This year’s IPC APEX Expo in San Diego, CA (USA) was a bit of a homecoming for many in the electronics manufacturing industry. The three previous years’ expos all saw disruptions- many attendees and exhibitors canceled plans at the last minute in 2020 as the COVID-19 virus was beginning to spread. 2021 was canceled in-person altogether, and 2022 saw a reduced, though high-quality, number of attendees at the show.
2023 was different, and it felt different for those who attended. Not only was it great to see familiar faces and a strong return to doing business at the show, but there was also a particular sense of interest in something very specific. The promise of it was discussed and displayed in nearly every corner of the hall and very few panel discussions could avoid it. What was that topic of interest? Data. Data everything. But not just any data.
Most industries in the world have begun to lean into more expert uses of data. What’s the difference between, say, big data, data analysis, and expert data? It comes down to the problems it solves. Expert data is accomplished when teams of data architects and analysts partner with teams of domain experts to build solutions that find and solve problems very specific to the end user.
In the past, manufacturers have tried to, and seen some great successes, in leveraging data in their factories. Why, then, was the topic still so front of mind for everyone at IPC APEX EXPO this year?
Because they know that there are greater insights to be had. Every machine on an electronics manufacturer’s SMT line is, in essence, a computer: continuously recording everything that it does. That means that the machine data available to manufacturers today is vastly different than it was 5, 10, or 20 years ago. And yet, most data solutions are still gathering up information in the form of a collection of simple, disconnected “tags” rather than complete “events”. Tag data is much easier to collect and store. Unfortunately, it’s also much harder to turn into insights because many different tags need to be contextualized after the fact and reassembled like a complex jigsaw puzzle before you can see what they all mean.
Event-based information, on the other hand, preserves context and easily conveys the full story. Events clearly show what happened, what didn’t, and what should have happened. It requires much more expertise both in data architecture and analysis to collect and store events, but the payoff is that it’s useful to significantly more people inside the factory. This is why organizations are finding that advanced data use cases are best built on top of events.
Little wonder, then, as manufacturers are learning of the enhanced capabilities of data, that it becomes the buzz in the air. And it was.
That’s because the practice of leveraging new data techniques to discover gaps in their manufacturing processes and then closing those gaps and optimizing their processes is incredibly valuable. But there’s another important reason for doing it, one that may be more valuable to manufacturers than the untapped value on the shop floor. That’s the value of the knowledge capture of their existing people. The people operating their factories have built up a wealth of domain knowledge during their careers. But they have a problem. Most manufacturers are facing more loss of domain knowledge every month than they can possibly capture with the incoming workforce.
Expert data solutions capture the knowledge of existing factory operators and ensure that it doesn’t churn out of the organization when they do. It provides stability in a system that has, and will continue for the foreseeable future, to face unprecedented instability. This topic alone was front-of-mind for many in attendance at APEX this year and provided a lot of great opportunities for dialogue and idea sharing.
The trend for increased use of expert data is ultimately not likely to be quelled anytime soon as the conversations for its application ranged from optimizing operations, combating supply chain issues, knowledge capture, and a relatively new trend manufacturers are seeing- consumption data, as they are increasingly reporting on Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions. This alone will keep the need for better, faster, and richer data at the forefront of needs for all manufacturers for the foreseeable future.
The final day of APEX has historically seen an increase in student attendance. While that hasn’t been as prevalent the last two years, there were a noticeable number of early career or pre-career attendees in attendance. This is something many in the industry welcome with open arms as we foster the next generation of workers. It comes as no surprise that this demographic, one that’s overwhelmingly comfortable with technology, is likewise interested in what data is and can be doing for manufacturing. They’re as excited as the rest of us to see where transformation can take place, and we’re excited to welcome them along for the journey.
On behalf of the Arch team, we want to thank the organizers, exhibitors, presenters, and attendees for making IPC APEX a world-class event. We look forward to seeing you all again in Anaheim next year!