i4.0 today




By David Fenton, Group Customer Support Manager, Blakell Europlacer

David Fenton has taken on the challenge of driving Blakell Europlacer towards Industry 4.0 integration, initially through the adoption of the IPC’s CFX (Connected Factory Exchange) standards. Here he describes the facets of that relatively short but rewarding journey.

For quite some time we’ve seen some of our competitors and strategic business partners in the surface mount electronics assembly sector claiming to be ‘Industry 4.0 ready’, and advertising as much. To us at Europlacer, that seemed rather odd. We’re by no means outsiders in this market sector. So we have a clear perspective of the historic and emerging needs of the prospective end users of Industry 4.0-compatible assembly systems: businesses such as OEMs and CEMs/ EMS Providers, a fair few of whom are Europlacer (or Speedprint) customers.

The question that kept popping up was how can anyone claim to be Industry 4.0 ready, when there is no standard to be ready for? That couldn’t be right. We knew that we needed to be involved in the movement but elected to keep our eye on this nebulous ball and investigate every potential solution or worthy contribution to the goal as each arose. As with all attempts to create a standard, there are many competing ideas, each of which has its benefits. Choosing one too early felt a lot like taking a gamble. Someone needed to find an edge; something that would make the decision more certain.

The question that kept popping up was how can anyone claim to be Industry 4.0 ready, when there is no standard to be ready for?

What’s the background?

The issue with compatibility between assembly equipment from different suppliers goes back a long way. Very often, a manufacturer will have systems from a variety of vendors; it has always been a challenge to make these products work well together. Mechanical interfaces for machines at each step of the assembly process have long been defined. But information compatibility between them suffered from data formats that engineering development teams typically defined years ago.

These formats work just fine within the confines of each individual system or platform. But interfacing that data between adjacent process in a line and, worse yet, across a production floor, demanded collaboration between suppliers (who are sometimes competitors) and would usually result in the need for bespoke software development, which is rarely cheap: it’s not easy and it takes time to implement.

For a long time, the twin goals of the EMS industry have been speed and a low cost of manufacture. An electronics manufacturer can only go so far toward those goals before it becomes evident that you have to be smart to get there, and ‘smart’ is where standards that make Industry 4.0 a viable prospect would deliver.

Light at the end of the tunnel

At the beginning of 2018, our focus turned to the newly-proposed CFX standard, championed by Aegis Software and adopted by the IPC. Little more than a month before the APEX Expo in San Diego, Michael Ford of Aegis presented CFX as part of a Factory 4.0 initiative to the management team at Europlacer. It was a convincing talk that centred on creating a live demo of connected equipment at the exhibition.

Lots of things fell into place, and we collectively realised that this was something that made sense. We could see an achievable standard emerging. With the support of Aegis Corp, it was evident that the standard was being put together by people who know the industry. After at least a year of looking at the ball, we finally saw a reason to participate in the game.

Lots of things fell into place, and we collectively realised that this was something that made sense. We could see an achievable standard emerging.

We see Factory 4.0 as a subset of the broader aims of Industry 4.0. But it is the subset that’s critical to our business at Europlacer in creating and delivering ‘smart’ assembly products. Factory 4.0 is essentially about digitising the manufacturing process. Achieving that can take many forms, but one essential part is to know what’s happening in your factory and then be able to respond to changes quickly. At Europlacer, we realise that the Pick & Place machine – our core product – is often at the heart of the assembly process. We also know that to maintain efficiency and productivity, process managers need to understand what’s happening in and around that machine at any time.

Like every other equipment manufacturer, Europlacer has been providing this information for years – but generally in a proprietary format, which suits our placement machine yet is generally unreadable by other systems. That had to change if we were to collaborate effectively. Fortunately, that proved to be straightforward.

After Michael Ford’s presentation, it was evident that a great deal of expertise and resource had already been deployed in an attempt to create a valid standard. With the creation of a CFX software development kit specifically for the proposed live demo, the Aegis team helped streamline our participation. Our R&D team used the simple instructions and methods provided to achieve a conclusive test on the Aegis server in just 48 hours. Messages from our software were being processed and returned accurately. Over the next few days, our machine software was re-engineered, to the point that we could run through the live demo. All this, in just one week.

At the APEX event, Europlacer participated in the live demo from two placement platforms we exhibited: our new high-speed atom4 machine and our best-selling iineo+ machine. Both streamed live data to the CFX cloud servicer at the show. In turn, exhibition visitors could view that data on a smartphone app. We repeated the demo at the SMT Nuremberg show in early June. And then ran our placement systems with the CFX demo being displayed on our own dashboard during a Technology Open Day held at Europlacer HQ in mid-June.

What adoption will demand

I believe a key part of a test for any standard is the speed with which it can be embraced and implemented. On that measure, our experience with CFX was very positive indeed. Within a month, our R&D team went from a position of no knowledge of CFX to a fully-operational model. That’s why we think it’s the right path, despite the existence of other standards contending to achieve the same goal.

It could be the wisdom of industry experience from Aegis that made a difference. It is certainly true that adoption is far more likely if it’s made easy for manufacturers like Europlacer to get on the first rung of the ladder. The Aegis SDK, hand-holding assistance when needed, and well-thought-out documentation for our programmers assured that. It turned out to be easy to get messages written and coded.

Getting nearer the light

Make no mistake, we’re still in the tunnel. The reaction to the live demo at APEX was mixed. Muted, even. No one was getting particularly excited. But I expect that’s due to it not being at the forefront of people’s minds. Did show visitors even realise that the live CFX demo they witnessed was arguably the beginnings of the next industrial revolution in action? Probably not. To many people, Industry 4.0 is still a buzz word – a future promise that has no visible manifestation. Yet!

For now, I think CFX and Factory 4.0 garners more excitement amongst those of us who want to develop and implement it, rather than our customers who will ultimately end up using and benefitting from it. It’s certainly a great opportunity for equipment integrators, as it will eliminate the need to develop proprietary interface protocols. A common protocol makes all the difference when it comes to the holy grail of seamless integration between every process in a surface mount assembly line – from screen printing through to final product testing, taking in intelligent lineside storage and robotic handling on the way.

When will customers tell us?

Since the APEX event, it’s fair to say that interest has grown. We received many more instances of positive feedback from Nuremberg. And, obviously, more again in the contained environment of our Technology Day where Michael Ford of Aegis again gave a series of presentations to a packed seminar room. Visitors were impressed. So it would appear that electronics manufacturing professionals are already warming to the Factory 4.0 notion, and are increasingly curious about the implementation options – including CFX.

It would appear that electronics manufacturing professionals are already warming to the Factory 4.0 notion, and are increasingly curious about the implementation options – including CFX

That said, it is still predominantly us telling them about the future. We are pushing CFX, not simply because Europlacer has committed to it, but because we believe in what it can deliver. In my view, there is more work needed by the IPC, Aegis and all CFX collaborators to promote the benefits rather than the technology. Ultimately, end users don’t care how it works. But they will care about what CFX and Factory 4.0 can do for their businesses. As Europlacer and other manufacturers begin to promote their capabilities, we need to clearly articulate the tangible benefits of why we’re doing it.

But for now, we are the visionaries. Though I do not think it will be long before those tables turn. I fully anticipate a time in the not-too-distant future when our customers start to ask us what we can do for them. That could even happen this year.

Where is this all heading?

At Europlacer, we quickly recognised the benefits of CFX as a viable path to Factory 4.0. As a result, we are committed to implementing it on all our platforms and equipment in the future. The first step in taking CFX seriously was to not miss an early opportunity to be seen to participate in the live demo at APEX. We were keen to demonstrate a willingness to invest our R&D into new ideas. That proved to be very fruitful and less challenging that we dared imagine.

But where next? Not wishing to lose momentum, Europlacer has signed up to be a member of the IPC Technical Review Board that assesses each new message proposal that comes up for inclusion. It’s heartening to learn that the IPC is collaborating with the Hermes Standards Committee, rather that treating it as a rival. With Factory 4.0 mostly about communication, is it not somewhat poetic to see a body like the IPC communicating with exponents of alternative propositions? Such inclusiveness sounds like a recipe for success rather than a battle to create a loser. Goodness knows: we really could find ourselves at the threshold of the next industrial revolution – Industrial Revolution 4.0!

Europlacer designs and manufactures a comprehensive range of highly flexible SMT pick and place machines for the global electronics industry