiers will begin to invest heavily in co-bots over the next 10 years and examples of their use will include:

  • Unloading of incoming goods.
  • Recycling of packaging.
  • Picking and delivering to line works order material.
  • Application of serial number labels.
  • Loading of SMT components onto feeders.
  • Loading of SMT cassettes into pick and place machines.
  • Loading and unloading of wave solder machines.
  • ‘Hand placing’ components that cannot be picked and placed by SMT equipment.
  • In-circuit testing.
  • Packaging and loading of finished products for shipment.

4. Data. Lots of it

One of the biggest challenges OEMs and EMS providers face is managing, and then acting upon, the increased amount of data they will have available in the future. EMS providers will, therefore, be faced with a new challenge when it comes to their business operating system. They will need to decide whether or not to invest in an off the shelf "Industrie 4.0-ready" package or invest in the people and skills required to develop their own solution.  

Production schedules, efficiency reports, quality statistics, delivery performance and supply chain threats, among other critical data, will be displayed "real-time" across the company on dashboards - or "control towers", as Jabil calls them. Reacting to component placement information and defect reporting made available via SMT equipment will become much more intuitive. For example, material shortages generated as a result of machine misplacement will be reported immediately. Replacement items will either be picked automatically from a line side store or ordered through the supply chain on a 30-minute delivery.

3D automated optical inspection (AOI) machines will replace 2D systems for all EMS companies. Any defects that are identified after the reflow stage will be automatically directed to a separate rework area. PCBAs that pass inspection will be loaded directly into automated storage solutions and move autonomously to their next routing operation. Robotic arms, preloaded with the relevant AOI data will carry out any necessary rework before carrying out their own final optical inspection on the board.

Augmented reality will be used by production managers to monitor and report on a range of shop floor metrics. They will be able to view efficiency levels for the department as a whole with the ability to also drill down to individual members. They will be able to quickly verify daily clocking information, the works order detail that each operator is logged onto and see how many hours each operator has worked compared to how many hours the EMS company has sold.  

This technology will also be used to quickly monitor the performance of every machine and smart tool used within the production area to ensure the process is under control and minimise unexpected failures. Of course, should a catastrophic failure occur, the machine will have already alerted the team around them and also the supplier responsible for maintenance. The correct health and safety protocols will have been initiated and any spare parts that are required will have been ordered and whizzing their way through the air.

Although my predictions look out 10 years, in truth, many of these technological advancements are either already being trialled or painstakingly close to becoming a reality. So, while it still remains difficult to predict exactly what types of systems and solutions EMS providers will invest in, one thing is certain. Companies that fail to invest in the right people, plant and processes required for the future will quickly get overtaken and might not get the chance to celebrate being in business by 2026.  

Have a prediction yourself.

Image by Christian Schnettelker

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Written by Neil Sharp

Neil has over 25 years’ experience in Electronics Manufacturing Services and Component Distribution. During his career, Neil has held a range of leadership positions in sales, marketing, and customer service. Neil is currently part of the ESCATEC Senior Management Team and is responsible for setting and delivering the overall Group Marketing strategy. Neil heads up the marketing department and is responsible for both the strategy and the implementation of innovative marketing campaigns designed to deliver high quality content to those seeking outsourcing solutions.