Successful endeavors traditionally start with a clear business plan that has a defined expected outcome. Industrial IoT has no such luxury. Though the “talk” suggests grand opportunities, many of the success stories so far have largely been narrowly focused and – to a certain degree - proprietary. While this is not really what IIoT is about, there are many things we can do to put it back on track.
Is a lack of “sticky” communication standards impeding Industrial IoT adoption?
Many communication standards have emerged over the years in assembly manufacturing, but few have stuck. To many, IIoT represents just another fad. Marketing hype can only raise so much interest, with the reaction of many potential end users being: “Been there, done that, got the bill.” Many perceive IIoT as just another output to be created as demanded by a customer or two; another interface that the machine vendor has to support on different machines, alongside dozens of others. Whether or not the customer pays to develop these interfaces, it’s a money-losing venture for machine vendors. Customers too struggle with the many different interfaces they must support for their many types of process and multiple vendors, who frequently update their software, which can create havoc for the processes. Data acquisition in manufacturing is a costly activity for most, with a lot of pain associated with any value created. MES solution providers are there to bridge the gap, gaining far more value than most from any specific data available. But only the best will take on the burden of both ends of the interface problems, machine and customer enterprise integration.
Pioneers of IIoT should not ignore the state of the market. The lesson here is that communication standardization, which includes IIoT, is a “team sport.” Creating so-called IIoT solutions that are tied to proprietary systems or hardware, or simply a transport method for poorly defined proprietary data content, just propagates legacy communication technology issues. Of course, trying to focus the attention of companies in the assembly automation industry towards a common solution has been like “herding cats,” while factory-wide communication has been akin to watching a football match in which all the players are blindfolded. Making matters worse, we see a range of startups coming into the IIoT arena with solutions that move data from one proprietary layer, on the so-called “edge” of manufacturing, and transfer it into another, usually a cloud environment. In many cases, these solutions actually add very little value as the unresolved proprietary nature of the source data means that it is very difficult to analyze and gain value, especially after the fact, and worse, the data is then often tied into another proprietary environment. Effectively, these solutions represent “digital landfill”.
Open standards are critical to ensure faster adoption
To create successful IIoT technology, two critical elements need to be in place. Firstly, a single standard with no proprietary element or ownership must be adopted. No competitive company in the industry wants to be dependent on anyone else’s technology. The standard needs to define the simple things such as how to connect devices and encode the data and then define the specific data content. Assembly manufacturing has a rich array of technical specializations, all of which need to be represented in an independent standard definition. All the “cats” need to play together. Many hundreds of companies from all around the world are now focused on the creation and launch of the IPC CFX (Connected Factory Exchange) standard (http://www.ipc-cfx.org/default.htm). IPC is a member-driven global industry association and a leading source for industry standards and training.
IPC CFX, An Industrial IoT Standard That Might Just Stick
IPC standards are consensus-based, so all participants have a voice. As a result, CFX is becoming a true plug-and-play IIoT standard for the whole assembly industry. CFX needs to be taken seriously, as the unique approach of content standardization over a broad range of technologies delivers value-creating opportunity never before experienced in assembly manufacturing.
Next, machine vendors need to understand that the one CFX interface could ultimately replace all the customer-driven interfaces that they have to support today. CFX also has the potential to enable machine vendors to utilize data from other machines and factory processes, enabling machine vendors of all types to create their own Industry 4.0 values and solutions. Manufacturers, in turn, need to understand that, with just one interface, they could have complete visibility and control across the whole of the shop-floor as well as connectivity to their supply chain. Software solution providers need to realize that their decades of investment in interface development is not a legacy worth keeping if the substantial ongoing support effort required could be diverted to create real business-driven solutions for customers.
Is IPC CFX for real? Check it out for yourself
For those who think that CFX is just another round of marketing hype, hitting an already confused and jaded industry, just go and ask one of your software developers to take a look at the free and open CFX specification at http://www.connectedfactoryexchange.com/CFXDemo/sdk. The IPC provides a CFX Software Development Kit (SDK) without charge. CFX is comprehensive, valuable, and easy to adopt, and requires no financial outlay or commitment.
There are so many ideas around utilizing IIoT to create benefit for assembly operations, increasing flexibility, productivity, and quality while reducing costs. And for creating an environment in which solutions for supply-chain, planning, engineering, quality, execution management, and so much more, work together, efficiently and seamlessly on a common data communication infrastructure. Only then can we really expect to achieve the expected values and benefits from IIoT.
The author of this blog works for Aegis Software, a participating member of the IPC association and the CFX committee.
Working for Aegis Software provides Michael the opportunity to apply his many years of electronics assembly manufacturing experience, to drive both business and technology solution innovation that satisfies evolving needs in digital manufacturing. Starting his career with Sony, including eight years working in Japan, Michael has created many solutions for manufacturing that blend a deep and broad knowledge of manufacturing with evolving software technologies. Today, Michael is an established thought leader for Industry 4.0 and digital Smart factories, an active contributor to industry standards together with the IPC, in the areas of the Connected Factory Initiative (CFX), traceability and the digital factory platform.