Interview – M. Faisal Pandit
Panasonic has been one of the early pioneers of factory automation and is probably the only company who manufacturers nearly all their own products. Where did that philosophy originate?
Manufacturing our products internally dates back to 1918 when our Founder Konosuke Matsushita declared that Panasonic’s key objective is to be a manufacturer of high quality products. That focus on high quality along with the internal push over the years toward vertical integration resulted in mature, world-class processes that were brought to and accepted by the marketplace.
Having manufactured these machines for use in your own factories, do you have any hard data or examples where machines are collaborating on the line?
Yes, there are numerous examples; in fact, the industry as a whole is embarking on line-level collaboration through initiatives like Industry 4.0, the Smart Factory, IoT, IoM, IoE, etc. There is a lot of chatter about connectivity.
It’s important to recognize that Panasonic has been connecting things for many years—well before these new initiatives. It has been our belief that having a hardware-only point-of-view doesn’t offer complete value, so we’ve developed solutions at the Enterprise- and Line-levels to integrate various aspects of electronics manufacturing.
We believe these industry-wide initiatives will accelerate a broader awareness and acceptance of the advantages that higher levels of integration bring.
PanaCIM® is at the heart of your factory automation software suite. Was it developed to work solely with Panasonic equipment or does it have an open source portal to collaborate with other equipment the manufacturer may already have?
Initially PanaCIM was developed at the line-level for Panasonic equipment only; however, as the market accepted the concept, it quickly grew to fill the need for a broader solution that also integrated non-Panasonic equipment. PanaCIM has a connectivity layer that interfaces with other equipment and business systems as well.
Current feeder technology is a barrier to fully automating the process. Is your current approach to feeder technology likely to change in the future?
I agree that current feeder technology can be a barrier to full automation. It still has a high level of human interaction, so it’s difficult to deliver a one-button solution at the line-level.
Our goal is to develop solutions that require only minimal human intervention and we are continually seeking many ways to enhance that capability. But feeders are only one part of it… We strive to provide additional enhancements to the overall user experience that reduce intervention and maximize overall efficiency and quality.
Your ‘Any Mix, Any Volume’ strategy provides solutions from entry level to high volume manufacturing. Entry level companies are less likely to leverage the advantages of factory automation in the early stages, but is there a migratory path?
The whole concept of “Any Mix, Any Volume” centers on scalability. Company size is irrelevant.
From an entry-level customer’s point-of-view, they don’t lose value based on having less machines; in fact, they benefit from the overall expertise we bring.
As companies grow, adding machines has no impact—it’s seamless. Software, accessories, feeders, nozzles, etc. will simply work. Our solutions are designed to grow with the customer and technology—and our delivery process and support is equally scalable and seamless.
If I may, I disagree that entry-level companies are less likely to leverage the advantages of automation in the early stages. Especially when competing with Asian operations that possess economies of scale that balance their supply chain to offset increasing labor costs, automation can play an even larger part in driving costs down.
Whatever one’s perspective, our solutions are not tied to units or company size and there is a migratory path to leverage the benefits of automation.
Recent data suggests that reshoring is still not outpacing the rate of off-shoring. Do you think factory automation solutions will help to slow or reverse that trend in the United States?
I believe there are three primary challenges to reshoring: the lack of a supply chain, the lack of skilled labor, and the high cost of labor.
Asian manufacturers have a well-established supply chain including efficient processes within their geography. Reshoring would require that a similar supply chain be established in North America.
Assuming the supply chain isn’t a problem, one must look at the skilled labor required to manufacture efficiently—it is not in abundance in NA. Finding such skill is not only cost-prohibitive, it erodes profit margins and the ability to compete.
Integrated automation can be the silver lining to help reset the pace. Focusing on it could yield more sophisticated manufacturing in NA and offset labor and other costs; thereby, increase the chances of reshoring. A sense of urgency is needed as manufacturers throughout Asia are not sitting on the sidelines. They are investing in automation and other efficiencies to retain their businesses.
Panasonic Factory Solutions has been consistently the largest pick and place company by market share for some time. What unique features keep you consistently in the lead?
First is our relentless focus on the customer. This primary Panasonic philosophy goes back nearly 100 years to establish and cherish customer intimacy. Second is that we seek long-term partnerships versus short-term wins.
Surely many could make these same claims, but it’s important to understand that we collaborate with customers on product development, create customized solutions, offer advanced engineering services, fill gaps based on our experiences, and so on. There are many, many dimensions to what Panasonic offers.
I could speak at length on technology and software innovations, but focusing on the customer and cherishing that relationship are truly the key aspects that set us apart. They are the pillars of our success.
Do you think the ‘smart factory’ revolution will reduce the overall number of SMT vendors to a smaller group of more integrated vendors?
Years ago one would speculate consolidation. It has happened in small instances, but we haven’t seen any major exits. The key players are well established, so I don’t see any consolidation in the current landscape.
I do; however, see more collaboration across the space with complementary technologies versus within the same technical space. The market has dictated that it needs integrated solutions and no one company can provide it on their own.
What new applications or products are you seeing emerge that are particularly suited to the Panasonic Factory Solutions model?
Our focus is all about providing Total Solutions. We intend to be center stage with our products and our strong collaborative partners. We aim to create an eco-system of solutions and services with Panasonic in its center.
Customers of all sizes are resource and technologically constrained. Smaller companies are trying to offer full traceability or other advanced capabilities to win more lucrative contracts, while larger companies are seeking ways to disburden their engineering resources to focus on upcoming large-scale projects.
In all cases, we help customers focus on their end users by helping manage operational aspects of their business. We help them connect disconnected islands in their processes. We replace today’s complexity with bridges and connectors.
What we are striving to offer is exactly that… Turn-key solutions that complement a customer’s resources to focus on what they are best at, and rely on us to ensure they meet their business demands.
Beyond obvious integration points we are developing non-traditional solutions spanning bringing small MES to the line-level, using virtual reality to prioritize and direct labor tasks, delivering paperless instructions to augment operator skill, offering end-of-line solutions to integrate box build, and introducing a new solution that combines odd-form and placement. We have many new exciting introductions that can harmonize and integrate the enterprise.
It is an election year in both the United States and Germany. How do you think potential government policies could impact electronics manufacturing?
Historically we’ve seen a bit of a slowdown as an election approaches due to the business sectors’ holding back investment and taking a “wait and watch” attitude. We don’t see any major changes at this point. We have strong market interest, many active engagements, and see positive indicators of its continuation. In the event of a slowdown, we are well-prepared.