Electronic Manufacturing Embraces IoM at APEX 2016


Philip Stoten, Owner of EMSNow Media

Last week in Las Vegas the electronics industry’s great and good gathered to explore the latest developments, and while there were the usual incremental evolutions as products are getting faster, more efficient and in many cases cheaper, there was little revolution.  The area, however, that did show substantial progress and the highest level of interest was that of smart and connected manufacturing or IoM (Internet of Manufacturing), as we know it in the Americas.

During the show scoop conducted more than fifty interviews and several roundtables on our studio, hosted by EMSNow, Mexico EMS and US Tech, and by far the most discussed topic was around IoM.  Brands, EMS (Electronic Manufacturing Services) companies, capital equipment vendors, software and even consumables suppliers had this topic written large on their booths and on top of their agenda.

I talked to people in the contract manufacturing space like VirTex, Libra Industries, Saline Lectronics and Kimball, all of whom were embracing the advantages of IoM or Industry 4.0 to make their facilities and services more efficient, more effective, faster, transparent and even more agile.

IoM and On-shoring

In a roundtable on re-shoring trends, Rick Polansky, Senior Vice President of Business Development at VirTex, who have facilities in Wisconsin, Texas and Mexico talked about smart-shoring.  Rick gave examples of how a true analysis of landed costs, including costs associated with vendor liaison, stock at sea and all the other elements have to be considered to ensure the right outsourcing geography is selected.  This, along with the soft costs like the frustrations and delays and risk to IP (Intellectual Property) people had endured, was resulting in a number of projects returning from Asia to the Americas with close if not comparable cost.  That cost is being kept down by implementing IoM, i4 (Industry 4.0) and other automation strategies and Rick was joined on the panel by Kevin Welsch from Simplimatic, a robotic and automation company exhibiting at APEX this year.

Kevin was able to cite a number of examples where automation had been the route to saving factories that would have closed due to the rising cost of labor, partially as a result of much higher state enforced minimum wage levels.  Robotics and automation has a role to play in keeping factories competitive and while in the short term they may displace some very simple low wage jobs, keeping manufacturing in those regions will prevent further loss of jobs and industries and will likely yield higher paid jobs as the industry’s skill mix changes dramatically.

Simplimatic was not the only robotics company at the show, Rethink Robotics were present and offered some exciting developments in collaborative robots, or cobots, as they have become known.  Robots in many forms are starting to find their way into the SMT facility and those that can coexist with the human workers on the line are perhaps the most likely to succeed.  Cobots that can be simply programed to mimic human activity with great speed and accuracy are certainly gaining the most attention and it was refreshing to see that US manufacturers are exploring this avenue, given that in China right now few IoM or i4 discussions take place without the topic of cobots being mentioned.

How do we get started?

This seems to be the most common question asked about IoM, whilst not getting started is the greatest risk.  Many are concerned about legacy equipment that can’t be connected to an IoT (Internet of Things) backbone and others are just overwhelmed with the size of the task.  I talked to KIC CEO, Bjorn Dahle and asked him, as a software, hardware and systems vendor, what he’s hearing in the market.  Bjorn agreed that the first step was the most challenging for most and he cited examples of KIC customers who had invested in simple low cost solutions that allowed them to manage the thermal profiles of the ovens in a way that made the oven more efficient in terms of changeover and had an impact of planning beyond just the product families delivered to the placement machine.  Bjorn said, “A good place to start is to implement technologies that improves production line utilization because that tends to carry the biggest ROI.  For many years the voice of the placement process has dictated the order of the jobs, only to have changeover delayed by the reflow oven changing temperature settings.  By listening to the voice of the reflow process and considering which jobs can be run in the same oven recipe, as well as the best order to change profiles, changeover time can be reduced and line efficiency increased.  This is more output from a very small investment, perhaps as low as US$10,000”.  Bjorn added, “taking an holistic big data approach, rather than allowing processes to operate in silos is the core of IoM or Industry 4.0 and will be where the biggest benefits and cost savings are derived.”

Of course the glue that holds IoM together is communications and, aside from some drama around the standard language for this, there are many companies offering solutions to get the whole factory linked up to the MES (Manufacturing Execution System) or ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) software.  Many had installed software and systems to not only control their facility using Industry 4.0 and IoM principles, but also to deliver better visibility to their customers.  Those embracing IoM talked about the expected efficiency, yield, traceability and quality benefits, but were also excited about how it made them better able to support their customers adding that it had made them more ‘sticky’ with those accounts.

What About a Standard?

So, the saga of a common manufacturing language has rolled through the last few weeks and came to head at APEX.  Everyone agrees a common language or standard for that language would be ideal and last month in a webinar Mentor Graphics announced that they had written such a standard operating language and that they would share it with the industry free of charge.  This was followed by an announcement on Tuesday at APEX that Mentor Graphics was also releasing a box that can connect to any machine or process on or off the line, translating from that machines code to this common language.  That language is called OML, short for Open Manufacturing Language.  The relevant IPC standards committee met on this topic on the Wednesday and it was formerly agreed (by means of a number of votes) that while everyone wanted an open standard, that standard could not be owned by anyone apart from the IPC.  In a meeting that had probably the committee’s highest turnout ever, everyone agreed to dedicate resources to getting a standard out as a soon as possible and Mentor agreed to discuss the potential adoption of the OML specification as an IPC standard with the IPC.

Those I spoke to on the committee and in the industry were impressed with what Mentor Graphic’s had achieved in the development of OML and perhaps closer liaison with IPC earlier could have averted this hiccup in the potential adoption and eventual creation of an IPC standard.  The motivation to provide the industry with an open standard quickly is a laudable one and the quicker a standard is released the better.  In the meantime IPC Sub-Committee Chair and Aegis Software CEO, Jason Spera told me, “as software developers we were impressed with what Mentor had achieved with OML and whilst everyone in the meeting including the IPC representatives agreed it cannot be called a standard, it could contribute to that development”.  Jason added, “the entire committee present understands the need to work quickly on this and I was delighted with the turnout at the meeting and the desire and agreement of those major software and hardware companies present to commit resources to getting this done properly and swiftly”.  The key word in this whole process is ‘open’!  Open protocols, languages and systems, along with collaboration will undoubtedly yield the best results for everyone.

“Machine vendors want to engage quickly and all parties agree that a replacement for the current IPC-2541, Generic Requirements for Electronics Manufacturing Shop-Floor Equipment Communication Messages (CAMX) is needed and demanded by the industry and speed of execution is critical,” said David Bergman, IPC vice president of standards and training. “During the meeting two commercial initiatives were presented, and based on those two presentations, the subcommittee realized several licensing and intellectual property issues need to be resolved before the new standard can progress.  The subcommittee also determined that the IP cannot be controlled by any entity other than IPC, nor a revenue generator for any company contributing to the standard.”

IoM is becoming a key component to successful manufacturing and once we iron out issues like common languages or standards, where robots can fit into the factory and the changing skill mix of our operators, we will become more efficient, more effective and as a result more competitive, regardless of geography and wage costs.

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