APEX Show – It’s No Longer What you Have, But What You Are Doing With It

With less than a week to go before the IPC APEX show in San Diego, it is time to prepare and set expectations. Traditionally at these trade shows, the area of interest is on advancing machine technology, but this year, we are likely to see a swing of interest in favor of software, taking in Smart Platforms, Industry 4.0, and IoT.  After all, if Donald Trump wants volume electronics manufacturing back in the USA, with the lack of old-school manufacturing engineers, smart computerization is going to have to be a big part of the solution.

Last year, at trade-shows such as APEX, we saw the presence of banners proclaiming support for Industry 4.0 and Smart Factories. Of course, machine vendors needed to be seen as “future-proof”, but scratch the surface, and there was little substance behind any claims. No fault at all, as electronics manufacturing at the time was simply not ready. A year on, there are no more excuses. Electronics manufacturing IoT technologies such as OML (Open Manufacturing Language) have been available to everyone for a year, with many articles, round-tables and workshops under the belt. Surely as a result, the real strategy and vision of the Smart factory has developed for everyone?

The reality is that there is not going to be any one provider of a mammoth Smart or Industry 4.0 system in manufacturing. At first, there are at least three layers on which solutions will work. At the machine layer, each machine vendor can provide Industry 4.0 solutions focused on their niche, which utilize data from other machine platforms and the factory layer. Systems at the factory layer support the machine vendor solutions, bringing in effect complete machine inter-operability and data exchange. They also provide site level solutions. Though on paper, the names of the solutions, such as finite production planning and flow control, lean material management, product portability and closed-loop active quality may overlap, the reality is that the functionality is complementary, with machine vendors continuing to be the masters of their domain, which can extend however far they each define it to be. The factory itself as a whole being served by specialist solution providers, especially in the SMT area itself. A third layer then sits on top, providing the legacy enterprise functionality, such as ERP, MRP and a portion of MES, taking performance and traceability data from the other layers, whilst also providing delivery requirements, material availability etc.

All of these complementary solutions have to work together, and this is where specifications like OML come into their own. Rather than being just a method of moving data from place to place, OML creates a complete open factory environment for data exchange, a rugged and fully featured back-bone on which Industry 4.0 solutions in every layer, from every machine provider can exist, creating and consuming data, providing their own niche of smart functionality. There are then easier choices for customers, to freely choose the best machines and factory systems for the job, including “home grown” solutions. How smart the operation is will be dependent on the human vision for combinations of functions that achieve the profile and performance of the factory that best suit the business goals. This is of key importance considering the wide variety of manufacturing electronics operations out there.

And so, to the show we go. Smart, Industry 4.0 are no longer just buzz-words. It was a heads-up of sorts, which some have already taken advantage of to prepare themselves for a minimum of four years, where we will surely see the world, at least of electronics manufacturing, change forever. Let’s embrace the opportunity, and not get left behind.

Come and see me at APEX 2017, in booth 809, and let’s start something interesting!