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The Future of PCB Manufacturing Doesn’t Belong to Robots, But to the People Who Use Them

Is the world ready for the consequences of rapid automation? Will the use of robots displace entire categories of workers? Can artificial intelligence really “think?” How will manufacturing (including PCB manufacturing) be affected by all these smart robots?

These may sound like thoroughly 21st-century questions, but they actually come from a pamphlet published in 1955. In The Age of Automation: Its Effects on Human Welfare,[1] intrepid industrial reporter Warner Bloomberg Jr. writes about the emergence of robotics in a post-war economy. The parallels to today are striking.

There’s the media frenzy. Bloomberg alludes to the “hundreds of articles” that either warn that robotics will “lead to massive unemployment” or proclaim that the technology “will usher in a new ‘golden age’ of plenty.”

There’s the disconnect between CEOs and their frontline factory employees. “See how easy it is to make gasoline?” an oil executive remarks about his refinery’s new-fangled automatic control system, “You just put the crude oil in at one end, and the gasoline comes out the other!” His ill-conceived “joke” manages to not only disparage his workforce but betray his poor understanding of the technology.

There are the “smart” machines that obfuscate their critical human elements. Bloomberg mentions a state-of-the-art computer that can translate several sentences of Russian into English “in a few seconds”—that is, “after months of time put in by human experts ‘programming’ the operation.”

There are the alarms of imminent, unimaginably vast catastrophe. One automation doomsayer Bloomberg quotes believes “the unemployment it causes will be, given our present frame of economic thought, very large, permanent and absolutely unprecedented.”

This was all in the ‘50s. While robotics and other forms of automation have undergone significant evolution since then—within and beyond circuit board manufacturing—our general attitudes have not.

A Robot Is a Robot Is a Robot

What do hazardous materials inspection, automotive welding, and bowling alley pinsetting all have in common? All are monotonous, dangerous jobs—and ideal for automation.

In the debate over worker displacement, people seldom mention how automation has improved worker well-being. Robots perform numerous jobs that otherwise pose health and safety risks, be it a major risk such as toxic fumes or a minor one such as repetitive muscle strain.[2] In these and virtually all practical applications of robotics, a human being is still monitoring, controlling, or programming the machine.

In addition to minimizing injuries and deaths, robots excel at routine tasks that require a high degree of accuracy, repeatability, and consistency. In PCB manufacturing, such tasks include assembly of service mount components, as well as picking and placing. Indeed, from chip shooters to gantry-style machines, our industry has been using robots for decades.

Can You Teach an Old Robot New Tricks?

No matter how fast or advanced a facility’s robotics, humans need to direct, troubleshoot, and keep track of the work. Moreover, outside of high-volume production runs, PCB manufacturing is not an assembly line. It’s hard to imagine how an automated system could be useful in low-quantity prototyping or any other non-linear, one-off process that demands multiple judgment calls.

That includes even seemingly simple processes. Say you needed three sheets of five-mil laminate with 2-ounce copper thickness. Now consider how many steps are involved in identifying, fetching, and stacking the materials. You could feed instructions into a robot, hit “go,” and the robot will do the job accurately—but will you save any time? Probably not.

Nor are you likely to save time in the long run. At Sunstone, each order is unique. With robots, we would need to program every step in the manufacturing process for every single order. It’s much faster and easier to fabricate by hand.

On top of that, unlike the computers we buy, humans don’t become obsolete—or at least our obsolescence takes longer. Employees can learn and be retrained. Machines need to be updated or replaced.

Artificial Intelligence vs. Artifice

“But wait,” you might be thinking. “Aren’t machines already taking over complex human jobs? What about artificial intelligence?”

If you think AI is close to approaching anything resembling human cognition, here’s some bad (or possibly good) news: what we call “AI” is hardly ever intelligent.

According to The Verge’s “State of AI in 2019,” true artificial intelligence is a long way away—and genuine breakthroughs tend to get buried under marketing “hype and bluster.”[3] The article names Oral-B’s Genius X toothbrush, which debuted at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, as one example of the phenomenon. The device’s “supposed ‘AI’ abilities” are really based on “clever sensors” that provide “simple feedback about whether you’re brushing your teeth for the right amount of time and in the right places.”

Dentists, you can rest easy. For now.

How “Futuristic” Will the Future Be?

Make no mistake—plenty of exciting developments are happening in the world of robotics. They just aren’t the kinds that will lead to a Terminator-esque dystopia.

Boston Dynamics, for instance, has built machines such as BigDog and Atlas that display impressive, almost lifelike abilities to maneuver around simulated battlefield environments. Boston Dynamics’ creations are not autonomous, however—a Wired interview with the team reveals movement is “mostly done by humans and remote control” and the machines “follow a well-defined set of routines; they don't have the ability to decide on their own what to do.”[4] Killer robots these are not.

Fully autonomous vehicles (i.e. self-driving cars) seemed like a foregone conclusion just a few years ago, but now appear similarly out of reach. Road tests—like the tragically fatal one Uber conducted in Arizona—have uncovered significant technical limitations, and raised a host of ethical and infrastructure-related concerns.

For truly awe-inspiring innovation, look at recent developments in medical neuroprosthetics. A team of researchers at the University of Chicago is currently working on robotic limbs patients can control via electrodes implanted in the brain.[5] That’s intelligence—in more ways than once.

In our industry, robotics stand to improve numerous processes. There’s water jet cutting and laser-etching, for instance. Or, imagine a through hole plating conveyor system that lifts and loads boards into chemical vats, rinses agents, and keeps track of dips for multiple batches in multiple stages.

Or, how about a robot that could produce a prototype on demand, at the click of a button? Oh, right—that’s a 3D printer. Remember when those seemed revolutionary?

[1] JR, Warner Bloomberg. The Age of Automation: Its Effects on Human Welfare. League for Industrial Democracy, 1955.

[2] Marshall, David. “ABB Conversations > Manufacturers Employ Robots to Improve Worker Health and Safety.” Manufacturers Employ Robots to Improve Worker Health and Safety Comments, ABB Conversations, 16 Nov. 2012, www.abb-conversations.com/2012/11/manufacturers-employ-robots-to-improve-worker-health-and-safety/.

[3] Vincent, James. “The State of AI in 2019.” The Verge, The Verge, 28 Jan. 2019, www.theverge.com/2019/1/28/18197520/ai-artificial-intelligence-machine-learning-computational-science.

[4] Priday, Richard. “What's Really Going on in Those Boston Dynamics Robot Videos?” WIRED, WIRED UK, 17 Feb. 2018, www.wired.co.uk/article/boston-dynamics-robotics-roboticist-how-to-watch.

[5] Wood, Matt. “Neuroscientists to Develop Brain-Controlled Prosthetic Limbs.” Neuroscientists to Develop Brain-Controlled Prosthetic Limbs - UChicago Medicine, UChicago Medicine, 15 Oct. 2018, www.uchicagomedicine.org/forefront/neurosciences-articles/2018/october/neuroscience-researchers-receive-grant-to-develop-brain-controlled-prosthetic-limbs.

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