The Connected Factory Exchange (CFX) specification is truly revolutionizing the PCB industry. Michael Ford, from Aegis Software, met with me for an interview during the SMT Hybrid Packaging show in Nuremberg, Germany, to discuss the impact of this collaborative effort, and how it differs from the Hermes Standard.
Matties: You're the European Marketing Director for Aegis Software. Can you give us a quick overview of the company?
Ford: Aegis is a modern software company. There are a lot of MES software solutions in the market based on older software technologies. We saw that digital, Smart factories and Industry 4.0 were coming, and with the limitations of current technology in the market, we knew that we had to invent something completely new. As a result, our FactoryLogix solution is a true digital platform made specifically with new technologies, such as Industry 4.0 and Smart factories, in mind, which gives us the means to generate more value through the use of digital information within a factory. We help customers become automated and achieve higher throughput, even with high-mix, and higher quality. FactoryLogix really is the digital factory enabler going forward.
Matties: The Connected Factory Exchange, CFX, is something that IPC is really driving. I know that Aegis is a big part of that.
Ford: Yes, six months ago, I would have told you there were approximately 150 companies working together within IPC on CFX. Then, a couple of months ago I would have said 200. Now it’s 320 and continues to climb. The industry has woken up to fact that there is added value that comes from the accessibility of data. And it must be good data, which carries value and meaning.
It's been really satisfying to see these companies—who are basically competitors with one other, including competitors within the software side—working together to achieve a common goal in CFX. I think the industry has been constrained by the lack of openness of data. It's all very well to develop bespoke, customized interfaces and functions, which for a lot of companies has been a fact of life, but we've always tried to do things in a standard way, “out of the box.” The key word is standard. The more standard something is, the more value you get for anything that you develop or purchase. This is the whole premise of getting the industry to work in a true Industry 4.0 environment, or just a smart factory environment. To work smart, basically.
Matties: Now, CFX is an open-source project, right?
Ford: Yes. It's an IPC consensus-based standard, open to anyone to see or contribute to. The key area is that within CFX, we standardize the language that is being spoken by all of the machines, so that they can freely interconnect any machine with any other machine, “plug and play.” That's what brings the value.
CFX is a unique standard in this respect. In the past, we've had standards that transfer data from point to point. Even the latest IoT methods simply gather data and send it, for example, to a cloud, which is basically treating a cloud like it's data “landfill.” You're just filling it full of garbage.
With CFX, we're looking at it like a mobile phone. I can buy an American cell-phone, and somebody else can buy a Chinese mobile phone, and the two phones will connect to each other. It's a completely standard network and infrastructure, such that anybody picking up the phone will hear my voice.
But when I start talking, it's a different story. I don't speak Chinese and the person I'm talking to might not understand English. The language that’s being spoken also needs to be part of the standard, in order that the data can be understood. For example, if any of the machines on the shop floor want to transfer data between each other, there has to be a common defined language that connects them. This is exactly what CFX provides, which no other standard has achieved.
We have hundreds of messages within CFX that define the exact content of data that's going to be useful for all machine vendors, manufacturers, and system providers like ourselves, to create the next generation of Industry 4.0 solutions. Each vendor will need to use only a small selection of the messages, that are appropriate to his equipment.
Matties: When we start talking about CFX, some people that I've talked to think of it as a product that you buy—that it's a product IPC is bringing to market and they're going to make a lot of money off of it.
Ford: If CFX were to cost any less, I would have to pay people to take it, because it's free! It's a consensus-based standard. It wasn't created by Aegis or any other single company. It was created by hundreds of different companies working together and it's being made available to everybody right now completely free of charge, from the IPC.
Matties: So, the standard defines how you bundle your data to communicate to the next piece of equipment or to the cloud, correct?
Ford: Exactly. It defines how you're going to get your data from your machine out there for people to utilize, and how other people's information is there for you to utilize, it is omni-directional
Matties: There's no software or anything that they have to purchase to take part in this?
Ford: No, not at all. The IPC have made it as easy as possible to adopt CFX, in the form of a Software Development Kit, which provides access to all of the messages within the standard. The SDK is also available directly from IPC, again completely free of charge, as part of the standard. It means that, for example, all the vendors taking part in the live demo today, with their 52 machines in all, had to do for this show floor demo, which are currently outputting CFX, was to embed this SDK into their machine software. Within an hour or two of development, machines were up and running and sending CFX messages out. Honestly, it could not have been any easier. We've gone to every effort to make sure that this standard reflects what people need in terms of the value it provides, as well as reducing the cost of implementation.
Matties: Another argument that I've heard is, "Data is a competitive advantage. Why do I want to standardize with the entire industry?"
Ford: That has been the case for quite a few years. People have been very closed off and wanted to keep their machine data for themselves. It was often the case that the data was used to create value within the closed environment of the machine. As the data was in a proprietary format, the support of providing the data for external uses also carried implications of costs and responsibility.
When we first had our CFX meeting, I expected that all of the different vendors to argue with each other, and we even thought about calling in security just in case. Instead, everybody said, "Look, we are all experiencing the same challenges to support our customers’ needs. Actually, our data is very similar. As each of us creates our own different values, meaning our own specific software solutions, that's our real Intellectual Property."
Machine vendors have their own software environment and business interests. That's what we want to use as differentiation, rather than the data itself. If I was a machine vendor, I would say, “Let's actually enhance the value proposition that we provide to customers, by accessing information beyond our own machines. Upstream on the line, and downstream on the line. Maybe by knowing where the products are right now, and what will come down the line tomorrow, I can provide enhanced optimization of my machine and line, so that I can achieve a flexibility that, since I had no visibility before, I had no chance to do.” Machine vendors and software providers now realize that there is a larger benefit to shared data standardization, as compared to any particular perceived cost or lost opportunity.
Matties: When I look at that argument, I also think, “Just because the data is available doesn't mean every manufacturer is going to use it or interpret it in the same way.”
Ford: Definitely not.
Matties: There's an overlay that you get to choose what data is meaningful to your process versus the next guy.
Ford: Yes, and that's where you’ll have different perspectives from different machine vendors. For example, one machine vendor could choose to say, "I manage my domain. I want to provide my customer with every possible opportunity to optimize operations within that domain.” Another machine vendor may say, "I'm not a software expert. I know how to make great machines, but I prefer to leave the software side to somebody else." You will see that there will be many Industry 4.0 solutions coming from machine vendors, third parties, home-grown systems, and even the ERP systems. We're going to see the whole thing opened up to provide a lot more opportunity for people to add their own unique value, on top of a common IoT data platform, CFX.
It's like when you buy a car. There are so many different models of cars and different colors and performances, each of which suit different needs and desires. That's what you want to be able to do with Industry 4.0, buy the solutions that meet your needs.
Matties: All of this is in a standard that communicates. We all drive on the same highways.
Ford: Yes, exactly. That's a very good analogy, actually. CFX is like the highway. You can move around using the highway in the way you choose to do it. You can choose to stay at home, but if you want to go and explore, you can do that. All of the functionality that people are talking about in terms of Smart factories has to address a given business requirement—whether that’s to achieve zero defects, a closed loop operation, or the ultimate ability to deliver to the customer on a “make-to-order” basis, but with the efficiency of mass production. That's the conundrum we've been facing for a long time. Is high efficiency and high flexibility possible to achieve with the digital factory? Well actually, yes it is. You select the Industry 4.0 value you want to create from the data depending on the pain-point, or the aim that you have from a business perspective.
Matties: We’re in Europe and I’ve had some conversations where I’ve asked people about CFX and they said they were going after the European standard—Hermes. What's the difference between the standards or how does this work? Can you give us an overview of that?
Ford: Sure. There has been a bit of confusion about these two standards, and understanding how these standards work together. The CFX and Hermes committees have been working together for quite some time now on what are completely complementary standards. There is a clear difference between CFX and Hermes. Hermes is focused on the horizontal operation of the line itself. In the past, you had a cable, called a SMEMA cable, that would connect the machines on the line, including the conveyor systems, so that boards flow was controlled as they moved down the line, in a timely, efficient way.
Hermes is the 21st century replacement of SMEMA. Instead of using quite an old technology, Hermes achieves the horizontal communication using modern ethernet communication, with added intelligence built-in. For example, you could have a barcode ID on the first board that went into the line. The first machine would read that, and then using the Hermes protocol, would send the ID of the board progressively down the line to the next machine. This would prevent the need for multiple barcode readers on the line, so that’s a benefit.
There are other pieces of data that could also be passed down the line by Hermes. For example, bad mark support on the board, which is a very difficult problem today to communicate machine-to-machine. Hermes is a great solution for inter-process hand-offs. CFX isn’t focused on these low-level line controls. In fact, what CFX is doing is to exchange information in a vertical way. With Hermes working horizontally between the machines, and CFX working vertically from and to each machine, there are clearly then potential points of data exchange between CFX and Hermes, which mainly occur at the beginning of the line and the end of the line. At the beginning of the line, Hermes needs to understand what the product is. There might be a history of that product going down another line where Hermes data was collected. Connecting that information from one Hermes instance to another is a job that CFX could do extremely well. Our intention is to provide a simple and effective “bridge” between these two standards to make operation of each seamless to the user.
Then, Hermes propagates the board information down the line, and CFX is there to pick up the resultant information. This kind of inter-standard communication discussion has been going on between the members of the Hermes standard and CFX. We want to eliminate any confusion in the market and let people know that both of these standards add incredible value for the application they're designed for, and that they're completely complementary and compatible. So when making a choice, for example, in machine technologies that people are using, they can be comfortable knowing everything is going to work well together.
Other standards are also making headlines at the moment. JARA is one similar to Hermes, and there are some others. We see the role of CFX as potentially being able to link all of these different things together. People will want to use the best tool for the job. If there are local areas in which certain standards are best, such as in the case of Hermes to control a line of machines, then that's fine. In other areas, it may be JARA. Using the best tool for the job is great, but we also then need to link everything together in the context of the factory environment as a whole. Within the IPC and CFX, this is the kind of role that we're aiming for—certainly between Hermes and CFX already. Everything is working well between us and we're looking forward to further corporation as we go on.
Matties: Are there any final thoughts you want to share about CFX and what's going on here?
Ford: Even with 320 companies, it's not enough, believe it or not. We want everybody to be included. We’re aiming for the first publication of the CFX standard in September, so now is the time to get a look at the specification. It's completely free. There are no strings attached, no contracts or licensing. Just have a look at the specification now and see whether it satisfies your need as a manufacturer, machine vendor, or solution provider because we want to refine the content for this first publication as much as we can.
Matties: Where would somebody find this?
Ford: Go to (http://www.connectedfactoryexchange.com/CFXDemo/sdk) where everything is explained. I would also advise people to go to the IPC website, and you can sign up and become a member of the CFX committee. If you know anybody who's part of CFX, just contact them and they will send you through to the right place. Contact me as well if you like. We are literally signing up hundreds of people to this IPC committee as we go along and getting feedback from everybody. It's so important to have your say in order to make this a success story.
Matties: Great. Thank you so much for your time, Michael.