17 Mar Advanced Cleanroom Operations Are Built on ROCs
By John Maculley
Remote Operations Centers (ROCs) enable companies to begin the journey toward “lights out” robotic-assisted cleanrooms–the holy grail of operations.
If you have ever spent time in a cleanroom, you understand the gowning ritual. Companies may have unique protocols for gowning, but they typically start by stepping across a sticky mat that pulls debris from shoes. Then, excess particles from the environment are removed through an airlock chamber leading to a gowning room where smocks, booties, hairnets, gloves, and goggles are available in various sizes. Extensive handwashing and alcohol wiping of goggles and other items, such as phones and laptops, occur. The entire process can take between 5 and 15 minutes, depending on your agility and experience.
When exiting a cleanroom, the process is reversed, but without the handwashing and alcohol-wiping procedure. Now imagine you have a mid-morning meeting, then lunch, and a mid-afternoon break, plus an unplanned bio-break for good measure. The back-and-forth routine quickly adds up to more than 1.5 hours, on average, of lost productivity per day for each cleanroom operator. When these lost hours are multiplied by the number of cleanroom operators on shift, the impact becomes substantial. Assuming a modest staff of 50 cleanroom operators, we can calculate the productivity impact to increase by over 20,000 hours per year or nearly ten full-time-equivalent headcount! In financial terms, the gowning ritual’s payroll expenses can top $1.5 M, excluding lost cleanroom production costs.
Fortunately, companies can implement an alternative method to gain back this lost productivity and, in the process, improve the quality-of-life for many cleanroom operators. By separating specific computer-based tasks performed in cleanrooms and centralizing them in control rooms, known as Remote Operations Centers (ROCs), companies can improve efficiencies and begin the journey toward “lights out” robotic-assisted cleanrooms–the holy grail of operations.
Remote Operations Centers
Nearly a decade ago, I stepped into a ROC at a large semiconductor company for the first time. I was amazed by the monitors on the walls projecting key performance indicators, equipment throughput metrics, work-in-process locations, and the number of materials in stock. The ROC team wore standard business attire, and they occupied workstations with dual-monitors displaying detailed operating parameters for their assigned equipment. The environment was relaxed and collaborative, with small groups huddled around workstations to discuss ways of bringing the process capability back in line with statistical process control (SPC) limits. ROC operators communicated with the few operators in the cleanroom to alert them of potential issues and changes in build priorities.
Advanced ROCs allow operators to remotely control the movement of lots and modify equipment recipes. Command and control of operations are possible steps away from cleanrooms or any location across a global factory network. Beyond the cleanroom production, ROCs enable predictive maintenance, integrated data-driven decision-making, and the management of end-to-end value chains. Moreover, the extended enterprise can monitor parts and supply warehouses across multiple assets for supply chain optimization. ROCs are part of a more significant manufacturing trend toward Smart Factories leveraging Industry 4.0 capabilities, such as artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things.
The potential unlocked by data-driven operations extends well beyond remotely managed workflows. Through the integrated data warehouses, cross-functional teams can optimize the entire enterprise through real-time analytics. Furthermore, value drivers can encompass every function in an organization. A few notable opportunities include:
ROCs and data supporting them facilitate rapid experimentation and simulation. Engineers can modify recipes for experimental lots during builds by collecting in-line data to pinpoint specific parameters underpinning their hypothesis. The benefits of faster learning-cycles help expedite new product development.
- Process Capability
Quality engineers can monitor SPC charts during operations to determine optimal specification limits and remotely modify equipment settings to account for material variations. Optimizing specs using real-time data reduces scrap costs and helps maintain a steady flow of products.
- Production Capacity
The opportunity for real-time yield optimization is presented by a mismatch between pilot line and production processes and equipment during design transfers. Process engineers make recipe adjustments based on observed variations to improve throughput.
In addition to integrating traditional materials management systems, data warehouses can supply R&D engineers in ROCs with the necessary information to initiate in situ 3D printing to drive targeted rapid prototyping during early development.
The journey toward Smart Factories with “lights out” operations begins by redesigning manufacturing processes to leverage automation with minimal human interaction. Engineers must then design tooling and enabling equipment to leverage the automated processes, focusing on logistical inputs and outputs of raw materials and work-in-process, respectively. The implementation process proceeds as follows:
- Start by creating a future-state manufacturing process map and carve out production cells that lend themselves to automation.
- Integrate equipment systems with centralized data warehouses to feed small-scale ROCs.
- Use these pilots to work out the kinks and build foundational knowledge before expanding to the next set of cells.
- Establish company mandates and define targets to encourage the transition of automated manufacturing.
- In parallel with building technology capability, initiate a change management campaign to promote the long-term benefits of embarking on the journey.
- The drive should include retraining existing staff and hiring experienced subject matter experts who can inject best-practices.
The road may be bumpy at first, and companies may never reach the holy grail of completely remote operations. Nevertheless, the journey will eventually position businesses to take advantage of Industry 4.0 enabling technologies. In time, internal cultures will be built where employees embrace new ways of working and proactively drive next-generation innovation.
About the Author
John Maculley is a principal with Accel Management Group. In this role, he helps clients grow their companies and improves their operational efficiencies by designing and implementing customer-driven innovation and product development frameworks. Maculley brings more than 20 years of high-tech industry experience, enabling him to deliver innovative methods to improve time-to-market, reduce costs, advance performance, and increase revenue.