Interview – Jason Spera
At APEX there was a lot of discussion around the factory automation software platform, how it should go forward, how IPC should be dealing with it as a trade association, and what the industry really needs. It was a very contentious meeting with lots of people with a lot of different opinions. Where has it gone and where are we progressing with it?
It was not too long ago that we were in those meetings and it has gone pretty well since then. The size of the committee membership has ballooned quite a bit. We now have 33 machine vendors. We have two of the leading software vendors in the industry involved and have actually added several top-tier EMS and a couple of OEM from a customer facing perspective onto the committee as well. In addition to that, a charter has now been formed that has two missions, the first one is to define what Industry 4.0 means in our industry’s context in a way that people can have reasonable discussions without everyone thinking something different. The second is the underpinnings, about how it can be done, which is about the data communication protocols and standards that would used in the industry, for machine to machine, machine to system, supply chain integration, and so forth.
How are you structuring the committee?
First, I would like everyone to know that anybody who wants to join the committee, the IPC is fully open. We feel the more perspectives and understanding of what the requirements actually are is better. That is why it has been ballooning in terms of the number of members. It is actually structured now as such that we have a tier one EMS provider as a cochair and one of the machine manufacturer presidents has acknowledge they would be a cochair as well. I think that these are two key perspectives that, without the customer and what they are needing out of such a solution in Industry 4.0, it will not work very well. We need the machine vendors, and, of course, I come from the software perspective. So at the chair and cochair levels and then within the committee itself there is every perspective imaginable, from a OEM, EMS and machine, sensor and equipment such as conveyors, practically everyone, a great number of diverse opinions are represented.
One of the things that became evident out of the meetings at APEX was the urgency attached to this – we cannot be sitting around waiting three years for some standard to appear. Have you set yourself any sort of timelines, any interim goals, what is your destination is going to be?
The speed of executions is something everybody agreed upon as being important. The industry needs it, everyone wants to resolve this issue. As you can see, the IPC is forming a new committee that is not beholden to any other former committee such as one related to shop-floor communication standards of the past. A new committee number is created, the naming is ongoing – The Connected Factory name is interim – we have our charter in place, so some things have been done. The formation of the communication of what Industry 4.0 is went into a meeting in May and an upcoming one in June, in Chicago to begin the actual block and tackle of developing the standards.
Obviously, IPC is much more than a North American trade association, it is a global association in many ways, it needs to represent the different systems used around the world. In China for example, you have got Factory 1.0, here in Germany you have got Industry 4.0. Are you getting people to participate from different geographical regions? How are you going to address this?
It is not just geographic, it is also industry. There has been a huge amount of work done on the IoT, everyone knows that. IoT technology is used in other industries, everything from data-gathering to air-conditioning systems – whatever it is. The committee fully intends to leverage all the work that has been done in those areas and bring it in to this industry to expedite the whole process and not repeat mistakes that might have been made elsewhere.
Many people would acknowledge the factory-automation debate is an ongoing thing, it is a journey that we are on, so it is going to be constantly evolving. How is the committee going to deal with that? Is this going to be a fairly vibrant committee, constantly looking at the systems and how they are changing and going forward? Do you have a certain goal in mind – we have to get the standard to here – and that is it?
That would be a wonderful luxury to have, but because of the nature of technology and the changes, the standard has to evolve. It has to evolve in a controlled manner that certainly has some consensus around it. Any standard that would be acceptable to the industry has to be extensible, which means that should vendors want to expose data that they consider specific or possibly proprietary, there has to be a elegant mechanism through which they can do that within the framework of the standard. Then there has to be things the industry agrees it has to expose or do these things to be compliant. You can handle both within a data standard. This is actually not unusual in the IoT space.
One of the things that really started off this debate was at productronica when a number of the larger pick-and-place vendors were mentioning full-length solutions using proprietary software, which in turn made a lot of the smaller vendors concerned that they may be frozen out of that. Obviously, if you are making your pick-and-place machine talk to your printer and your inspection equipment, you are probably going to get more communication going back-and-forth. How are you going to do this with so many variables?
If you have systems that were custom built and integrated by a vendor who owns them, they are going to have advantages and will always have the right to say that they are not going to expose x, y or z. Nothing about a standard would preclude that. If they want to retain those abilities, that would be up to them. At a minimum, baseline data needs to be available throughout the factory for the great bulk of the functionality that is needed to enable Industry 4.0 capabilities. Some vendors may say that they are going to maintain this value within the scope of our integrated line internally at this point, and we will only expose a subset of these things. There is a way to accommodate both views.
It is a hugely interesting topic at the moment and we really look forward to seeing some results coming out of the committee. We hope we are going to see something in the next few months. We look forward to talking to again you as that evolves. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us.
– TREVOR GALBRAITH