After a 2-year pandemic-induced break and a scaled-down show in 2022, the Hanover Fair opened its gates in April to an enthusiastic public thirsty to return to the way things used to be. As the world’s largest industrial trade fair, Hanover is a good indicator for the general health and attitude of the industry. The number of exhibitors and visitors grew by 60 percent and 76 percent compared to the 2022 show (which was delayed by two months), but the 2023 show was still more than a third smaller than the 2019 fair that welcomed 225,000 visitors and 6,500 exhibitors. These numbers are in line with other recent German fairs, such as SPS and ACHEMA.
Like all shows in recent years, the most interesting part is the participation of companies from the non-industrial IT world – a clear sign of the growing influence of IT on OT. This report is the first of two ARC Insights on this year’s Hanover Fair and focuses on trends and highlights as reported by ARC’s team of 15 analysts who visited the show.
Technology Highlights: AI, 5G, Green Hydrogen, Sustainability
The Hanover Fair once again was used by many suppliers to announce new products and partnerships, and to showcase new trends. Participation by the process industries has had a checkered past, and this year process suppliers mostly shunned the show. Noticeably absent were ABB (included its separate B&R discrete automation brand), Honeywell, Emerson, Yokogawa, and Endress + Hauser.
While automation suppliers are reporting record sales, the chip shortage continues to plague the industry and many suppliers spoke of lead times for key products of up to one year. Strong sales are the result of both a generally robust market driven by new applications, and panic buying by machine builders forced to quote even longer lead times.
AI is Everywhere
Artificial intelligence (AI) has been used selectively in industrial applications for many years, but now it seems like the adoption curve is steepening as real applications grow. While AI is getting a bad rap from futurists for threatening jobs and society in general, the technology is finding its way into more industrial applications on a small scale. Examples include AI-supported automation code generation (Siemens, Beckhoff), and apps that interpret spoken language to create standardized instructions for maintenance tasks (Microsoft, Siemens). In the latter case, AI helps to preserve the knowledge and hands-on experience of employees who are about to retire and would otherwise take their valuable knowledge with them.
First it was soft PLCs, then the rapid growth industry software, and now it’s software-defined everything in automation. Automation solutions are clearly moving toward architectures that are defined in software as suppliers begin to offer tools for deploying and managing automation hardware and software like IT assets. Plenty of solutions could be seen at the Hanover Fair.
Virtual PLCs already have been announced by Bosch Rexroth, Schneider Electric, Phoenix Contact, and Codesys, but now market leader Siemens has thrown its hat in the ring with the announcement of the SIMATIC S7-1500V, a virtual version of the company’s venerated S7 series of PLCs. Selling virtual PLCs is different from selling hardware PLCs, and ARC expects new business models to emerge that address the pricing policies of “soft” automation solutions.
Soft PLC or vPLC?
Soft PLCs and virtual PLCs are similar because they are both software. The difference is that a soft PLC is typically installed directly on a PC’s operating system, while a vPLC runs in a containerized environment in which whole fleets of vPLCs may be deployed. To manage this new type of environment, new tools are required.
Tools for Mass Deployment
Software-Defined Automation (SDA) is the name of a start-up company that is doing exactly what its name implies. SDA demonstrated its tools for managing PLCs of multiple vendors, whether hard or soft. With the goal of maintaining a single source of the “truth” for all PLCs, the company’s “PLC Ops” keeps track of code changes and facilitates code retrieval and backup. SDA’s Virtual PLC Management tools provide the framework for deploying and managing large installations of virtual PLCs running on commercial off-the-shelf IT servers – tools that will become important when vPLCs are deployed in large numbers.
Your Hardware or Mine?
Another question to be addressed is to what degree a vPLC vendor needs to specify the hosting hardware and runtime environment. Traditional PLCs are known for their repeatability and predictability, but how does a vendor ensure these characteristics if its control software runs on third party hardware? If a vPLC fails, who do you call?
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Keywords: Hanover Fair, Hannover Messe, Automation, IIoT, IT/OT Convergence, AI, 5G, Green Hydrogen, Sustainability, ARC Advisory Group.