Automatica Leads the Way
Aimed squarely at showcasing the latest in robotics and automation for European manufacturers, and creating a forum for manufacturers and vendors from Europe and North America to exchange ideas and knowledge, the inaugural Automatica in 2004 was an unqualified success on both counts.
Held in June 2004 at the Munich Trade Fair Center in Munich, Germany, the first Automatica featured 566 exhibitors from 22 countries occupying 21,970 net square meters (236,485 net square feet) of exhibit space. The event attracted more than 17,000 visitors from 65 countries. As one would expect, 70 percent of the visitors were from the European Union and 19 percent from elsewhere in Europe. Another 7 percent visited from the United States, and 4 percent from elsewhere. Similarly, more than 21 percent of the exhibiting companies were from outside of Europe.
Automatica is organized and managed by Munich International Trade Fairs (Munich, Germany) and sponsored by VDMA Robotik + Automation (Frankfurt, Germany), which is the German machine tool builders association. Automatica 2006 has already confirmed more than 550 exhibitors that will occupy more than 26,000 square meters (280,000 square feet) of exhibit space. One-third of these are first-time exhibitors, so it is expected that Automatica 2006 will have much more to offer visitors than in 2004. The event will be held May 16-19, 2006, in the same venue as in 2004. For more information, visit the web site at www.automatica-munich.com.
The Assembly Market in Europe
Europe is an interesting market for suppliers of assembly technology and it is growing, says Hans-Dieter Baumtrog, CEO of Sortimat Technology (Winnenden, Germany). "The most important market is Germany, followed by Italy, the U.K., France and Spain," he says, "and due to high labor costs in many European countries, there is a lot of pressure to cut costs and increase productivity by applying highly automated assembly systems."
"The automotive industry, including its suppliers, is clearly in the lead in Germany, as well as throughout Europe, in terms of adopting automation," Baumtrog says. "Machine building, including metal fabrication, is next, followed by electronics and telecommunications, medical devices and a number of others that represent rather small shares of the market for automation."
The European machine vision market will continue its growth course in the next year or two, says Dr. Norbert Stein, managing director of Vitronic (Wiesbaden, Germany). "The European manufacturing industries face substantial competitive pressure in a globalized economy and need to optimize production processes, raise quality and innovate products. At the same time, they need to cut costs," he adds.
This is where machine vision technology comes in. "It is estimated that the European suppliers of vision technology expanded their sales by 12 percent in 2005," Stein says, "and similar growth rates can be expected for the coming years." Because exports outside Europe will increase more dynamically than the sales within Europe, he expects the growth rate of the European market to be somewhat more moderate, but still in the range of approximately 5 percent to 10 percent.
With regard to the robotics market in Europe, Dr. Michael Wenzel, managing director of REIS Robotics (Obernburg, Germany), points out that some 95,000 robots were installed throughout the world in 2004. "Of course Asia is the leading market with more than 52,000 installations," he says, "but Europe ranks second with about 29,000 installations, well ahead of the United States with about 14,000 installations."
To be competitive, many European manufacturers rely heavily on robots to compensate for the high wages paid to workers, Wenzel says. Automation is also necessary to ensure the quality of the products. All this makes technology suppliers optimistic that the success story of robotics in Europe will continue. However, 2005 was a less dynamic year for the robotics industry, he says, because European automakers did not introduce as many new models, especially in Germany, which is the biggest "robot country" in Europe with nearly 13,500 installations in 2004.
"For the next few years we expect to see more robots installed in non-automotive applications, even in small- and medium-size companies," Wenzel predicts. "We also feel that economic development in Europe is picking up, which will lead to replacement of older robots."
As technology moves forward, machine vision systems are becoming more user-friendly, and human-machine interfaces allow more intuitive and simple operation, says Stein. "The performance of vision systems is increasing rapidly due to technical advances in camera technology and increased computing power," he says. "This makes more and more sophisticated applications economically feasible."
The form factor is also decreasing, allowing ever more performance and functionality to be packed into more compact systems. This allows vision to be integrated into new environments heretofore limited by space restrictions, says Stein.
Look for more and more robotic applications in general industry in the next few years, says Wenzel. "We see more demand for robots in plastic molding," he adds, "and also in palletizing, packaging and metal casting applications." Wenzel's vision is to create personal assistants that accompany production workers in the plant, helping them to do their work with less effort and more precision. But, he points out, it will be years before this affects the market.
"Volatile markets call for flexible and versatile assembly systems," Baumtrog stresses. Ever faster model updates, more variants, and smaller lot sizes place exacting demands on assembly lines that have to be capable of adapting to new models in record time, he explains. In other cases where high-volume production prevails, speed and efficiency are essential. Whatever the demands on flexibility and cycle time may be, Baumtrog says the key issues are quality, cost-effectiveness and time to market. Standardization and reuseability help achieve these goals.
The Major Automation Users
Although motor vehicle producers ordered fewer robots in 2005, suppliers still sold a lot of robots to automotive parts producers, Wenzel says. "Food and packaging, as well as the electronics industry, are emerging markets for robotics," he adds, "and from 2007 on, the motor vehicle producers will start to make larger investments again."
The automotive, machine building and electronics industries still have substantial growth potential in Europe, according to Baumtrog. "I am convinced that precision and micro assembly will be engines of growth in the future, especially in the medical device and pharmaceutical industries," he says. Research institutes are developing fascinating micro and nano products in the laboratories, but the technology for cost-effective high-volume manufacturing of these products does not yet exist. "The companies that develop these technologies for the right products will successfully tap these markets in the future," he predicts.
The automotive industry is clearly the most important user of machine vision in manufacturing applications, with a share of roughly 18 percent, Stein says. The electronics, glass, rubber, plastics and printing industries are also big customers and will continue to play a major role.
"The biggest growth rates, however, are in the non-manufacturing sector," Stein says. "Applications outside the factory already account for one-fourth of total European turnover in vision technology."
Reaching the European Market
How, then, should American automation builders approach the fast-growing market for automation in Europe? "We saw a two-digit growth rate until the mid-1990s, and have a very favorable market climate even today," says Thilo Brodtmann, managing director of VDMA Robotik + Automation. "The next few years will bring us new technologies and more applications. Miniaturization of consumer products and ever increasing quality requirements will continue to drive the success story of automation in Europe."
American automation builders certainly should be interested in the European market, Brodtmann says. Those who are not yet active in Europe should try to make initial customer contacts by participating in a trade show in Europe, just as many European automation builders participate in the Assembly Technology Expo in Chicago. Inasmuch as VDMA is the German machine tool builders association, it should come as no surprise that Brodtmann suggests, for a first venture into the European market, participating in a show located in Germany. But there are sound reasons behind this suggestion.
Germany represents the biggest automation market in Europe, accounting for some 40 percent of the total turnover in automation equipment. As a result, trade shows in Germany attract exhibitors and visitors from all over Europe, so American exhibitors will benefit from this true European setting. Also, most Germans speak fluent English, so an American company with no German-speaking sales staff is not at a major disadvantage in reaching out to this promising market.