ROI
New Tech Needs Standard Solutions
The trend toward keeping ideas under wraps may slow adoption.
Early in my career cutting-edge technology was personified in hardware, such as a wire EDM machine for cutting metal used in dies for wire-to-wire terminals: for instance, forks, rings and spades. No one in those days associated software with technology. It was simply some magic the IT department created to generate reports.

Decades later, most people immediately think of software, firmware and apps as technology, while the devices themselves, regardless of how advanced, are more or less just hosts for the apps. In our industry, there is far more recognition of the technology that goes into hardware and an appreciation that the two are codependent to provide the desired end-application. In fact, many in our industry may well believe the real magic is in hardware that can withstand a variety of operating environments, while providing a stable and robust platform for software to operate.

Today, in some ways, technology is wearing two faces: one that enables and one that confounds!

The face that enables can be seen in how software has in many ways displaced hardware as the gate to continually upgradable equipment. In the electromechanical past, machinery could do only so much within the physical limitations of tolerances, motor speeds, etc. When purchasing a piece of capital equipment then, the limitations or built-in obsolescence could be identified and planned for. While creative mechanics might stretch the life or technological capability of some equipment, the end of useful life was definitive. The software on some (most?) equipment was more like firmware, providing commands to operate rather than offering any real intelligence to manipulate.

Over time, however, software has taken on increasingly intelligent operations. With ever-more sophisticated sensors, utilization of camera optics, and architecture that permits ongoing upgrades to software, the technology of a piece of capital machinery has shifted from its electromechanical constraints to platforms capable of ongoing technological expansion quickly and relatively cheaply. In large part due to the software, machines are seeing flexibility, lifespan and value significantly extended.

How this may impact capital spending in manufacturing will play out over the next few years. Many touting Industry 4.0 have hyped the increased productivity of all equipment on a shop floor communicating and engaged with each other. I question if that is the real value, however. If humans don’t or can’t interact and share data on a shop floor, I suspect that, over time, machinery and computers will follow suit. That said, the real value may be that replacing a computer instead of an entire machine achieves significant improvement in capability, stretching capital investment and permitting a business to buy more equipment on the same capex budget.

The confounding aspect of technology is that Moore’s law has reached a point where any new tech may have a short peak value. When technologies are advancing and being displaced so frequently, those who create and produce them often become overly protective and don’t want to share their “secret sauce” for fear a competitor will leapfrog them.

Often in the past, the bleeding-edge technology would undergo some level of proprietary secrecy, in part so the mystique could attract customers. More often, however, companies would race to patent an emerging technology. Then, the normal lifecycle of the technology would take years to evolve, and the invention would go from new one year to commodity as the world (competitors included) would learn how to compete with it.

Early in the printed circuit board industry, when it was new technology, manufacturers banded together to develop standards so they and their customers could market that their product was produced properly and would meet user requirements. Today’s fast-paced development cycle has upset that trend, leaving many cloaking their inventions in secrecy.

This can be seen in some electronics technologies such as interposers. With so few in the business scrambling to improve and refine what they believe is (or their company’s marketing hypes to be) their “secret sauce,” those technologies most likely will never reach maturity. Only when technology reaches some level of maturity is it feasible, or even possible, to create standards that customers can specify. Closely held IP, trade secrets, and the like do not lend themselves to standardization, nor do they invoke the confidence necessary for the technology to find its way into mainstream products.

Regardless as to how much it changes, what’s clear is technology can both enable and confound. Which direction will the accelerating pace of development, refinement and societal adoption go? Will protecting a technology in the cloak of secrecy become the new norm, or will rapid and open adaptation persevere? Time will tell. Either way, our industry will be in the front row.

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Peter Bigelow
is president and CEO of IMI Inc.; pbigelow@imipcb.com. His column appears monthly.