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Part II – Connectivity in electronics manufacturing: sorting practicality from hype
20 November 2019
Exploring the key elements to look for in a pragmatic smart factory solution with guest blogger Benoit Ouellet

Part 2 of our series features Peter Bollinger, CEO of iTAC Software, as he shares his thoughts and vision for Industry 4.0 – discussing why connectivity plays such a critical role in every smart factory solution.
Peter’s thoughts on the crucial nature of connectivity for IIoT: “Connectivity is fundamental to implement features and functions of Industry 4.0, IIoT or Smart Factory solutions. The goal is that the connectivity is simple and standardized, but in today’s production environment we see all kinds of different machine models with different interfaces and controllers depending on the age. As customers like to improve production quality and overall output of the whole plant we need to be able to connect every machine, and that means legacy systems that may have been installed 5 to 15 years ago.”

Benoit’s thoughts: Simple and standardized connectivity is a great objective, and it’s important to continue working toward such goals. Unfortunately, the reality we find on the manufacturing floor is quite different from this ideal. Standards are not new; good standards have been around for many years. Yet, nearly every customer project we work on involves connecting to various machine vintages where no standard solution is available.

Main challenges facing connectivity in PCB electronics manufacturing today according to Peter: “The main issue with standards is that there are too many and that legacy equipment will make it very challenging to adopt a single standard for any factory… What’s more, we must deal with the existing environment. Companies will not replace their machine or business applications just so we can implement a new standard connection. Each new standard will be added on top of the other.”

Benoit’s thoughts: Flexibility is key to any integration project. Forcing the use of one standard throughout the factory often requires major upgrades, either replacing machines or buying expensive retrofit features. The ability to adapt to what’s readily available in the factory becomes a major cost saver for most projects.

Peter’s strategy to address these connectivity challenges: “We continue to maintain a connectivity toolbox within our solutions to convert the information we get into our own internal standard protocol that feeds all our software modules for seamless and reliable communication… We are currently aware of several new standards in development, and they are not just those hitting the headlines, like Hermes or CFX, there are machine vendors adding new standards or updating existing ones too. Cogiscan is part of our toolbox offering and we implement their solution to a standard iTAC API interface. With this approach we can enhance our interface toolbox especially for legacy equipment.”

Benoit’s thoughts: Peter describes a situation where Co-NECT as a connectivity engine provides a huge return on investment. Co-NECT was designed to support multiple protocols from the ground up, whether they are new, such as CFX, or have been around for quite a while (SECS/GEM, CAMX, etc.). Also supporting the AMQP or MQTT messaging protocols, as well as REST or simple file drops, Co-NECT provides additional flexibility. Having multiple options in your toolbox: that’s the power of Co-NECT.

Peter’s perspective on the new industry standards, like CFX or HERMES: “It will take years for a standard like CFX to be adopted widely… we need to be able to connect regardless of standards or protocols and while these new standards might seem to tick a lot of boxes, they are just that – new. There are numerous industry standards that are established over decades, and with high levels of adoption in specific markets.”

Benoit’s closing thoughts:As new standards emerge and get adopted, it will be difficult to keep up if your previous connectivity strategy was based on using a single standard. The new machines will support the new standard, but they may not support the one you currently rely on. The solution is to capitalize on current machine capabilities, yet choose a strategy which will allow you to remain flexible, agile, and welcome future change.

Check out the entire interview with Peter on EMS NOW.