Emerging out of Europe’s largest ever project in the field of digital industry, SC3 (Semantically Connected Semiconductor Supply Chains) envisions a common language to foster collaboration between humans and machines and further improve Europe’s production supply chain management. With the project just over halfway towards completion, three colleagues from consortium leader Infineon Technologies reflect on the challenges and achievements so far.
Getting more out of data
As an ECSEL-funded Communication and Support Action project, SC3 aims to realise the full potential of Internet of Things (IoT) by seamlessly interconnecting devices and procedures across the semiconductor value chain. In doing so, it intends to build on the successes of predecessor project Productive4.0, which brought together 109 partners in 19 countries to improve the digitisation of European industry using electronics and ICT. Following the completion of Productive4.0 in April 2020, project leader Thomas Gutt turned his attention to SC3.
“A lot of results came out of Productive4.0, one of which was an ontology. We were searching for possibilities to drive this further, so we started to run this project,” begins Thomas. “As Productive4.0 was the first project in the Productive4.e Lighthouse, we had a role to play in trying to bring together projects in our conferences. We were already very big but still, we were inviting other projects from the Lighthouse to lift this collaboration. There was even a joint workshop with the Arrowhead Tools project, where we tried to collaborate on a really technical level. We want to do all this in SC3 as well.”
Like Thomas, Hans Ehm was closely involved in Productive4.0 as the leader of the work package on the ontology that now forms a basis for SC3. Having been involved in supply chain innovation for 15 years, he’s keen to see the project’s results used for the better forecasting in the semiconductor domain.
“My own experience with industrial data spaces is that without a profound structure for data, we are not able to give AI and learning machines the know-how we have in our environments. They deliver results that are usually good, but they don’t have the quality needed by experts. For that, we need a ‘lingua franca’ structure. This is already quite strong in the B2C [business-to-customer] environment and it emerged in the B2B [business-to-business] environment during Productive4.0. We now have the opportunity to use this ontology as a Digital Reference and make sure that we have access to data and can get more out of it.”
A web of complexity
By the time that Productive4.0 evolved into SC3, this ontology was already highly advanced and can best be viewed as a web of connected classes that represent very different aspects of supply chains, such as sensors, external products that use chips, a single process on one machine in a production site or even the entirety of production itself. New classes are continuously being added to the project, presenting both a challenge in terms of complexity and an opportunity to interconnect far more devices than would be possible with alternative technologies.
“The biggest achievement is that our ontology still exists and is in the public domain,” says Hans. “Everyone can use it and work on it. The Digital Reference is already a standard in the domain of semiconductors and supply chains containing semiconductors, but it needs to be updated in order to really live. In the project, we implemented a distributed ledger technology for this. In the past, the standard community would be so happy with a standard that they wouldn’t be willing to make a lot of changes. But with blockchain, we have the possibility for both fast updates of the standard and immutability, including who has agreed to a change. SC3 has made the Digital Reference from Productive4.0 sustainable and, for me, that’s the biggest result so far.”
“There’s also an important specific part to the project: the Generic Data Model,” adds Thomas. “As part of the Digital Reference, this model can be used as a communication model within production. Semiconductor producers are very keen to withhold their data internally but, in this project, we are bringing together the European semiconductor know-how and building the infrastructure for intense collaboration with a European but also a global perspective. In terms of collaboration and its benefits for society, this is an important point. If you can reach the point when even competitors will be able to work together to create something new, this is good for the whole community.”
Finding good in the bad
This emphasis on community has been a focal point of both Productive4.0 and SC3, with a great deal of attention devoted to reaching those beyond the confines of the consortium. “I also came to the project from Productive4.0, where I was responsible for communication and dissemination activities,” says Anna Laktionova, Project Manager for Infineon Technologies. “In SC3, I am doing the same with a focus on social media. We try to show the project not only from a technical viewpoint but also to non-technical communities. It’s also for universities and government people, so we try to bring all of their focuses together.”
In terms of reach, Productive4.0 has proven a tough act to follow – in contrast to its forerunner, SC3 is built around a group of five partners in two countries, making external connections all the more important for technological uptake. With this in mind, Anna has already produced a large number of videos, blogs and interviews to compliment the wide array of technical papers and public reports available on the SC3 website. In an unexpected turn, the project has also seen a boost thanks to difficult conditions globally.
“In this project, we’ve been lucky in a way because things like COVID have highlighted the global chip shortage and the need for integrated data,” explains Hans. “Whenever we have disruptions today, prospect theory dominates: when you have nothing in stock, you order twice as much as you need; if you have too much stock, you order nothing. This is the nature of humans, so we have many technical demands in our industries. We need a data infrastructure and Digital Reference – in other words, a semantic web for the semiconductor domain – to uncover truer demands at a more detailed level and reduce the chip shortage. We need outside networking to flourish and the world situation has helped us a lot by giving traction to this.”
Of course, it hasn’t all been plain sailing. As Thomas notes, the Communication and Support Action elements of the project have suffered somewhat due to all events moving online in the face of COVID-19. “Still, I think that the project is running well,” he says. “Productive4.0 created results and we want to keep them alive, not just put them away and never use them, so it’s really nice that we have the opportunity to follow this with funding from ECSEL, now KDT. We may be a smaller project, but we benefit from the results of the 109 partners from Productive4.0. As Hans says, this shows how important external collaboration is.”
Keeping up the continuity
Although the SC3 project will only come to a close in September 2023, Thomas, Hans and Anna are already thinking about the next steps needed to both secure and expand the technology. “As I mentioned, we have different partners and it’s sometimes difficult to explain things to the non-technical community. What are we doing? How do we promote this? How do we find potential customers?” asks Anna. “So, we need to build a network with people from different areas but who can still understand each other and what the benefits are for them and for Europe. One option which is helping us to keep the results visible is our social platform. Once the project finishes, we will still be promoting it in order to help new proposals or results. As with Productive4.0, our website will stay online for at least three years.”
“The continuity from Productive4.0 to SC3 was a great achievement,” agrees Hans. “Now is the time to think about where the ‘home’ of this Digital Reference and distributed ledger technology will be. One option is a funded project with a work package for this. We’re still in the middle of the project, but it’s already important to think about how we can get continuity with the next step. For me, a big change in mindset was going from providing an infrastructure for data sharing to providing an infrastructure for data sharing for truer demand, which has given us much more focus than we had before. A solved global chip shortage situation would help the whole industry and the whole world, so whatever we can do for that is important.”
“SC3 will definitely live on because it’s important to both us and the community. On the technology side, we will further develop the ontology in other projects. It will become more valuable as more things become part of it, so we will follow up in the KDT calls and bring out proposals,” Thomas concludes. “‘Do you remember the chip shortage in 202X?’ This is what we hope to hear in a couple of years if we have completely developed the ontology and are using it to regulate supply chains. That’s our man on the moon: helping to solve this problem for almost the entire world.”