Peter Kronfeld
Peter Kronfeld
Peter Kronfeld, born in 1962, has always taken great interest in the subject of technological change in the economy, society and business. This already started when he was a student of economics and communication and he has been keeping track of these topics as a journalist and as managing director of HighTech communications GmbH until today.

Open Shuttles are free-moving vehicles that can be used for transport and picking activities and are are especially suited for the complex transport networks within a warehouse. Different from conventional “driverless transport systems” (FTS) they can move completely freely across a surface without lines for guidance, react dynamically to obstacles and can plan an alternate to the optimal route.

(image: copyright Knapp / youtube)

Electronics manufacturing is a very specialized job with highly complex tasks. As a result, the equipment market is dominated by SMT specialists. Few electronics manufacturers have looked outside the “walled garden” at other industries and solutions from other suppliers. The risks of “being unfaithful” were too great, and the potential gains too small.

This attitude is changing as digitization and Industry 4.0 processes call for new solutions and new approaches. And not all specialists in the field are prepared (or quick enough) to step off the beaten track, which is why being successful can also be a curse. At the same time, suppliers in other industries and technologies are discovering the electronics manufacturing industry as a growth area and are paying more attention to it. Examples include robotics manufacturers like Kuka and Sawyer (we previously reported on their SMT activities).

High flexibility: other industries solved problems that SMT is starting to face

During an ASM event last week I got to know another example of in-house logistics. Austrian company Knapp presents itself as an internationally leading supplier of systems for automated intralogistics that so far has focused mainly on food, pharmaceuticals, fashion, and large industrial companies. Why add electronics manufacturing? Because other industries have already solved problems that the SMT manufacturing industry is only now starting to face, with scalability and flexibility being prime examples.

The rise of e-commerce posed an entirely new set of challenges for many food and fashion companies. After serving wholesalers and retailers with relatively long lead times, they suddenly had to serve end customers directly from the same warehouses and locations with speed and flexibility. Throughput times, package volumes and package sizes have changed radically in these industries – and the trend is only accelerating. Facilities that operated with powerful but rigid conveyor and assembly systems feeding packaging lines must suddenly accommodate much more flexible systems. To put it bluntly, in these dynamic markets any newly installed fixed system would be obsolete before its planning and installation are finalized. One of the answers: the fashion and food industries have come up with is to operate with intelligent, modular shuttle systems to supply assembly stations that can be quickly adapted to new requirements. (Click here for a video)

Modular shuttle systems with swarm intelligence

Notice the similarities to SMT production? That’s why Knapp is increasingly targeting its modular, flexible shuttle systems to the electronics production market. Instead of sending line staff on long walks, the industry newcomer lets autonomous transport units bring the components to the line. Equipped with swarm intelligence, simple laser navigation and sensitive sensors, many of these transport units can operate side-by-side, avoid obstacles and each other and cooperate with the line staff without preprogrammed routes, rails, magnetic strips, etc. Only the target locations need to be entered. And as system suppliers, companies like Knapp even help electronics manufacturers coordinate and integrate these systems with their IT systems.

Whether and which of these transport systems provide the ideal solution for electronics manufacturers remains to be seen. But I believe that examples like Knapp are indicators that “being unfaithful” is becoming increasingly more attractive in the electronics production industry.

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