Five Things I Learned at APEX 2016

■ Simplimatic’s Kevin Welsch (center) and Rick Polansky, SVP of VirTex (right) and yours truly

■ Simplimatic’s Kevin Welsch (center) and Rick Polansky, SVP of VirTex (right) and yours truly

I didn’t attend the education or conference program at APEX, but everyday is a school day when you get to talk to so many industry leaders, commentators and experts in just three days. Here are five things I learned at APEX from the dozens of on and off camera conversations.

Operational excellence is back on the top of the agenda

For me this was the best news of the show. I have written in that past sharing my concerns that slim margins and pressure to shave costs like R&D had resulted in manufacturing ceasing to create and innovate in its processes.

Topics like IoM (Internet of Manufacturing), IoT and Industry 4.0 have pushed manufacturing excellence to the top of the agenda again. If the battleground for EMS companies is operational excellence rather than low cost labor or parts price variation the industry will doubtless improve the way it operates. Discussions with brands, the largest to the smallest contract manufacturers, and their hardware, software and consumables suppliers confirmed to me that getting the best out of manufacturing was a major priority.

Manufacturing works everywhere, not just in China

Leading up to APEX I had already spent several weeks in the US visiting EMS companies of all shapes and sizes. What was pleasing was that they all seemed to be prioritizing manufacturing excellence and as a result they were winning business that perhaps would have gone to China just a year ago, and in some cases had gone there and was now returning.

Buyers seem to be getting smarter at their vendor selection process and are starting to understand the value of manufacturing close to either their customers or their design team. Rick Polansky, SVP of VirTex summed this up well in a roundtable, that he and Simplimatic’s Kevin Welsch and I shared on the last day of the show. Rick talks about ‘smart shoring’ and the correct way to select manufacturing geography, whilst Kevin explained how automation, particularly robotics was assisting in closing the gap between the onshore and offshore cost of manufacturing. This full roundtable is available at https://youtu.be/3qkQ2r45bfI?list=PLWPIC4XR6zdGv-vEK046z0PMOvO9dOcVE

Standards aren’t as easy to agree as they look

Having standard protocol within an industry provides clarity and value to those who use them. The industry has been crying out for a machine-to-machine communications standard for some time and in February Mentor released just such a protocol called OML (Open Manufacturing Language), which it agreed to share with the industry free of charge. The relevant IPC standards committee met on this topic on the Wednesday of APEX 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.

I guess what we all learned here is that standards aren’t as easy as they might seem and a great many interests need to be accommodated. In this case that means all of the software companies, the equipment makers, and most importantly the end users. Let’s hope IPC keeps some momentum in this one and gets the job done as quickly as is practical.

Huge ‘NEPCON West’ style booths are back, but are they a god idea

Perhaps what I was least impressed with was the size of the booths at APEX this year. I was reminded of the days of NEPCON West when booth and hospitality had gotten a little out of hand. At that time the IPC had come along offering an alternative that was more pragmatic, sensible and provided a leave playing field where technical excellence could shine above gloss and glitz.

The first companies to leave NEPCON West were the PCB suppliers and IPC Expo was formed. They were followed by assembly companies who formed APEX and that was pretty much the end for NEPCON West. These shows both started with higher moral standards, requiring booths of modest sizes and when booths were large, for a percentage of those booths to be occupied by equipment. Now it seems we’re back to the days of big booths with more hospitality than technology and even two story booths. Is this the best thing for the industry and how do we avoid IPC APEX Expo becoming NEPCON West all over again?

Cobots are coming to the SMT workplace

As at Productronica in Munich last November, the robotic companies were busy making their presence felt amongst the SMT equipment vendors. In some cases we see partnerships, like the Kuka robot on the booth of ASM. In Asia we are seeing that more and more automation discussions including the topic of robots or cobots (collaborative robots) and I am looking forward to seeing what’s on offer at NEPCON China later this month in Shanghai. Companies like Rethink Robotics and Simplimatic Automation had a good week at APEX and it is fascinating to see how these and other players will impact the SMT line and electro-mechanical box build processes. There is no doubt robots are coming, but the impact that they have, technically, economically and socially is unknown.

For me the next major show is NEPCON in China, and I can’t wait to learn more about what’s driving the electronics manufacturing industry worldwide. If you’re going to be there drop me note…

phil@wearescoop.com

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