Tim has over 20 years’ experience in technology market intelligence with expertise across a broad range of industrial automation technologies and industries. Tim is now Senior Research Director and Principal Analyst for the Interact Analysis Industrial Technology team, using his considerable experience to develop best-in-class research for the manufacturing sector.
We recently returned from the annual SPS exhibition in Nuremberg, Germany full of confidence at what we’d seen. Now in its 30th year, SPS marks the highlight of the automation industry’s calendar. This year marked a major change in its approach too. This is reflected in the show’s change of name, from SPS IPC Drives to Smart Production Solutions. Where once it was focused mainly on PLCs, drives and related hardware technologies, now the spotlight has shifted to encompass software, sensors and many of the other emerging technology platforms that form the wider automation ecosystem. All of which makes it the perfect event to ascertain the direction of travel in industry.
Among the key trends we observed, particularly from a drives perspective, was the shift in importance of IP66. Every major vendor we reviewed had either released an IP66 drive, or was planning to within the next six months. Essentially, an IP66 drive means it is completely protected from dust ingress, and also protected from high pressure water jets from any direction.
This goes hand in hand with a wider trend towards decentralised drives, whereby drives are placed directly onto a production line instead of inside a cabinet. Drives in this situation usually need to be robust, durable and able to withstand direct contact with water. IP66 drives fulfil this requirement, thus making them suitable for decentralisation. This makes them ideal candidates for applications like food and beverage production, where they can reasonably be expected to have to deal with messy or wet environments. Indeed, our LV drives report forecast decentralised drives to have the strongest growth of all the major drive categories over the next five years. Seeing this forecast play out at SPS showed the value of our robust, in-depth primary analysis, and we expect the trend for growth in IP66 drives to increase in the coming years.
Elsewhere, ultra-low voltage DC drives, like those used heavily in automated guided vehicle (AGV) applications, rotary motors or conveyor belts seem to be growing in prominence. We’re seeing these products used heavily within mobile applications that use electric batteries, such as automated warehouses, where the drives power the wheels of the AGVs. Indeed, the recent increase in battery driven applications in a range of industrial and commercial contexts is giving this relatively older DC technology a new lease of life.
From a motion perspective, there’s an ongoing trend towards multi-axis servos, where a single drive can handle movement across a number of axes. Beckhoff and Panasonic were both pushing these concepts, recognising that the desire for reducing cabinet space coupled with the overall trend towards more modular machine designs is gathering momentum. Space, in a factory, is money after all, and these modular systems allow for more decentralised setups, while also minimising the size of the cabinets for those drives that do remain.
More broadly, there is continued focus around asset management software, like condition monitoring and predictive maintenance. Rockwell Automation and PTC’s FactoryTalk InnovationSuite platform is a perfect example of this; Rockwell partnered with PTC to create a flexible industrial IoT platform which can link whole factories, or monitor individual assets within a factory. Generally, these technologies are still at an embryonic stage, with companies proving the concepts of condition monitoring and predictive maintenance through customer trials. That said, it won’t be long before these systems are commonly adopted in the mainstream market at the enterprise level.
Danfoss is interesting because it’s a drive specialist unlike, for example, ABB or Siemens, who have a much wider solution portfolio. Danfoss doesn’t have an IoT platform in the way ABB or Siemens does. Instead, it uses the drive itself to carry out analytics, pushing the information where it needs to go directly. Typically, this means measuring electrical output and looking at anomalies they see from the motor.
The other alternative is using smart sensors, such as the ABB Ability sensor, which reside on the side of a motor. Systems like this can then take advantage of low-energy Bluetooth to transmit that data to the drive. Each of these solutions points towards the drive being used as either an IoT sensor or as a gateway, aggregating data. Again, this trend was reported in our recent LV drives research, where we described drives as “the front lines of predictive maintenance”.
It is through visiting shows like SPS that we are able to see, firsthand, the pace of change within the automation industry. Firms of all sizes and specialisms are finding innovative ways to push the boundaries of what is possible in industry, and seeing this advancement up close reaffirms our belief that industrial automation technology is on course for significant growth in the next few decades. In fact, we believe that industrial automation is on course to be one of the most important and disruptive forces of the 21st century global economy.