Meeting the challenge of manufacturing in the IoT era

Author : Chris Short, Managing Director of the European Manufacturing Centre of Excellence at Stadium Group

05 March 2018

Credit: Shutterstock

The rate of innovation in the electronics sector is increasingly driven by demand for new solutions, coming from large vertical markets, or often, even single pockets of explosive growth. Today, the IoT drives this growth – but not too long ago, it was mobile telecommunications.

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In particular, the smartphone can still be held up as an example of how a single application became an agent of change, demanding a level of integration that has since been influential in other application areas.

When cellular networks first emerged, they were accessed using large, cumbersome devices, with high power requirements, that could only be used for short periods between recharges. They could be the size and weight of a briefcase, yet within their target market they rapidly became essential business tools.

The development of manufacturing techniques, which until then hadn’t even existed, meant that the mobile phone went from being an elite business tool to something anyone would be happy to carry around in a pocket or purse. Of course, the business model needed to be tweaked before it really became a mass-market consumer item, but that too was supported through the rapid evolution of manufacturing processes, which brought costs down to a point that allowed unit prices to be amortised across the lifetime of contracts. The age of the ‘free’ mobile phone had arrived.

This really was a watershed moment for commerce in general, but for the electronics industry in particular, it proved that close collaboration between design and manufacture could directly influence the commercial proposition of new electronic products. Until this point, it could be argued that high-ticket consumer devices, typified by large white goods or TVs, had the luxury of space.

Electronic components were already small in comparison to motors, valves and drums. Once vertical markets realised that electronic assemblies could be made even smaller, this sparked the industry’s imagination – and, arguably, it has since proved instrumental in the success of the IoT.

The challenge and the opportunity

This represented the dawn of a new era, when ‘smaller, faster, cheaper’ became the mantra for every new generation in a product’s lifecycle. Semiconductor manufacturers took up the challenge and began integrating more functionality into smaller packages. This put even more pressure on electronic manufacturing services (EMS) providers, who had to keep pace with the rate of change through investment in new equipment and skills. Not all were able to maintain that pace, resulting in a divide between those that could offer the latest manufacturing solutions and those that couldn’t – creating an industry able to provide a range of manufacturing services and added value solutions.

Right now we are seeing a similar pattern unfold, as more OEMs target the IoT. Many of the billions of connected devices that are predicted to make up the IoT will need to be small, yet highly integrated, often featuring RF technologies and sensors that are inherently sensitive to electrical noise.

One thing the mobile phone industry has taught us is that design and manufacturing work better together. However, instead of several manufacturers making a relatively small range of product variants, the watchword for the IoT will be diversity. We can expect more diverse devices to come to market, in volumes that may be difficult to accurately predict. While these devices will be expected to stay in the market for many years, the rate at which they evolve will likely be rapid, with the speed to market and time between new iterations being measured in months – or perhaps even weeks. For EMS providers, this represents both a challenge and an opportunity.

Credit: Stadium Group

Evolution of EMS

In order to keep pace with the lifecycles of modern products, it is no longer enough for EMS providers to be simply reactive. Stadium Group’s transformation into a design-led business, with the ability to design, manufacture and distribute solutions for customers in multiple regions, typifies the trends now shaping successful companies in the electronics industry. Following a programme of acquisitions, consolidation, investment and upskilling, Stadium now exemplifies why end-to-end total solutions are an integral part of their customers’ supply chain.

With Manufacturing Centres of Excellence located in Hartlepool and Eastleigh in the UK, and Dongguan in China, the electronic assembly part of the Group comprises circa 20,000 m2 of manufacturing space, with around 500 skilled employees, providing a seamless increase in manufacturing capacity for global customers. Much of the Group’s focus recently has been on assuring the quality of its services: all facilities have attained ISO9001 and ISO14001 accreditation, while the Hartlepool and Dongguan facilities can add TS16949 accreditation to that list. The Asian facility’s quality management systems have also been shown to meet ISO13485 for the manufacture of medical devices. The Group has a total of 13 SMT lines, one of which is dedicated to new product introduction in Hartlepool, with another line scheduled to come online in 2018.

The Group also has a focus on training and staff retention, as well as bringing in new talent through apprenticeship schemes. Last year saw new SPI/X-Ray/SMED inspection equipment come online. This commitment to improvement has enabled Stadium to support the success of all its customers, demonstrating that the benefits are far reaching.

Right first time

More than half the Group’s activities can be attributed to manufacturing the products that are developed in its regional design centres, for technology products including wireless connectivity, power supplies, single board computing and HMI solutions. This has necessitated the development of excellence in manufacturing even the most challenging designs, in order to meet customers’ demand for high yields.

The same philosophy and expertise now pervade the entire company and are applied in every location, for all customers, wherever the design comes from. It puts Stadium at the forefront of customer service amongst EMS providers, and has created a company that can offer the latest manufacturing facilities, with globally recognised quality accreditations, to all of its customers.

The challenges associated with developing and manufacturing an IoT device that integrates LPWAN (Low Power Wide Area Network) connectivity, or several forms of PAN (Personal Area Networking), such as Bluetooth, Thread or ZigBee, alongside the smallest MEMS sensors and touch-sensitive interfaces, apply to a growing number of OEMs.

Stadium is well versed in the manufacture of products destined for the industrial IoT (IIoT), automotive, healthcare and smart home markets. This expertise and efficiency is seeing many UK companies bring their manufacturing back from lower labour cost countries (‘re-shoring’), allowing them to reduce supply chains and increase speed to market. With a dual Europe/Asia manufacturing approach, Stadium can offer customers the best of both worlds, with service solutions close to their end markets.

As trends like IoT bring new challenges, a continued focus on design-led technologies, as well as manufacturing, will ensure forward thinking EMS providers can stay at the forefront of innovation and meet the increasing demands from OEM customers. This requires sustained investment in quality, equipment and people: something Stadium Group has demonstrated in recent years and plans to continue to deliver.

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