As the electronics manufacturing industry heads home from San Diego, many will reflect on the last three days of exhibition and conference with a degree of satisfaction. But what were the key takeaways from this year’s IPC APEX Expo?
A theme that shone through this year was that of collaboration; the collaboration within the industry to delivery better standards and to support each other, the collaboration between vendors to create solutions for their customers, and even the collaboration between man and machine with all the potential that can bring.
IPC has always done an exceptional job of bringing people together to support initiatives with common and lofty goals and a great example of this is the work being done by the standards committee as they drive towards a standard for machine communications within IoM (Internet of Manufacturing), Smart Factory or Industry 4.0. The industry has been crying out for a standard for some time and the committee seem to be making real progress with their CFX standard slated to be at least in beta later this year. EMS and OEM companies all see clear benefit from the application of IoM and want to make the right investment, so having a standard in place and widely accepted by APEX 2018 is imperative. To achieve this progress some companies that would normally consider themselves fierce rivals have had to collaborate and they have done this with enthusiasm and openness.
It seems that IoM has brought the best out of many companies and the ideal of ‘coopertition’, the collaboration between erstwhile competitors, seems to be gaining ground. Most vendors agree that IoM requires a large number of hardware and software building blocks and while they may have one or more excellent solutions, no one vendor can deliver the whole package. Hence, we see and unprecedented number of ever closer relationships between vendors to support the plans of the manufacturers. One or two years ago, all the conversations around Industry 4.0 or IoM were with vendors and most where quite theoretical. Now those conversations are with manufacturers who are actually applying those theories, many with success and measurable return on investment in the form of savings, greater agility and an ability to serve their customers better.
The third area of collaboration is that between operator and machine as the industry drives more automation onto the shop floor. Much of this comes from the idea of collaborative robots, or cobots, that are moving out of their cages and onto the line alongside human operators. As we explore tools like AR (Augmented Reality) to manage the collaboration between man and machine we see all kind of opportunities for mutual benefit and support. Cobots can learn from humans who have the ability to process and make fast decisions based on information from an enormous number of resources, including experience. Humans can gain from cobots as they take on the more tedious or strenuous tasks and deliver consistent and repeatable results. This shift to an augmented age, where we collaborate with our tools rather than merely using them has boundless possibilities from the factory floor to the autonomous vehicle.
APEX is always about discussion, debate and the sharing of knowledge, but I suspect this was one of the most collaborative yet. Long may that collaboration continue.