Smart Factories: Is the Semiconductor Industry Practicing What it Preaches?

Smart Factories: Is the Semiconductor Industry Practicing What it Preaches?

I’ve often found it somewhat ironic that those responsible for dreaming up and building the technologies that made smart devices, cities, cars, and factories possible, are often the slowest to adopt them. So it was with great interest that I listened to Guillermo Novo’s keynote at a recent SEMI Arizona Breakfast Forum, which kicked off a morning of presentations focused on smart manufacturing, robotics, automation, and more.

According to Novo, who is the CEO at Versum Materials in Tempe Az, the semiconductor industry is one of the few global industries that are in a growth mode, due to the worldwide demand to create a smart world. He talked about the evolution of the industrial revolution, which began the 1700s with mechanization and continued through subsequent phases enabled by mass production, electronic technology, and automation. Thanks to the semiconductor industry, interconnectivity has now brought about the birth of the fourth industrial revolution, in which information technology converges with operational technology, to make the interaction between humans and machines possible (Figure 1).

smart factories

Figure 1: The inner ring represents existing operational technology, and the outer ring represents information technology. (courtesy of Versum Materials)

Sensors, big data, analytics, networks and the ability to connect tools form a basis from which smart factories can be realized. These capabilities still need to evolve as the technology matures, and we better understand how to take this raw information and turn it into usable knowledge that will then allow us to predict, prepare, and create self-optimizing systems. The culmination of this evolution will bring what has been termed Industry 4.0 to the point of autonomous action, from forecast to pro-action. Once fully realized, Industry 4.0 will allow for agility, flexibility and true innovation.

“How we help people use these technologies is how we will change the world,” said Novo. “We are bringing all these innovations to industry, but are we using them ourselves? We need to practice what we preach.” Versum is already embracing robots and automation. “If we aren’t doing it in our own plants, then we are not moving forward. It will be important for quality and reliability in materials industry,” he said.

Improving IIoT with AI
In his market research presentation, Sam Lucero, senior principal analyst, IoT echoed some of Novo’s sentiments on Industry 4.0, (aka the industrial IoT) expanding on it to describe what he called digital-physical fusion. He made analogies to the IOT, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) as comprising the “nervous system”, “limbs” and a “brain.”

Industrial automation has already been shown to improve efficiencies by allowing for predictive maintenance, asset tracking, supply chain optimization, and process automation. Additionally, it allows for the possibility of generating revenue through maintenance contracts and customer research. While the idea of AI puts many people on tenterhooks, adding it to industrial automation will have a significant impact. Lucero summed it up best in a quote by Nick Pinkston, founder of Plethora IIoT, “The original assembly line made it cheap to make a million of the same thing, but adaptive manufacturing makes it cheap to make a million unique things.”

With AI, explained Lucero, programmable industrial robots are shifting to self-learning robots.  Google, KANUC, Kuka, and Huawei are already experimenting with this. Robots learn through trial and error, and pass skills to other robots via the cloud.

Lucero admitted that AI is not without its risks, even quoting Elon Musk, as saying with AI we are “summoning the demon.” He also noted that the Asia Pacific Region is investing significantly in AI, and is “outstripping other regions” in the adoption of industrial robots (Figure 2). China, in particular, has plans to become “the world’s major artificial intelligence innovation center”. In other words, we need to join in the quest or risk being left behind.

Figure 2: Global market for industrial robots by region, 2016-2020 (Courtesy, IHS market)

Humans Interacting with Robots
The remainder of the morning’s presentations focused on advancements in robotics for industrial environments, and the advantages they bring to manufacturing.

Trey Hoover, of Kuka Robotics, talked about the internet of robots, and the benefits customers realize when they implement robots that have a cloud-based connected interface, such as data collection, and automated maintenance routines.

Brett Dooley, of In-position Technologies, talked about the next generation of collaborative robots, that are designed for direct interaction with a human within a defined workspace. Collaborative robots are a 10-year-old European concept that was only approved by OSHA in 2013. These “CoBots” are ideal for machine tending, assembly, and as operator assistance for performing the more dangerous jobs, as a “third arm” for holding a soldering iron, for example.

While some are concerned about the impact robots will have on our skilled labor workforce, Dooley explained that robots are best suited to replace humans for tasks that are highly repetitive, have the potential for human injury, with a low requirement for decision making. The idea is to leave thought-based knowledge jobs to the humans.

Particularly in semiconductor manufacturing, there is a case to be made for creating plug-and-play connected fabs. Anuj Mahendru, Rockwell Automation explained some of the challenges we are facing in the not so distant future that can be solved by practicing what we preach. For instance, we currently have a workforce shortage that will only worsen when the proposed 62 new fabs come online between now and 2025; particularly as they will be targeting next-generation nodes:10nm, 7nm, and 5nm. Most of these fabs will be in Asia. Additionally, by 2025, most of the current baby boomer workforce will have retired, 70% will be millennials, and 30% will be Gen Z, who don’t know a world without the internet or mobile devices. The way they work will be different. For them running a cloud-connected fab outfitted with inter-operable smart tools will be second nature.

The highlight of the morning was this demonstration by a local high school robotics club, Plasma Robotics, who showcased their latest robots: shooting hoops and playing “fetch”. While these robots were remote-controlled, I won’t be surprised if the next generation the put together is a fully autonomous version. As these young people represent the future workforce of manufacturing, watching them in action drove home the overarching message of the day: the future has arrived, and smart factories are only the beginning. ~ FvT