It used to be said that what’s good for Detroit is good for America. This idiom referred to the dominant role of the automotive manufacturing in the American economy. During the boom of the 1950’s and 60’s many controls companies grew into their current positions as dominant controls suppliers by developing ever more powerful solutions for automating the auto makers.
It is somewhat ironic that as we move into the e-tainment era of the 2010’s, surrounded by e-media delivered by ever more powerful portable electronics, that the US semiconductor industry is at least the size of, and by some accounts, a much larger enterprise than the auto industry. The Department of Commerce shows semiconductor manufacturing at $90B for 2002 and computer manufacturing at about $88B, some of which of course is overlapping. If you start adding all the flat screen display, cellphones, well, you get the picture. Semiconductors enable so many products that we take for granted, it is hard to estimate the impact.
US auto sales have been falling since 2002, but the Department of Commerce data lists auto sales at $90B. Similarly, to get a better picture of the overall auto industry you have to add in trucks and tractors and all the other gasoline and diesel powered vehicle segments that make up the overall industry. The largest user of glass and carpet is, you guessed it, the auto industry, not residential construction. So cars are still important in the US economy.
But when you consider the role of control systems in the manufacture of electronic products, the solutions are not the same. Semiconductor equipment companies are among the largest users of motion control across all industries. Some motion control companies have made their fortunes supplying board level motion solutions to operate the most sophisticated equipment in the world. Just like 50 years ago in the auto industry.
The odd part is, that the semiconductor industry has not taken to the classical controls solutions of the automotive type suppliers very well. And it took me a while to get that message. Partly, I think there is a preference for the PC as a platform of control as a cultural proposition. Computers are the dominant consumer of the electronic components, so people in the industry tend to use what’s closest, most familiar, and in some cases, lowest cost.
But there are much more compelling issue involved. The semiconductor industry did not grow up with relays as a control technology, so ladder logic as a programming environment isn’t really significant. Many people in the industry are more familiar with C language programming or other languages that don’t depend on electrical conventions.
But the biggest challenge to control systems isn’t the control, its the data. Process data is crucial to finding out if you have a $25,000 wafer of silicon that’s good, and can continue in its manufacturing process, or bad and needs to be scrapped out. When making the platter for a hard disk drive, it takes many steps to build the magnetic layer on the aluminum disk. Each step is monitored for temperature, time, chemical concentration and pressure so that the process will operate correctly over hundreds of thousands of operations. Data is the key to process integrity. So control systems in the semiconductor world have to be data centric, not control centric.
Its a different world.