ST-Engineering: A ‘Factory of the Future’ on its way to Mars | Agoria

ST-Engineering: A ‘Factory of the Future’ on its way to Mars

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Published on 20/05/21 by Sibylle Dechamps
Focus on people and technology launches ST Engineering iDirect towards the future. Anyone expecting glitzy robots or ultramodern AGVs on the production floor of a Factory of the Future will come away empty-handed from ST Engineering iDirect, formerly known as Newtec. What will you find there?

A major focus on the employee, a lot of attention for the digital process geared decidedly to quality and reliability. It has to be, because the ST Engineering iDirect products are also exploring space in the meantime.

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A real forerunner

Under its original name, Newtec was one of the 4 laureates of the very first Factory of the Future award in 2015. Three years later, that feat was repeated, so we can rightly and justifiably say that ST Engineering iDirect is a forerunner in innovation.

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According to manager Guy De Winne, however, this ambition has been in the company's DNA for much longer: "We started in 1985 and specialize in the design, development and production of technologies and solutions for satellite communication. For decades, there has been a strong trend in the electronics sector to move production to Asia. 

"We have always tried to do our utmost to keep as many products as possible here, but that requires a very rigorous strategy on innovation."

This approach is clearly paying off as reflected not only in our multiple awards as Factory of the Future, but in the fact that we will also effectively bring the production of parts that are currently done in the USA and Malaysia, among others, back to our country. More specifically, these are parts that now fall under our core competences through the acquisition. The competitiveness analysis was clearly in our favour."

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"Not a matter of just copying the process"

"Whoever wants to become a Factory of the Future must show the necessary openness. We have visited several companies. We are part of the panel that assesses the other candidates and a member of Agoria's Advanced Manufacturing group, and we receive visits from universities on a regular basis. You learn something from each visit, each event. It is the symbiosis of all the information that we ultimately implement in our own setting. Sometimes this can be done immediately, but it is just as likely to be a process over a number of years in which we first have to take other steps. 

But I would like to underscore an important note in this respect: simply copying a process does not yield anything.  I like to compare it with a recipe from a three-star chef. Even if you copy the recipe and ingredients meticulously, you will never achieve the same result because you miss certain subtleties of the process." 

We mentioned it at the outset: People, not machines,  make the decisions on the production floor of ST Engineering iDirect. A deliberate choice?

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De Winne: "The nature of the work - fine work with a major focus on the interpretation of quality standards - makes extensive automation unfeasible. First of all, it is not repetitive work, because our series vary from prototypes and unique one-piece parts to series of up to 5,000, even if they are rather sporadic. The lead time depends somewhat on the complexity and varies from a few hours to a few days. The same applies to the cycle time. With us, you won't find any assembly line work where an employee has to perform the same action every 15 seconds. This is more likely to be in the order of an hour or more. It is even possible that an employee has to spend a whole week assembling and checking one piece, only to make the same piece again with a minimal change."

"Moreover, interpretation is also very important in our process. Many of our employees are constantly carrying out visual inspections and manual operations, where they have to process and check the pieces in various ways. It is very difficult to automate that. We do not consider current vision systems smart enough at this time to do as well as humans. We do keep an eye on developments in artificial intelligence, but to be honest I don't see it breaking through for us just yet."

Beta machines

This brings us to a pressing question: how does ST Engineering iDirect chart the technological roadmap?

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De Winne: "As mentioned earlier, we get interesting information from networking with other companies and organizations. Moreover, we also follow the progress in technology with suspicion internally. We meet regularly at management level to see how the current state of technology can support our processes and to outline our roadmap.”

"We also have a 'beta' cooperation with some machine suppliers whereby they first test their new machines that are not yet on the market with us. This is a win-win situation. For them it is very valuable to see their machine concept work in a real setting, and we get first access to completely new developments. Another example consists of sensors that are produced here as prototypes but will not be in the latest smartphones for another two years. We see the little inefficiency in production that such cooperation costs, rather as an investment in our own Manufacturing Competences."

We will also become a demo factory for Siemens soon, bringing everything around the digitalization of our production process into their platform. We are not taking any chances. First we wanted to analyse our process in detail, and put each piece of the puzzle in the right context. We have met several times in recent years to see what was possible at that moment. Only now do we consider ourselves ready to take this step."

"Such tracking of technology has become very important. It is also often a matter of trying it out, with varying degrees of success. For example, we followed 3D printing closely for years, but never took the final step. Only recently did we decide that the technology could add value, and successfully so. We now print attachments that facilitate work during production. An example of technology that we do not yet consider mature has already been mentioned: vision technology. For us, for the reasons outlined, this is not yet for today."  

Solar Orbiting Project

Ten years ago, it was sometimes said aloud in the company buildings in Erpe Mere that we would ‘one day be going into space with Newtec’. That distant dream became reality last year. De Winne: "Components that we make as subcontractors can for instance be found in the Solar Orbiting project of the ESA -- a project for scientific research close to the sun.”

"You don't just get into this sector, of course. It's a long process. We started looking at other market segments than what we were used to around 2008, also because we wanted to anchor our production here. Our products then were what I would call 'high industrial': intended for industrial use and with a very high reliability. We were talking about parts with a Mean Time Before Failure (MTBF) of 20 years -- reliable parts with mostly limited series. At that time, we also started to shift to other market segments with even stricter requirements: defence, aviation,... and with the ultimate ambition of also achieving the highest quality level. Since last year, we have succeeded in doing so with Solar Orbiting. In the meantime, we are also present in the research taking place in the ISS. The next project is also in the pipeline, as we are currently making electronics for transport shuttles between the Earth and the ISS. So we are well on our way to Mars", beams De Winne.

 

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