Drives & Controls November/December 2023

AI AND BOTS MAKE THEIR MARK AT SPS The SPS (Smart Production Solutions) exhibition, which took place in Nuremberg, Germany, a few weeks ago, is gradually returning to the size it was before the Covid pandemic. In 2019, Europe’s biggest automation show attracted 1,585 exhibitors and 63,708 visitors. The 2023 event drew 1,229 exhibitors and around 50,000 visitors – up from the 999 exhibitors and 44,000 visitors who attended in 2022. The attendance figures could have been even higher had it not been for a nationwide train drivers’ strike in Germany which was called at short notice. The continuing weakness of the German economy and manufacturing sector was another negative factor. The trade body ZVEI reported at SPS that Germany’s electrical and digital industry had suffered three months of declining exports. But there was plenty of positive news from the show as well. Perhaps most remarkably, Beckhoff was able to report a 28% increase in sales in 2022 to a total of €1.515bn, despite the tough industrial climate in Germany. This followed a similar spurt the previous year, and the company’s average growth rate from 2010-2022 was 15%, despite the effects of the pandemic. Much of this growth came from outside Germany, with sales to the Americas up 40% in 2022, Asia-Pacific up 28.8%, and the EMEA region excluding Germany up 31.7%. There was also encouraging news from the small contingent of UK-based (if not all UK-owned) exhibitors at the show. Sprint Electric, Trio Motion Technology and Invertek Drives were all displaying newly-developed ranges of products, with Sprint marking its imminent expansion from its traditional DC market into the regenerative AC drives sector. One inescapable theme of this year’s SPS was Artificial Intelligence, with almost all of the major exhibitors talking about how AI would make life easier for their customers. In the vast Siemens hall, for example, Schaeffler (a Siemens customer) was demonstrating how it is using the AI-assisted Industrial Copilot tool (codeveloped with Microsoft) to generate PLC code rapidly with fewer errors using a natural language input. Siemens and Schaeffler say that as well as optimising engineering and support operations, such tools will also help to counteract the effects of skills shortages. These shortages were another theme of the show with suppliers arguing that, far from being a threat to jobs, automation is a means of making best use of the limited numbers of skilled personnel around the world. One interesting development at the show was the growing interest of global electronics distributors in the automation sector. Both RS and DigiKey were exhibiting at SPS for the first time, with the latter attracting large numbers of visitors to its stand to play on slot machines that were dispensing tools as prizes. With these major distributors showing such a keen interest in industrial automation, the future for the sector looks promising. Tony Sacks, Editor n COMMENT