Our 2019 has started with a bang! First with CES (Consumer Electronics Show) at the beginning of January, rapidly followed by APEX at the end of the same month. What intrigues me is that the ingredient technologies promoted as essential to the success of autonomous driving, smart homes and smart cities at CES, are exactly the same as those discussed as enablers for smart manufacturing at APEX. The drive for Industry 4.0, like the drive for the digital transformation of our lives, will be built on connectivity, on data and, of course, on the actionable intelligence that is derived from that data.
At APEX, I spent a lot of my time listening to speakers, talking to our customers and prospects and sharing my own ideas with industry luminaries on panels. The story is extremely consistent. The fundamental need in the short term is to get everything in the factory, and in fact throughout the entire manufacturing ecosystem, connected and digitized. What is less consistent is the approach to doing that, with many making a simple process much more complex than it needs to be.One element which, to my mind, is creating unnecessary inertia, is the debate around standards. Within the industry there is considerable debate around the new standards. Whilst some great work has been done, and in many ways it is a fine example of how IPC can bring the industry together, the whole debate has made a simple task more complex than needed. Many users are asking which standard to use, do I need one or multiple, what machines connect to which standard and when will all the new standards be available everywhere?
Yes, the new standards could be good, but it certainly isn’t the only good standard, and it will take a long time to develop, debug, adopt and implement. The suppliers in the industry along with a few MES providers are quite animated about the new standards, but the EMS companies and OEMs making product as well as the PCB fabricators, and of course the semiconductor industry, are less excited. Many of them have existing communications standards like GEM, ELS, etc., that work perfectly well. Others have legacy machines that would need additional hardware and software to connect to new standards, but have some existing and functioning communications protocol.
The truth is connectivity should be simpler, and it can be. The semiconductor industry has been through this entire experience over the last two decades and many companies have successfully connected thousands of machines from hundreds of vendors in dozens of facilities in many countries. At Cimetrix, we have been working with them and have been delivering simple, scalable, economic connectivity solutions as well as the layers of analysis and intelligence that are built on top of that.
My advice to anyone starting their smart factory journey is to get the digitization and connectivity done and move onto building the digital building blocks of analytics and intelligence as well as value as quickly as possible. The inertia caused by worrying about standards is counter-productive and could cause companies to be left behind. They could also remain in the Proof-of-Concept purgatory forever.
One of the pleasing things about the debates and discussions related to smart factory at APEX is the willingness of vendors to collaborate. Most, if not all, recognize that smart factory solutions won’t come from a single vendor. Machine makers are also realizing that their deep domain knowledge combined with data manipulation only delivers part of the value and the way that data is shared on the line and beyond is where additional performance benefits can be found. There are now dozens of partnerships between the machines that collect data and those that use data, some in a closed loop but more recently in a manner that makes data available to whoever can derive value from it. These open communications and data formats will deliver real value in the future and make smart manufacturing a reality across the whole supply chain, from sand to phone.
There is a universal awareness that this digitization will drive a huge growth in data volumes. Many see cloud and hybrid cloud solutions as an important part of the data storage mix. Huge amounts of data also need manipulation and vendors are betting on AI (Artificial Intelligence) to help manage the data and derive real value.
It’s fascinating to see the ingredient technologies of the smart cities, smart homes and smart living, finding their way into smart factories and it will be exciting to see how the PCB and SMT industries utilize these huge leaps in progress driven by the consumer electronics world.
(This post first ran on EMSnow.com on February 14, 2019.)