Peter Kronfeld
Peter Kronfeld
Peter Kronfeld, born in 1962, has always taken great interest in the subject of technological change in the economy, society and business. This already started when he was a student of economics and communication and he has been keeping track of these topics as a journalist and as managing director of HighTech communications GmbH until today.

Lack of data standards increases integration costs for users

(image: shutterstock_340734737_copyright_Niklebedev)

There are many debates going on about the best way to implement the smart factory. One thing the experts agree on, however: the flexible solution of tomorrow requires transparency. Operators must be able to check its status at all times and down to the smallest detail. Without this real-time status information, electronics manufacturers (or the smart autonomous planning systems of the future) will be unable to make the necessary adjustments when things like quantities and/or deadlines change.

This brings us to a critical problem: SMT lines consist of a multitude of machines from different manufacturers. To this day, they form standalone solution cells with almost no data interchange. And the existing integration and data interchange standards are ancient. For example, do you know a factory that is comfortable with SMEMA and others of its like?

While many equipment makers advertise their own solutions and their ability to transfer data between machines and software tools, hard and fast modern standards developed by organizations like the IPC are not only still missing, they are also a long time coming. The standardization procedures are extremely slow and are frequently steamrolled by technological developments and requirements. They are also being slowed down by the special interests of companies and experts. In short, the industry has not yet learned its lesson with regard to the importance of interfaces.

What does this mean for users?

As long as no standards exists, any electronics manufacturer who wants to network his production generally has to do it on his own at considerable expense. A chart based on a recently published Gartner study confirms this:

(graphics published in CIO (german))

Although the smart machine market defined by Gartner comprises much more than smart automation solutions and expert systems, that data shows that electronics manufacturers cannot shoulder the integration process without outside help from specialists. Also interesting: according to Gartner, the implementation costs will be double the consulting expenses as early as in 2021.

Integration is becoming an important job and a major market for services

No one knows what the future will look like, but most likely it will be a mix of various models.

  • New standards arise
    Whether developed by the equipment manufacturers themselves or by standardization committees, we will have data standards in the coming years that simplify the networking and integration of SMT lines. And the sooner they will be defined and the more widely they will be supported by the equipment makers, the
    better for electronics manufacturers. Open standards play a significant role in making networking and integration cheaper, more reliable, and more future-proof.
  • Project solutions
    International electronics producers and EMS providers in particular will use their purchasing power to force equipment makers to work together. Suppliers who want to keep selling to these companies will be forced to integrate their line solutions and coordinate them with other equipment vendors. As a benefit of this approach, the participating parties learn about the challenges and requirements of integration. On the other hand, it will result in solutions that don’t work in general applications. In addition, this approach is not practical for small producers.
  • Strategic partnerships between electronics manufacturers and individual equipment markers
    Some major equipment makers will expand their portfolio to include line solutions.Their proposal to electronics manufacturers: Invest in complete line solutions which we have integrated for you and are constantly advancing on the basis of proprietary data standards. For many small and medium-sized producers in particular, this will be an attractive option to meeting the integration challenge. One consequence will be increased consolidation among equipment makers as they complete their portfolios by purchasing small and more specialized companies.
  • Integration service providers
    Any electronics manufacturer who has special requirements or believes that optimized integration will deliver competitive benefits will be unable get around customer-specific networking solutions for many years to come. Since most of them don’t have the necessary technological expertise and market knowledge in-house, however, they require external resources to implement these systems. This means that dealers, consultants and specialized supplier departments will develop into new market partners, i.e. integration service providers. They will advise electronics with a more or less non-proprietary approach and support them with project management services and their own developments (data interfaces, software tools, etc.), similar to large ERP projects today. The benefit: Successful projects will lead to solutions that can raise the customers’ competitiveness to new levels. The drawback: The cost and risks of the integration activities must be borne by the electronics manufacturers.

This list of options does not claim to be complete, particularly since most projects will be some mix of these models. What’s important to keep in mind, however, is that the longer we wait with the standardization process (whether through classic committees or proprietary de-facto standards), the more expensive it will become for the electronics manufacturers. Equipment makers will suffer, too, at least indirectly, because the more expensive networking and integration become, the longer electronics producers will wait to invest in smart factory technology and the less money will be available for their machines and/or solutions. The industry should not take comfort in this, but see it as an obstacle to investment that must be overcome as quickly as possible.

2 Comments

  1. BorkBork says:

    Good Article, do you which standardization measures in the industry and espacially in SMT are already on way??

  2. Peter KronfeldPeter Kronfeld says:

    We have seen some efforts – (eg. IPC-2581B (XML for PCB and production data) or IPC-1782 (standard for traceability data)) – but the challenge is speed. Current structures of industry organisations and committees seem to be out-of-date and work just too slow. Also it would need a stronger involvement of IT companies to make better use of common IT network technologies, data formats and protocols.
    Apart of this it is not suffient to collect product and process data – in smart smt factories monitoring and planning systems should be able to control machines and processes in real time. While visiting Aros (/general/my-thrilling-visit-to-sweden/) I could watch their monitoring system. It shows a graphical view of each PCB running through line – and by clicking on it you could drilldown into details of the order, the board and the processes (like the reflow profile used). They really have transparency – but it was all programmed internally requiring a lot of talks to the supplier of each single line component to gain access to machine and process data. And they still “just” monitor and do not have real time control.

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