Designing User Experience for the Factories of Tomorrow

by Olga Zinoveva, Senior Software Engineer, Bright Machines

The User Experience (UX) discipline in the technology sector has evolved rapidly over the last two decades and we’ve all witnessed the changes.  For example, the transition from button-based phones and keyboard-only interfaces to increasingly powerful yet easy-to-use, touch-based smartphones and tablets. A parallel change has been happening in factories, with industrial Human-Machine Interfaces (HMIs) evolving from physical push buttons, lights and switches in the 1980s, to the multi-touch screens of today. And we are not done evolving yet!

I have worked on various consumer applications in the past, including games and websites, and was directly responsible for building the UX on a couple of those projects. My experience in consumer UX gives me some insight into the many exciting opportunities that lie ahead for industrial UX. Here are a few I’ve been thinking of.

Defining UX in the factory context

In a setting where a vast array of hardware devices are connected to each other in complex ways, and users range from operators on the factory floor to project managers in remote offices, UX goes far beyond a single screen. Instead, it encompasses the full experience of using the system, from any interface or device that connects to it. Industrial UX is a mix of software (dedicated touchscreen panels or apps) and hardware (buttons, feeders) interfaces controlling the machines on the floor, monitors giving real-time status updates about the production line, and services generating reports based on data collected in the cloud over many weeks. Almost every component we build becomes a part of the user experience, so we must approach design holistically. Every software and hardware engineer, product manager, and data scientist must think like a UX designer.

Increased software capabilities mean increased complexity

The role and responsibility of software in manufacturing is growing rapidly. But with more software capabilities comes more UX complexity. As more tasks move from hardware to software – whether running on the device itself, in a local server, or in the cloud – the number of ways that users can interact with the system and their complexity increase. Yet the UX we build cannot simply hide this complexity from the users. A core concept of UX design is that people always form mental models of how a system operates, whether we want them to or not, and if their model sufficiently differs from reality, it will lead to frustration and mistakes.  Therefore, the next-generation factory UX will need to be intuitive and straightforward, but never oversimplified. The goal is to design a UX that helps users build the right conceptual models from the start to maximize productivity and minimize training time and mistakes.

The high bar set by consumer devices

Almost every worker in a modern factory has used a smartphone or tablet – this year, global smartphone usage is expected to hit 2.5 billion (and it’s growing)! As a result, today’s factory workers have a high level of technical literacy and familiarity with certain interaction standards. This represents an incredible opportunity for industrial UX because it can reduce training time for any UX that follows these standards. At the same time, the ubiquity of thoughtfully designed consumer devices has raised the bar for the quality of user interactions, responsiveness, and UX clarity in the factory context. Workers now expect industrial interfaces to work as well as their personal smartphones.

Building UX for the factory of tomorrow is no small feat, but it represents a massive opportunity and an exciting time for UX professionals as they help inform the next wave of industrial innovation.

An edited version of this article also appeared in Design World on June 3, 2019.

Surface Mount Technology vs. Workstation Design

In today’s modern SMT assembly facilities, the design and flexibility of the workstation is critical to maintain quality, workflow and ergonomics. Unlike the old, static, welded frame workbenches and workstations of the past that were never moved or reconfigured, the modern workstations now incorporate a modular, flexible, adaptable design, with a wide variety of options,  that allows the end-user tremendous flexibility in reconfiguring the furniture to meet an ever changing production environment.

Circuit board assembly used to be a fully mechanical process with through-hole components relying on bent leads to secure them to the board before manually applying solder.  Component preparation was also a manual or semiautomated process to form, straighten or cut leads to facilitate assembly. Today, fully automated equipment handles most of those same operations, including x-ray inspection and inline circuit inspection.  As a result, the role of the workstation has evolved to accommodate a production staff that is highly trained to perform multiple high level functions, often at the same workstation.  Productivity is more important than ever to maintain a competitive edge over off-shore manufacturers, so the workstation must be designed to adapt and change as production requirements change. No longer is it acceptable to simply scrap that old workstation and start over just because it no longer meets your current needs. A workstation design that permits quick and easy reconfiguration is the only viable option in today’s competitive environment. Carefully researching the workstation systems on the market, while planning for future needs, will result in substantial cost savings over both the short- and long-term while providing considerable ergonomic advantages.

Workstations that are considered “state-of-the-art” can and will provide more than just a worksurface.  Examples of  features should include: ESD protection, height adjustability, easily add casters for mobile applications,  cleanroom certification, Shelving (solid or wire), overhead task lighting, tool and equipment stands, test equipment carts, mobile maintenance stations,  Overhead mounting options for electric tools, LCD monitor arms, tote bin bars, tool trollies, Material transfer technology (ball transfer, conveyors, Flow racking) and rack mount/enclosures must be part of the overall package for continued adaptability in your changing environment.


In a typical SMT assembly facility, these modular workstations can be found in a variety of areas, such as: Machine Programming centers, Solder paste / metrology set-up, Post Process assembly of non-wets and odd form components, In-line inspection, box build assembly, Rework & repair, Product packaging, Quality control, Supervisory or management areas.  With a wide variety of module sizes available, nearly any possible configuration can be provided to meet the often limited footprint available in today’s modern assembly facility.

As SMT assembly trends continue to evolve into the age of nano-electronics, how is the job function of  your people and equipment going to change in the future?  Lean manufacturing, as well as state and federal legislation, may also have an effect on the end users requirements for workstation designs of the future.   While we don’t have the answers to those questions yet, we can be certain that workstation manufacturers will be working closely with the SMT industry to insure the designs will change as the industry dictates.