The most important trends in electronics production today

Text: David Gray

Photo: David Gray, Shutterstock

Automation is taking the world by storm; globalization continues with more distinct ecosystems for East and West; disruptive AI and Big Data are just getting started and drones may soon be whizzing around assembly plants.

These are just a few trend observations (and one personal prediction) by Niklas Edling, Senior VP Corporate Development at Mycronic. Peering intensely over a conference table at the company’s head office in Stockholm, he shares insights into where the global SMT market is heading – and why customers should care.

Niklas Edling

Seeing into the future

Niklas is a man who would know. As chief strategist on the executive management team, he keeps his pulse on the SMT market by traveling extensively to trade shows, meeting customers, reading industry reports and analyzing market data. All this information is filtered through the eyes of a man who holds a Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology and an MBA from the Stockholm School of Economics. In other words, a smart tech guy with a nose for business.

Trends are important because they influence
how we do business today and tomorrow

“Trends are important because they influence how we do business today and tomorrow,” says Niklas Edling. “We want to make sure our customers are always ahead of the curve, ready to adapt and thrive in the future SMT environment – which is why we monitor global mega trends, industry-specific ones and even regional trends.”

Mega trends vs industry trends

When it comes to mega trends, they’re pretty much what you’d expect: globalization, digital transformation, sustainability, connectivity, big data and more. No big surprises here. As for the SMT industry, it’s all about the use of artificial intelligence, automation, robotics, industrial internet of things (IIoT), Industry 4.0, a sharper focus on full-line solutions and total output and yield in the factory.

“All these buzzwords can easily become a blur,” he says. “So it’s important to dig deeper, look around corners and find insights we can both apply and share with our customers to help them stay more competitive. Software is rapidly becoming a key enabler of factory-wide connectivity. For example, being compatible with communication standards and adopting smarter full-line automation solutions or material flow technology can have a radical impact on productivity, opening the door for true Industry 4.0. In fact, knowing the implications of a trend could impact your entire new product pipeline or strategy.”

Globalization patterns are changing

Take globalization, for example, an unstoppable force that he believes will continue, with the center of economic gravity shifting from West to East. At the same time, this trend is being tempered by the emergence of two distinct ecosystems in Asia and the West, fueled in part by regional political interests across the globe.

Two ecosystems in East and West

World map Mycronic“We used to think of China mainly as ‘the world’s factory’ – a hub of high-volume, low-cost electronics manufacturing,” says Niklas. “But that is already old and China has big ambitions. China wants to build a technological independence and leadership with local manufacturing and product design. It also has the talent, networked suppliers, distributors and government backing to achieve this. Meanwhile, the SMT market in the West is largely mature, focusing more on optimizing processes for smaller volumes and more complex, high-value products.”

“Broadly speaking, the Asian approach is more collective, long-term and fast-moving, driven by government policies, while Western businesses is more individualistic and transactional, fueled by digital innovation and engineering. You need to understand and have strategies for both worlds.”

Automation will take off

Looking into his crystal ball, Niklas does not see any “mother of all trends”. But if he could pick one big trend it would be “automation”. Yet with a twist. “What’s new is the drive to automate pre-SMT and post-SMT processes, and to automate many of the planning, programming and optimization tasks to run the factory, with the help of integrated software and artificial intelligence,” he says.

He sees automation within SMT playing out in three key areas:

  1. Post SMT and box build: Expect to see more robotic lines (and maybe even drones) helping out to speed up the mounting and preparation of pre-manufactured sub-assemblies into simple enclosures, such as frames or racks, for quicker shipping. This includes system integrations with thousands of sub-assemblies.
  2. Full line automation solutions: Instead of obsessing over specs on individual pick-and-place machines or printers, the trend is towards buying line throughput, and yield, at the end of the day. With better machine-to-machine (M2M) communication, operators will be able to control the entire line from a single screen rather than jumping back and forth to different control panels.
  3. Automation of material flows: Expect to see a greater focus on automating previously manual processes for transporting electronic components and PCBs to and from the SMT line. This means we will see novel storage systems and planning software for automatic inventory control and sorting. It will also necessitate an increased use of robots, such as automatic guided vehicles (AGVs). He personally envisions a factory environment where drones could carry material around, allowing for tighter spacing between machines and a lower factory footprint.

Digitalization opens possibilities

“All of these developments are being fueled by increasing digitalization across the entire electronic production chain.” says Niklas Edling. “Whether you are focused on high-precision PCB assembly, storage systems, die-bonding or conformal coating, information is now available in larger and larger quantities. Our next step is to use artificial intelligence to interpret the data for better decision-making.”

Cost, quality and speed

“At the end of the day, it’s important not to stare yourself blind on trends. You need to be aware of them and tap into their potential where possible, but always remember that the underlying drivers are pretty basic – customers want to reduce costs, improve quality and speed up their deliveries,” he concludes.


1. AUTOMATION IS EXPLODING: Anything that can be automated in and around the SMT line will be, reducing the dependency on humans and minimizing errors. Under-automated areas in the pre-SMT and post-SMT processes will get more attention, as will PCB assembly “material automation,” with heightened productivity gains enabled by better M2M optimization.

We can now capture and store massive amounts of both structured and unstructured data, but this will require greater processing capacity. Time to beef up your computer processing and data storage capabilities in the cloud?

3. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE IS COMING: In the not-too-distant-future, machines will be programmed to think like humans and make decisions on their own as well as learn and solve problems. Basically, it means faster and smarter decision-making.

4. THE ROBOTS ARE TAKING OVER: This is nothing new for factories with SMT machines that are, in effect, robots themselves. But they’ll soon be made even smarter with AI and joined by new friends like AGVs, flying drones and other robotic tools to help optimized the process.

5. TWO GLOBAL ECOSYSTEMS: The world of manufacturing is undergoing a transformation both globally and locally. Japan, South Korea, China and other Asia Pacific countries are pouring in money to R&D, leading to two separate ecosystems between East and West.

6. SHORTER PRODUCTION CYCLES: The path from development to finished product is shortening, meaning the pressure is on to deliver speed and greater customization to customer needs with shorter production cycles.

7. FORGET FEATURES, THINK THROUGHPUT: The focus on individual machine features and specifications is diminishing as operators focus more on how well the total line is producing.

8. MAKE IT SUSTAINABLE: Heightened initiatives in this area now extend far beyond lead-free solder paste to include meeting EU directives like REACH, WEEE and RoHS for removing hazardous chemicals, securing recycling procedures and promoting safe, environmentally friendly SMT processes.

9. FACTORY-WIDE CONNECTIVITY: Customers who have previously focused mainly on machines will need to embrace the growing importance of software in everything, to connect their processes.

10. NEED FOR FLEXIBLE, HIGH-MIX EQUIPMENT: The trend towards customization and shorter batches will continue, driving a need for more flexible equipment and processes – even for high volume manufacturing.

Text: David Gray

Photo: David Gray, Shutterstock

Published: 6 April 2020

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