Trends from the automation capital

January 14th, 2015, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: Energize, Articles: EngineerIT, Articles: Vector


The buzzwords at this year’s SPS IPC Drives Exhibition in Germany were “energy” and “data”. Economic pressures, environmental consciousness and regulations have influenced product and service designs, and shifted the focus to technology optimisation.

Automation trade fairs and conferences are good indicators of shifting trends in the market, and the SPS IPC Drives Exhibition and Conference which took place in Nuremberg, Germany in November 2014 was no exception.

Counterfeit products remain a threat to the industry and I had barely taken out my camera before I was interrogated about what I intended to use the pictures for. Big brand devices are copied to the most miniscule detail on the outside, but further inspection show that some components inside don’t even perform any function. To some exhibitors product photos play no role, as copycats buy originals and reverse engineer them.

Now in its 25th year, the three-day annual electric automation trade fair is one of the largest in the world, with 1602 exhibitors (1094 from Germany alone) spread between 14 halls covering 117 800 m2, and drawing a crowd of 56 787 visitors. It is possible to walk for a week at this expo and still not see everything, making it a good idea to come with a focus in mind.

Automation and electrical solutions provider Afrilek arranged the visit to the expo for their clients, who included experts, engineers, trainers, consultants and system implementers in water, electricity, and mining industries.

The Afrilek tour group outside the SPS IPC Drives Exhibition and Conference at the Messezentrum (Exhibition Centre) in Nuremberg, Germany.

Our tour group outside the SPS IPC Drives Exhibition and Conference at the Messezentrum, Nuremberg.

Many visitors commented on the scale of the expo and the wide range of products on offer, while others said the most valuable aspect of the visit to them had been the exposure to different products and product offerings, and learning about the new technologies showcased and implemented.

Besides having the chance to see the latest developments and trends in automation and the different applications possible, visitors had the opportunity to ask experts for advice and tips on anything from selecting the products to installations in specialised applications. Not to the mention networking opportunities that arise from the diversity of visitors.

1602 exhibitors are spread between 14 halls covering 117 800.

Over 1600 exhibitors are spread between 14 halls covering 117 800 square metres.

With the Southern-African market in mind and because Afrilek is a service partner for these brands, we visited specific stands for stand tours: Siemens, ABB, Schneider Electric, Phoenix Contact, Wonderware. We also visited HMS, a Swedish industrial communication product manufacture behind Anybus, Axxat, Netbiter and other industrial fieldbuses, because the company provides networking services to producers such as Siemens, Schneider Electric, Rockwell etc.

This may not seem like a lot of stands, but consider that Siemens occupied an entire hall. At other stands visitors can spend hours to explore products in detail.

The SPS IPC Drives Exhibition and Conference covers control technology, electric drives and motion control, interface technology, human-machine-interface devices, sensors, software, mechanical infrastructure, and industrial communication. It is accompanied by presentations, product demos, and podium discussions, and has representation from the VDMA Robotics and Automation Associations, and the Central Association of the Electrical Engineering and Electronics Industry (ZVEI).

Citing November 2014 ZVEI research, exhibition organisers Mesago said the international automation industry has seen stable sales between January and September 2014, amounting to €34,5-billion, with orders up 3% for the same time the previous year. Moderate growth is also expected for 2015.

Visiting the the wireless solutions section at the Schneider Electric stand.

Visiting the the wireless solutions section at the Schneider Electric stand.

Tighter economic conditions as well as environmental consciousness and regulations have influenced product designs and developments in this industry. Over and above brand new technologies, there has been a clear effort to streamline and optimise products.

A key area of optimisation has been in energy, both energy management and energy efficiency. Products are now being designed with better heat conveyance, smaller footprints, better energy monitoring and capacity of management; and having energy management built into the management software and applied internally as well as through HMIs.

Products are energy optimised in many ways, such as using wide range coils on the contactors to reduce power loss; optimised trips in circuit breakers reducing dissipated heat; energy measurement (crucial for energy usage reduction); and controlling consumption (through measuring energy drawing through the system). Some devices (e.g. Siemens’ Simocode devices) can perform both measurement and switching. Futhermore, information generated during processes can be taken up to the control system, to decide what to switch at a particular time.

Drives used in most processes in the South African market are usually less sophisticated than those used in other parts of the world, as it is used in more straightforward applications. Since drives are particularly energy intensive, efficient management is crucial. One example of effective use of energy was illustrated on a Siemens SimoPress servo used in car door manufacturing. The motor’s energy load is transferred onto a second parallel motor for conservancy, so that after pressing down (an energy lost), it can power up to complete its cycle by using the conserved energy from the second motor.

Stand visits included a stop at the Phoenix Contact stand.

Stand visits included a stop at the Phoenix Contact stand.

HMIs received special attention in this regard, as its success lies in providing users with context. Context, as industrial software provider Wonderware explained, extends beyond energy management and could apply to various phases of processes. The company also refers to it as “situational awareness”, where HMIs are designed to provide users with context of processes, to indicate measurements variations, whether a measurement has deviated this far before; where it was before a specific time, etc., for better analyses and control.

Previous trends such as the use of 3D models in HMI interfaces are now passing, and new designs are simpler, cleaner and more practical. It simplifies processes and decreases information overload for the user, usually through the use of dashboards for an overview, and clickable options to drill down into detail. Other technologies, such as multi-touch screens for industrial panel PCs, are still present but have not taken off as anticipated.

The increasing prominence of IT in this traditional predominantly hardware-orientated industry was also clear, especially with the rise of cloud computing and HTML 5 in automation, set forth by the growing use of consumer mobile devices such as tablets.

HTML 5, an internet markup language for structuring and presenting content, will likely grow in use for HMIs as it is particularly suitable for dynamic display in mobile devices. IT is also present with the increased use of data and cloud services, even with its current security issues.

ABB showcasing their drive technology.

ABB showcasing their drive technology.

Since data has become a powerful tool for obtaining insights with financial implications, there is increased focus on how to measure it, transmit it, display it, manage it, process it, analyse it, and store it.

Data services are at the forefront of a shift in focus in the industry from automation products towards automation services according an industry expert, who recons that a future automation market with a services focus might even be hardware-agnostic. In his opinion automation producers’ long term business plans should be to make hardware free/more accessible as a means to gain the largest user base for when services become the main focus. Those with the largest user base will be in the best position to profit in a service-centred market.

Changes in the technology itself are also anticipated, which will see other methods/hardware being developed as the aging workforce in automation world wide is replaced by a younger generation of Java programmers and the like. This could mean in as short a time as 20 years PLCs might be very different to today’s versions.

As within the IT and others sectors, acquisitions of smaller companies by larger brands have been common in recent years. This is partially attributed to the many specialist and niche elements in the industry, but it is often a win-win situation for both parties. The acquired company can survive, while the (usually larger) purchaser can expand its portfolio.

The Siemens stand occupied the entire Hall 11 at the exhibition.

The Siemens stand occupied the entire Hall 11 at the exhibition.

Our host company Afrilek was voted Best Siemens PCS7 Project 2014, and so the trip to Germany also included a visit to two Siemens factories and the Siemens distribution centre. Both factories are highly automated. Some components (small contactors for example) are simultaneously produced on automated multi-direction production lines, before undergoing testing on the premises. Pick and place machines feature prominently here, and even allow for parallel placement of both sides of PCBs.

The visits demonstrated the production cycle, and how automation is used in producing automation products. Siemens use its own technology and life cycle management software to design and produce its products. Typically, the further you go up the power rating chain, the piece count decreases, and therefore the amount of automation needed is also reduced.

First we visited the Siemens switchgear and automation factory in Amberg, where 95% of their products shipped to SA are produced. Some 20 000 line items are produced here per day. It is considered the company’s lead factory, with approximately 750 of the 4600 staff members employed here working on research and development. Most of the main designs and technology decisions are made here. The company has lately been exploring eCar power systems, which are anticipated to grow into a pertinent European market in the near future.

One of five manufacturing halls at Siemens’s switchgear and automation factory in Amberg, Germany.

One of five manufacturing halls at Siemens’s switchgear and automation factory in Amberg, Germany. [Credit: Siemens]

At the Erlangen factory where drives are made, automated doormats clean your shoes as you walk onto them before you enter. Manual labour is only employed where components are too big and inefficient for automats to place and assemble. To put technological advancement into perspective, we were shown PCBs of 1,6 mm thick that has 10 to 20 layers of conductive circuitry.

Also situated here is a machine hall and application centre with ten machines and test tracks, where clients’ machines are tested. The testing here focus on converting, printing, metal framing, plastics, textiles and handling. The centre is also used for training on standard applications, as well as for demos and development.

Due to the scale of their operations Siemens has its own customs centre – a futuristic warehouse – and a highlight of the trip. It houses a three-storey warehouse and processing (customs) area. In the store, 75 000 bins are automatically fetched, sorted and stored by large robotic arms along an axis system. These sorters race up and down the tight aisles at high speeds, and sort the bins according to a Chaotic Stock system (placing items in available spaces rather than arrange them alphabetically).

It was very appropriate that we travelled to the Nuremberg Airport in a driverless train; a last goodbye from a place where automation seeks to decrease mundane and monotonous jobs while aiming to improve quality of life. One cannot help but wonder how different the world would be if over population and job scarcity were not factors.

Our group outside Siemens' Amberg factory.

Our group outside Siemens’ Amberg factory.

A special note of thanks to Afrilek for the invitation to the expo, and to my fellow guests who provided valuable insights, asked thought provoking questions, and explained specialised applications to me in detail. On the trip with me were Afrilek’s Su-Anne Willemse, Pregs Naidoo, and Colin Venter, and joining us were Adrian Delport (EHL), Cassiem Solomon (Pro Process), Des Burrows (Rascals Automation), Enoch Rasakanya (Lepelle), Joseph Matlala (Bakone Tehnical Services & Supplies), Magen Govender (Controlgear), Mark Stehle (Nampower), and Patience Masilela (Monsinclaire consulting), and Vincent Malaza (Eskom).

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