The rise of AI in PCB manufacturing

Louise Smyth

The last decade has seen artificial intelligence (AI) emerge from what was once a futuristic concept to a genuinely applicable and effective technology, writes Greg Faughnan at EC Electronics. 

On the big screen, we’ve often seen AI in the form of killer robots or armies of autonomous machines turning against their owners. But in reality, the technology is being used across a range of practical applications — shaping the way we all live and work. 
For most people, their first encounter with AI will be through smart assistants like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, which rely on accurate voice recognition to relay data from the internet. But with developments like self-driving cars in the pipeline, there’s no doubt AI is advancing at a rapid rate. And it’s only a matter of time before it goes one step further. 

How AI is moving towards Industry 4.0 

In printed circuit board (PCB) manufacturing, AI presents tremendous opportunities. Most PCB designers manually route and design their boards, which is a time-consuming and intricate process. 
But AI placement in PCB design is both possible and could pave the road for a new era of innovation — one where production processes are streamlined, and outcomes are improved in ways never achieved before. 
AI can help automation systems communicate with each other and operators in real-time and brings a number of benefits to manufacturing including better performance, and reduced scrap rates, as well the more efficient management of assets, inventory and supply chains. 
The introduction of AI into PCB manufacturing is especially critical as the market moves toward Industry 4.0 — or the ‘Smart Factory’ of the future. As an example, AI can be embedded in the precision placement tool, which can help to determine how each component should be placed, thus improving performance whilst reducing the time required for assembly. PCBs are progressively getting smaller — in line with shrinking devices — and AI will offer manufacturer’s a higher degree of accuracy when placing components in a compact and densely packed part.  
Another area of PCB manufacturing where AI is proving useful is inspections. Based on the common location for a defect, AI can quickly and easily narrow down defects to save both time and money. 
Data is a key component here. Without high-quality, labelled information, AI cannot be successful. Defect classification is a crucial aspect of an automated optical inspection (AOI) solution in PCB manufacturing. Typically, AOI machines send images to a remote multi-image verification station where a human operator classifies them as either ‘true defects’ or ‘false alarms’. However, the human element inevitably opens up the process to error and mistakes can easily be made in classification. 
In contrast, an AI solution would be able to make classification decisions autonomously and with consistent accuracy once it has learned from the human operators’ decisions. Such an AI system is dependent on accurate data patterns to learn correct algorithmic behaviour over time. Even the tiniest change in data could lead to game-changing results, so data sensitivity is crucial. 

What’s next for AI?  

The artificial intelligence present in current technologies is seen as ‘narrow’ or ‘weak’ AI in that it is designed to perform a specific task — such as placing components on a PCB board, internet searches, facial recognition or driving a car. 
However, the long-term objective of many developers is to create ‘general’ or ‘strong’ AI. Although narrow AI might be able to outperform humans at its specific task — be it inspecting PCB boards, solving equations or detecting cyber threats — strong AI would overtake humans at nearly every cognitive task.
As AI becomes more and more mainstream within PCB manufacturing — and the electronics industry as a whole — it will become mission-critical to project success. Going forward, we can expect to see AI have a positive impact on operational processes and speed, as well as trust and dependability. And we, for one, think the technology will go a long way in taking the PCB manufacturing industry to a whole new level.