How AI-Powered Inspection Can Bring Manufacturing Back to North America

by DarwinAI

Supply Chain Shortage Creates Urgency to Bring Manufacturing Back

It is no secret that the supply chain shortage is wreaking havoc on the majority of the world’s high-tech manufacturing plants in China, and up until recent signs of unsteady demand due to the looming recession, American manufacturers have not kept up with consumer demands. As a result, many American manufacturers are looking to gain more control and predictability over the electronic parts that they source from overseas. In fact, pundits Graham Allison (a Professor of Government at Harvard) and Eric Schmidt (former CEO and executive chairman of Google) recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal that dependence on Taiwan for advanced semiconductors puts American national security at risk, and unless the U.S. government mobilizes “a national effort similar to the one that created the technologies that won World War II, China could soon dominate semiconductors and the frontier technologies they will power.” 

This situation has created a huge incentive for American companies to move their manufacturing facilities back to the US. This urgency for PCBs, semiconductors, EV batteries, and other high-tech products is compounded by a shortage of skilled labor–especially in high-tech production. In the Spring of 2022, data from the American Bureau of Labor statistics revealed that there was a record-high of over a million job openings in the Manufacturing sector.

The challenge of finding qualified employees quickly threatens to limit how much manufacturing can come back to the United States, but we believe that AI – and specifically, AI-powered Visual Quality Inspection – can help, alongside other industry 4.0 technologies, to solve this critical challenge. 

Smart Companies Are Adopting AI to Compete

Today there is a growing market demand for AI-powered systems across a wide range of use cases. On the whole, Artificial Intelligence in manufacturing is valued at $2.3 billion USD and it is anticipated to grow to $16.3 billion USD by 2027, according to MarketsandMarkets. It is clear that manufacturers, facing increased competition, require reliable pathways to AI adoption and scale. The companies that succeed will win in the market and those who can’t may be left behind. 

Specifically, within the automated inspection space, the market was valued at $598 million USD in 2020, and is projected to reach $1,660 million USD by 2026. As companies need to become more efficient, manufacturers are increasingly turning to AI-based quality inspection solutions to more rapidly eliminate costly defects, increase production yields, and ship products to their customers faster. AI-based quality inspection augments human labor, by reducing the physical and mental burden on inspectors, and also enables companies to meet their KPIs. 

To reinforce this point, a research collaboration between the World Economic Forum and McKinsey called the Global Lighthouse Network studied 103 of the world’s most advanced factories to understand exactly how these outstanding companies leverage digital technologies to become successful. 

They found that advanced industry factories achieved more impact when they paired different use cases and technologies together. Among the top four technology use-cases was AI-based inspection alongside flexible automation, digital performance management, and quality analytics.

Many organizations embarking on their Industry 4.0 journeys can take inspiration from these advanced industry factories to drive outsize impact across several KPIs. Companies that deploy AI at scale are transforming their organizations to address today’s toughest disruptions and prepare for the future. 

Labor Shortage on the Plant Floor

We have seen that manually inspecting non-standard components that are a part of many electronic consumer products can be very challenging, especially with a shortage of highly-skilled inspectors. Today, many companies use a combination of Automated Optical Inspection (AOI) machines and manual inspection techniques to detect defects on their PCBs, but inspectors must be very experienced to perform this time-consuming task with the use of offline analogue tools including magnifying glasses and microscopes. The work is very tiring and as older and more experienced inspectors retire, there are few qualified workers available to replace them. 

On production lines that use AOIs, the programming of these machines is time-consuming, and sometimes it is hard for manufacturers to find programmers to do this work. For each specific PCB model, it takes 8-16 hours of programming work over the course of a week, in order to get an acceptable false-positive rate of 1-2%. Sometimes, even with all this effort, the false-positive rate never drops lower than 30%. Many defects are only discovered at the end of a production line, which means parts must be thrown out or repaired, which are both costly and time-consuming scenarios. Given the challenges surrounding AOI programming in the context of a labor shortage, many manufacturers have lost confidence in their AOI, and so they end up doing a full manual inspection as a double-check, dramatically increasing their quality inspection time and further taxing their inspectors.

Our AI-powered visual quality inspection (VQI) is an end-to-end system that enables inspectors previously doing manual inspection to more accurately detect defects in a fraction of the time. Operators have a repeatable and scalable solution that works across multiple inspection points, with a very user-friendly interface that doesn’t require any knowledge of AI or programming. Our platform allows inspectors to focus on rapidly monitoring defects across multiple PCB lines and allows them to increase their capacity and move faster with less fatigue. Operators can become more efficient and prevent defects from backing up or stalling their production lines. As a result, manufacturers can ship high-quality products faster.

Specific Manufacturers Benefit Most from AI-powered Inspection

Over the last year our team has worked with some of the world’s most ambitious and forward-looking manufacturers to implement quality inspection for their PCBs. Some manufacturers for whom our AI-powered VQI is most valuable include: 

With the global supply chain shortage that was exacerbated during the pandemic, our AI-Powered VQI system has been in high demand, especially by North American manufacturers who previously performed a final manual inspection after using AOI machines. Now, more than ever before, manufacturers are turning to AI-powered systems to replace their manual quality inspection processes so they can enable their over-burdened and fatigued inspectors to do more in less time. 

Our customers have discovered that by using AI-powered VQI they can more rapidly meet their ROI targets, such as upfront Capex, a more rapid time to value, and achieve higher yields, while creating less scrap and rework.

Once manufacturers meet their KPIs and targets, they can then focus on scaling their AI system to additional inspection points in their plant, and link their data from multiple locations to gain seamless communication and information flow. Our platform enables manufacturers to more rapidly identify supply chain issues and defects upstream, so that they don’t impact their entire production facility. Smart manufacturers are aware that by intelligently investing in AI inspection they remain competitive while preparing for future disruptions. 

By using the power of our award-winning Artificial Intelligence, American manufacturers can become more efficient and take one step forward in bringing manufacturing back to North America.

Learn more about our inspection system and contact our team to set up a demo today.