Mike Buetow

The big story out of IPC Apex Expo last month – about the only story, really – was the introduction of an open communications standard by Mentor Graphics’ Valor division, followed by the rapid response by more than two dozen assembly equipment providers and software developers over shared concern that the solution to machine-to-machine communication might end up residing in the hands of a single company.

At the heart of the matter is the so-called Industry 4.0. Also referred to as IIC (US), Made in China 2025 (China), Industrial Value Chain Initiative (Japan), Manufacturing 3.0 (South Korea) and other names, it stands for the capability for different equipment, made by different OEMs, to share bi-directional data over an open, yet secure, platform. Done right, it’s a major step toward permitting manufacturers to pick the best machines for their specific needs, versus being beholden to a single line solution. Fundamentally, it’s at the heart of a fully beating Internet of Things; some feel the fully automated factory can increase production efficiency by more than 30% over time, adding billions or more to national GDPs.

Let’s start with the Mentor specification. Two years in the making and announced just prior to the annual IPC trade show, it was released at the Las Vegas event as OML, which stands for Open Machine Language. Having years of experience writing translators for various assembly line machines, Valor took those translators and installed OML in front of them, and packaged the combination in a black box. Thus, in a relative instant, a solution to a much-discussed electronics assembly problem was at hand; OML satisfied the need for machines to talk to each other, and the box handled any connectivity issues.

Mentor planned to make OML available to any company through a partner program and would retain ownership over the protocol while relying on the partners
to help shape the future direction of the specification.

In Las Vegas, of course, everything’s a gamble. Once word got around the show, equipment vendors said “not so fast.”

Mentor’s angle was to multiply the use of IoT through OML, thus exponentially expanding the market for its Valor tools. Perhaps worried by the legalese, or the potential for a single “owner” to license and potentially change or even shut out competitors, roughly two dozen assembly OEMs met over the course of two days to hammer out an agreement that reshapes the trajectory of the specification. Several equipment OEMs PCD&F/Circuits Assembly spoke with agreed OML is technically sound but felt the business issues inherent in licensing a corporate spec could pose a host of problems. Up against this strong front, Mentor pivoted and offered OML as a starting point for a to-be-determined IPC standard.

In one sense, then, bi-directional communication goes back to the drawing board. Some 15 years ago an IPC committee published a shop floor equipment communication standard labeled IPC-2541 and colloquially known as CAMX. One presenter at the Apex sessions demonstrated how IoT could work using enhanced CAMX. The early take – and this has yet to be finalized, as not even the charter is on paper yet – is the task group will study a combination of OML, CAMX and perhaps other, yet-to-be-written software as part of its IPC mission.  

All sides agree there will be an emphasis on speed. If nothing else, OML forced the industry to confront the fact that not only is a standard needed, it was needed yesterday.

Going forward, it will be up to each software company and manufacturer to leverage the IPC standard as they see fit. It remains to be seen if Mentor will ultimately concede OML or whether it will attempt to go it alone.

Some will recall a similar scenario with the data transfer formats for printed circuit board designs. Various specifications sat mostly idle for years, IPC-D-350, IGES and EDIF among them, until the powers behind Valor’s ODB and IPC’s GenCAM formats squared off. Valor donated the XML version of ODB to IPC in 2008, yet continues to maintain its ODB++ format. GenCAM evolved into IPC-2581, and upon Mentor’s purchase of Valor, finally gained traction among worried software competitors and OEMs who feared being shut out of markets or forced to switch tools.

Regardless of the back story, this is where the industry stands today, and a basically workable plan is being formulated. The speed with which the industry moved – and Mentor should be thanked for spurring action – screams the need is present and widespread, and there is general consensus on the solution. That’s a great story. After all, in electronics, how often does that happen?

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