The SMEMA Ethernet Adaptor is a hit at IPC APEX EXPO
But WHY ??? - If TLDR (too long didn't read) then Jump to Market Consolidation
I have just returned back to blighty from a week in San Diego attending IPC Apex Expo which was my first trade show outside of Europe.
Unlike previous Productronica trade shows where I haven't stayed for the actual show, this time I had the Hermes and Ethernet Adaptors to promote so I actually had a reason to stay and engage in conversation with others at the trade show.
It would also be a long overdue reason to get away from the office having been locked down due to the pandemic.
The trip could have started horribly as I forgot I had to check in at Heathrow more than an hour before departure considering it was a long haul flight. So when I did, I was told by the machine it was too late. Oh dear! Another 10 minutes waiting at the customer service desk - thinking I would have to wait till the next day - I was finally told that the flight was delayed anyway and I could check in.
I arrived on Sunday evening and this was the second time I had been to San Diego having stayed there on 'vacation' a decade before. Keeping the trip cheap, I planned not to hire a car this time as I was staying within the central city area and where the Expo was.
This time Uber was a thing but there was always the possibility of not being able to use mobile data so the question of how easy it would be to get about was always at the back of my mind. It all turned out fine with the longest trip being to and from the Airport and the rest was all walkable.
The 11th Hermes Standard Meeting - The Setup
The only agenda for Monday was the Hermes Standard Initiative Meeting at 8 AM. I had already checked in with the Expo on Sunday so had my pass ready and therefore there was no need to get there any earlier. The first issue struck where I couldn’t see that there was a room reserved for the meeting. While IPC-Hermes-9852 has a IPC standards number attached to it, it’s not currently managed by the IPC so it seems the meeting wasn’t added to the official programme brochure.
I presumed it would be held in the same room of the meeting of the IPC-CFX and on route I bumped into the previous chairman Håkan Sandell who was also on the hunt. It can be a bit surreal attending these events because so much of my research and study over the years has been online so it can be a bit awkward when you meet someone you have watched or read about online. You know a lot about what they do, but they know nothing about you.
One such person was Tamara Sites who heads up the business development of the CFX. Within the confusion of finding the room I was able to introduce myself to her.
Finally finding the room, the next challenge was the Tech or the lack of it. Being an in-person event I thought we could all just turn up and listen. However this being a hybrid event with members joining from around the world we had to consider them but it didn’t seem like the IPC provided the tech to seamlessly do this so we had to all participate via the Microsoft Teams software. This was fine for those who had brought their laptop and had a data connection, but I didn’t.
This doesn’t sound like the biggest issue in the world, but you have to remember that when you travel to another country, you do try to participate more than you would online. I’m a big fan of online meetings and pleased the pandemic moved the Hermes Standard meetings online as there was no way I could have attended all meetings in-person, but there is a different vibe to in-person meetings versus online.
So while I could have sat there listening in, if I spoke, or someone online spoke, we wouldn’t have heard each other. Secondly the voting system has adopted a KISS approach and the declaration is done via a text message from each company and no record is kept of who voted what.
This meeting's agenda was actually to allow the IPC to formally adopt the standard and one benefit of doing this would be to use IPC Works for voting and communication.
Being slightly in a panic, I was thankfully able to download the Microsoft Teams App onto my mobile phone, meanwhile using hand signals to cast the votes.
I did feel sorry for members in the room who weren't able to sort themselves out and did ask questions which other online members weren't able to hear.
Hermes Standard Meeting - Handing over to the IPC
The main subject of the meeting was the 'Joint Development' between the Hermes Standard Initiative (aka the OTG (Originating Task Group)) and the IPC task group. To start the ball rolling a MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) had to be created between the two groups.
The actual vote was merely to give the thumbs up to move forward with the paperwork. It wasn't actually to sign the deal and start using the IPC services or allowing them to adopt the standard's administration.
To me this was all 12 months too late and I had asked if this could have been done via an online micro meeting prior to the Expo. It has always been a drag to progression that votes are only conducted during the meetings which can be 6 or more months apart.
It would have been nice to use the Expo as a deal signing event and used this as a marketing boost that the standard desperately needs since a lot of quiet times during the pandemic. You can't go anywhere without seeing the CFX logo or a live demonstration and this is what the Hermes Standard needs.
Some could ask why IPC-Hermes-9852 wasn't using IPC from the beginning. I'm still unsure of the answer to this as I wasn’t there at the start in 2017. I have to go on what I hear at the meetings as I have very few relationships with members outside of them.
The social side of the membership is very poor and I would describe members' behaviour to be very polite, often resorting to listening only. I would love to hear more company progress reports to understand how they are getting on with the rollout. The online forum is also tumbleweed and without the IPC conducting the administration, this work falls on the chairman to do.
From what I understand the IPC has indicated they will be hands off from changing anything and in my view the standard is done. It has replaced SMEMA PCB control so it's job-done from me. There has 'seemed' to be some reluctance of welcoming the IPC into the membership because it may open the doors to end customers injecting additions and taking control.
The membership is more clued up on the business politics of our industry so I can only play ignorant with this. That said, it was why I brought to the attention to the membership at the last meeting that the Scope was open ended. (...) at the end of the scope and so to close it would create some constraint to future changes.
The next meeting is in 11 months time so fingers crossed that we can move forward then. The meeting that followed in the same room was on the subject of the IPC-CFX and was conducted by Michael Ford so this was a good opportunity to see how an IPC meeting was run.
Michael presented a general overview of what the CFX was and the progress they have made with the rollout of it so far.
The subject of hidden costs were raised which includes paid documentation and payment to have your product 'Qualified' and maybe this started to answer the question of why the Hermes membership was so weary to welcome the IPC in.
The SDK (Software Development Kit) is however free to use.
APEX EXPO Trade Show - Tuesday to Thursday
The rest of the week was attending the trade show and I targeted different groups of businesses on different days.
Wednesday I targeted manufacturing equipment suppliers such as Conveyor manufacturers Simplimatic and Flexlink who could benefit from the Adaptor by either supporting new sales or giving the suppliers a quick upgrade path.
Finally on Thursday I approached the bigger equipment suppliers that I knew would already have upgraded to Hermes but may also use the Adaptor to support new sales or as an upgrade path for existing equipment.
The common theme of our sales approach is that the industry must know about the existence of the Adaptors and should use them as a tool. Direct sales will have to be delayed because the customer will decide when they need the upgrade based on the upgrade of their entire production line. The benefits of wanting to use the Hermes data is however more common but would require a one to one sales strategy which we can't commit to at the current time.
With the ongoing Silver Tsunami my first impression of the show was how many younger faces I could see. This is partly due to me getting old and how many people have retired since the pandemic, but this observation also reflected on the number of new young businesses at the show.
One such business was venture capital backed Arch Systems and their leadership team Andrew and Tim seemed to be very interested in the SMEMA Ethernet Adaptor and even recommended adding the term Line-Stop to the marketing.
With a hardware background, but after a start-up pivot now purely software, Arch Systems was in need of a device to collect the analytics of PCB moments which the Adaptor can do.
We share a customer of Flex Ltd and I had been asked by them to go and strike up a conversation with Arch so a nice partnership triangle may form over the coming years.
It was really nice to share our journeys of starting a business which I very rarely am able to do.
Considering the initial target use case of the SMEMA Hermes Adaptor was legacy PCB Conveyors, I actually know very little about the conveyor market and this knowledge has organically grown as the conveyor manufacturers have contacted us.
The trade show helped me open my eyes to the PCB conveyor market and American conveyor manufacturer Simplimatic is a good first example. A Software Developer from the company shared with me that they considered creating a device using a Raspberry Pi but they didn’t think it was worth their time and instead the PLCs of their new equipment handles the Hermes Standard directly.
This has been a common tail over the years. Creating a device many have tried but the maintenance of such a device versus the return on investment means it doesn’t make sense to large companies that are often already spinning plates between products.
For example, our software codebase is as big as any midsize manufacturing equipment machine so the physical size of the product can be misleading to what the overhead is of what a business would have to maintain. In order to make such a product succeed it needs to be the focus of a company. I also had a similar conversion with Swedish business Flexlink.
One question that was answered during the trade show was why we have such a great sales year for the SMEMA Ethernet Adaptor in 2022. I had thought there were other similar products on the market made by more established companies and had been surprised by the Adaptor's success.
Well that is indeed true however due to market consolidation - that mainly being software businesses being acquired by hardware companies - this has changed who is happy to deal with who.
This has historically been an industry of partnerships and unlike Apple who often ends their partnerships over time, instead when they are made within our industry they are made for life.
So when an acquisition occurs that alters these relationships and many customers have been left to default to the easy opinion of trading with the independent companies that have no links to others.
Secondly, when these acquisitions occur the acquired business may need to up their gain and say goodbye to the smaller types of revenue generating business. So for example a company that did both hardware and software, may shed their hardware work in favour of boastering its software intelligence offerings.
Another way of saying this is quoting a customer at the show who said they buy from us because it's easy to do so over the bigger players in the market who have taken their eyes off the ball.
The Friday and Reflection
With Thursday being the last day and not flying back to the UK until late afternoon on the Friday, I spent Friday morning enjoying the January Sun of San Diego.
I really enjoyed the vibe at the Show. I'm not sure if it was simply because everyone was English speaking or because I know the American culture very well. Or maybe it just felt like a well earned break away from the office. Being able to talk about the product I had helped make for the last 3 years certainly helped.
One last memorable event was educating the staff on the SICK booth that they have their own Hermes SMEMA Connect product that they knew nothing about. All I can say to that is one Hermes Love :)