The Truth About CFX

A great milestone in digital assembly manufacturing has been reached by having the IPC Connected Factory Exchange (CFX) industrial internet of things (IIoT) standard in place with an established, compelling commitment of adoption. First, it’s important to understand how we got to this point. Second, we will look ahead to the not-too-distant future, where Industry 4.0 solutions within digital smart factories will become a reality that is available and accessible to everyone without any risk of vendor dependency or technology obsolescence.

CFX To Date

CFX started as an idea from senior members within IPC who long recognized the inevitable need for a factory-wide communication standard. Having seen the fate of several attempts at standards from various areas within the industry come and go over many years, this was not something for the faint-hearted—especially considering the fiercely competitive nature of industry vendors. The very first CFX group meeting at 2016 IPC APEX EXPO attracted an impressive attendance from numerous competing vendors across all disciplines. Prior to CFX, such a situation would surely have become somewhat rowdy. However, the meeting was the first sign of the magic that CFX would bring. Competitors sat together in agreement with the common intent to change the industry for the better.

Over time, critical elements of the CFX standard were put into place. The initial goals—to include all active manufacturing and supporting processes, as well as be completely plug and play—seemed quite ambitious at the time. It was critical to create a standard that would fulfill the needs of smart, modern manufacturing in the digital factory with true Industry 4.0 functionality. This was the common expectation from everyone’s customer base, whether or not they could articulate what they wanted.

The analogy of an IIoT standard being like the cellphone brought the message home for many people. Having a standard that governs how telephone handsets from different vendors work on standard networks allows us to communicate freely, which equates in CFX as the protocol and data-encoding methods that were selected. The third critical piece—which no other standard has been able to completely define—is the language used. It does not work to a cellphone conversation where the two parties speak different languages and cannot understand a word the other is saying. For true plug and play, all parties have to communicate with a common language.

In the case of CFX, the decision on the protocol was contentious, as there were a small number of realistic options and the support for each was strong. However, the requirements for CFX were quite clear. The protocol had to be secure and have encrypted data options when sending data externally—for example, to the cloud. A data compression facility also needed to be available to reduce data-rate requirements. Real-time operations, such as machines, did not have to care whether anyone or everyone was receiving their messages. Thus, a “send-it-and-forget-it” facility for broadcast messages, featuring a message broker, was a must.

CFX-SMT-Apr2018 300.pngIn addition, a direct point-to-point connection for immediate command and response messaging was also required. As a consensus, the AMQP v1.0 protocol—having proven itself in the banking industry—was seen as the only logical choice that addressed all of these requirements. The availability of open-source, free-of-charge AMQP v1.0 brokers also fell completely in line with the open principles of the standard. Data encoding was a far simpler decision with JSON being accepted pretty unanimously, so messages could be read by humans and yet also be efficient in a modern format already familiar to web developers.

Having these elements decided, the work then fell on the data content definition. There had not been a precedent for the definition of data content on the assembly factory shop floor. Very few people have ever gained a complete understanding of all the various content areas across manufacturing that need to be defined. A wide cross-section of experts in the industry was needed to describe events and parameters of processes across all technologies in a detailed, yet neutral, way. A breakthrough idea within the CFX team was to create groups of messages of related data content that were logical base topics that defined a granular discrete system or machine capability rather than creating specific messages for each machine type. The topics were created to be used as building blocks, so that any machine or transactional process on the shop floor—past, present or future—could be precisely modelled by putting together the relevant topics.

Kicking off the content definition for each of the defined topics, as well as the more detailed subtopics, was a challenge at first. Being the first to contribute to the message data creation was daunting, especially for those whose focus had been predominantly internal on specific areas of technology. In many areas, non-expert driven examples of parameters were created in order to set the precedent and stimulate feedback. It was easier to comment, correct, modify, and enhance something rather than create it from scratch. While it is expected that the CFX content definition will continue to evolve in terms of scope and detail, the first release is complete in the most important ways and ready for mainstream adoption.


By the end of 2018, four IPC-sponsored demos of CFX will have taken place: IPC APEX EXPO, in San Diego, California U.S.; SMT Nuremberg (Germany); What’s New in Electronics Live, in Birmingham U.K.; and LEAP Expo, in Shenzhen (China). It has been satisfying to see so many people travelling from afar to see CFX for the first time. The look on people’s faces is priceless when they read a simple QR code armed only with their smartphone and immediately have live, multi-vendor standard production events and statistics on their screens without any software installation or configuration.


As part of the design mantra, CFX messages deliver facts about production, which provide data to be used to create whatever production metrics and views are required. What is available in the cloud for the CFX demo is a simple sample to drive the imagination. CFX works equally well on a specific line within a factory, in a cloud environment, or all three simultaneously if desired. Flexibility is a key value. The preparation for the demos went very smoothly as participants were invited to use the open-source, .net-based CFX Software Development Kit (SDK) created alongside the detailed message documentation that is a part of the standard. The experience of creating CFX support for the trials has been revolutionary in itself. There is no need for business trips or difficult technical discussions. Simply follow the documentation and have the demo software in the cloud—provided everything that was needed for confirmation of correct operation—with just a few hours work. The demos themselves worked the first time for everyone without any glitches throughout the events. This has contributed to building confidence in and familiarity with CFX for all involved.


With the creation and release of the initial version of the CFX standard now behind us, there is now some exciting work to continue. A great example of this is a triple closed-loop system I saw in China that featured feedback from solder paste inspection (SPI) to the screen printer for compensation of deviations in the printing process as well as related correction for the placement of SMT parts on PCBs. This was all checked and confirmed by automated optical inspection (AOI), which also provided accurate feedback and any compensation needed in the placement process. Use of the closed-loop software resulted in a tenfold decrease of defects occurring in the line—an incredible result. The software itself looked great and was highly responsive.

The bad news was that this result was achieved using bespoke machine interfaces. A lot of time and effort had been spent working with different machine vendors to create the interfaces required, which had significant costs to all concerned. The person in charge of the software at the manufacturing company knew that for the rollout of the closed-loop solution to the other lines in their company—most of which had different machine combinations and configurations—many more custom machine interfaces would have to be developed.

The development team realized that through the adoption of CFX, the closed-loop software would work equally well on any line configuration with the need to develop just one interface, which would then provide the required data connections on a plug-and-play basis. For machine vendors involved in these kinds of initiatives with different advanced requests for MES data by customers—an average of 30 or so supported bespoke interfaces they each have—this could all be replaced with one standard interface. The use of CFX also results in faster deployments with fewer issues, which reduces sales cycle times.

Further benefits include how the omni-directional nature of CFX provides access to data both upstream and downstream on the line, and from the factory as a whole, such as work-order management and material logistics information. One small example of the latter is getting a heads-up about sizes and rotations of actual materials received. This could be helpful in the event that the material manufacturer changes. Any need for program adjustment could be made automatically at material replenishment without having to stop the machine or risk quality issues. CFX enables solutions to work together in any smart factory from different vendors at all levels and across all disciplines of the manufacturing operation.

CFX applications do not stop at machines. They support transactional processes, such as material logistics, and provide information to humans within the digital factory. The key flexibility of CFX created through the use of augmented reality (AR) enables the performance of multiple roles within the factory.


One key area of change that both CFX and the Industry 4.0 mandate is at the manufacturing execution system (MES) layer. What originally evolved as a visibility and control extension of enterprise resource planning (ERP), generic MES systems across many manufacturing industries have remained focused on the management of manual tasks and require a significant amount of manual data capture. Some MES solutions have evolved to adapt data from assembly machines through the development of several complex bespoke interfaces that store acquired data in some form of a database ready for processing and use.

The value of this legacy data is limited by the completeness and reliability of the original machine interfaces, as well as the ability of the MES application to translate the proprietary data received to create consistent meaning. The application of IIoT represents a different approach for data exchange than the way in which the majority of bespoke database driven solutions have been architected. IIoT data is immediate and triggers actions and responses, as well as passes normalized event information into a database. A more modern, digital MES platform with an emphasis on real-time visibility and awareness of the manufacturing operation is essential. This is a significant change of paradigm for in-house solutions, externally developed and customized point solutions, and generic MES platforms.

For many legacy systems, it will have to be enough to utilize CFX to get legacy data in a more efficient way. But the real potential of CFX lies in being a key part of a new generation of augmented decision-making algorithms. Extremely few of these exist so far. Start-up companies are fast-tracking new so-called IIoT solutions into the market without the depth to include definition of production environment. The basic requirement is for there to be a true IIoT-orientated MES platform that provides the mechanisms to digitally model products, define processes and configurations, and shift patterns, work orders, tools, material flows, etc. The base infrastructure component of MES has never been sexy because it does not seem to create value for many, but it is invaluable in driving and enabling Industry 4.0 features.

CFX does a great job by allowing communication and sharing of all of these basic MES requirements through IIoT data exchange, but there needs to be a point of authority. The modern digital MES solution at the factory level is the most effective place from which Industry 4.0 functions are orchestrated. For in-house developers, the development of the infrastructure would easily represent a five-year project, and for external customized solutions, a rather intimidating fixed-cost barrier for entry.

Therefore, it is not expected that individual manufacturers will develop the core MES software to create their own smart factories from scratch, even with CFX. The smart move is to utilize a CFX-driven digital MES platform specifically created for the IIoT-enabled factory. This will provide well in excess of 90% of the immediate smart factory needs. The remaining 10%, which traditionally has been fulfilled by customized development or the need to change the operation, can now be easily provided through extensions to the system based on CFX. Examples include the support for bespoke functional test machines, where the simple integration of the CFX SDK can make the machine a fully functional and operational part of the off-the-shelf MES. Other bespoke requirements, such as integration with specialist processes or practices, can be supported through simple add-on applications, as can irregular requirements coming from specific implementations of ERP. Where the extension of CFX may account for less than 10% of the whole installation, it removes more than 90% of the typical perceived pain of complete MES adoption in terms of cost and lead-time to both operation and value.

The Smart Factory of the Future

The recommended approach for a new smart factory of the future is very simple. The first choices to make include selecting standard equipment that supports CFX and most satisfies the needs of production in terms of capability, flexibility, and monetary value. For existing factories that intend to become smart factories in the future, it is necessary to check and confirm with existing equipment suppliers about the availability of CFX on existing machines. Even if native support will not be available, there are likely to be several choices of simple and inexpensive ways to retrofit CFX support by third parties. This ensures that there will be only one interface for all visibility, management, and control on the shop floor.

The critical second choice is the selection of an MES solution founded on principles of CFX IIoT utilization that is ready to provide live augmented and automated decision-making at a factory level. Interoperable Industry 4.0 solutions will work based on the digital factory infrastructure provided by the MES platform itself supporting vendor-based solutions on the machine and line level should provide a sophisticated, yet simple, smart factory infrastructure based entirely on CFX. Production, performance, quality, materials and supply chain, maintenance, planning, and cloud analytics can all take place on the same platform and share the same backbone of IIoT information as one flexible real-time operation. This is the essence of having factories capable of responding to the current and future needs of the market and being able to manufacture to order without significant loss of productivity compared to mass production.

Who Wins with CFX?

Everyone wins with CFX, which is why CFX-based IIoT solutions are sustainable. Over time, machine vendors will eliminate the need for the development and support of bespoke interfaces for customers and be able to utilize CFX in every case. Machine vendors will also have access to data from the line and factory and provide added-value Industry 4.0 functions. Solution providers will have access to complete, accurate, and timely data, which is the critical necessity for the creation of smart artificial intelligence (AI) software for manufacturing as mandated by Industry 4.0. IT teams in manufacturing will have clear opportunities to adapt and manage bespoke processes and functions that drive real value to satisfy specific unique manufacturing operational needs based on CFX data exchange.

Therefore, the reach is extended to all corners of the factory that were previously out of reach by legacy MES solutions. The manufacturing operation itself is complete and ready for instant reactions to changing customer needs without the risk of execution issues or optimization and productivity losses and the need to stockpile finished goods in the warehouse to appear flexible. Costs are saved in manufacturing, warehousing, and distribution, including eliminating the risk of depreciation in the value of “produced-but-not-yet-sold” goods. Investment in further automation driven by AR technology, such as the enhanced role of human operators, becomes cost-effective and immediately contributory to the business model. The factory of the future can be realized with technology created and available today.



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