The automation market turned down in 2001, but there are still bright spots in the motion control sector.
Some OEMs are using the current lull to develop next-generation machinery. Among the major effects were a decline in the market for PC-based motion controllers, a smaller but noticeable decline in demand for boxed motion controllers, but continuing pronounced growth for single-box ‘intelligent drive’ products.
The motion controller business splits readily into two key segments: hardware typically supplied in PCB form for higher-volume OEMs – which demand sophisticated software support – and ready-to-use (boxed, panel-mounting) products which are ideal for one-off automation and small-to-medium quantity machinery applications.
The OEM segment has been particularly badly hit over the last year with a double digit decline. This is mainly as a result of two key forces: the general turndown in the electronics and semiconductor industries which account for a large proportion of sophisticated motion machinery (which in turn has as its root a significant decline in the mobile phone business) and the general lack of confidence and avoidance of risk resulting from the September 11 tragedy.
This decline has particularly hurt those motion control suppliers that focus on the PC-compatible market. The remaining bright hope is the fact that some machinery OEMs – particularly larger ones with investment muscle – are using the lull to develop next-generation machines which improve performance by a very considerable margin. Although this means only very small quantity orders for suppliers like Baldor (and associated engineering effort as this business is very support-oriented) the significant ramp into volume orders that results when electronics and semiconductor industries pick up are the upside, and justify the engineering investments being made now.
If you consider the year 1999-2000 when the electronics and semiconductor business was at the height of its cycle, Baldor was experiencing three-digit growth in its OEM motion controller line. The current consensus seems to be a renewal of growth in the sector from Q3, 2002 onwards.
In contrast, the ‘standalone’ sector which covers boxed/panel-mounting ready-to-use motion controllers, saw a much smaller decline (single digit figures), but with major growth in one sub sector for Baldor – ‘intelligent’ drives – which is separated in this review for convenience.
The market for standalone controllers is particularly wide, which partially accounts for its greater resilience, and ranges from in-house engineers (across all end-user industries) implementing one-off automation projects, to machinery OEMs working at the small-to-medium volume end of the market – building in quantities which can often be measured in single digits per month.
This market has shrunk primarily as a result of lower confidence. What’s typically happening is that projects are being postponed, and major upgrades and redesigns are being shelved until the outlook looks more promising. For Baldor, this has resulted in a sales decline, although a modest one which amounts to single figures only. In R&D terms for motion control manufacturers, this is being countered with product upgrades and redesigns which have a cost reduction ethos at their core.
However, one of the interesting side-effects of this general scenario; is that many OEMs are typically looking to extend the lifecycles of existing machine designs, and are very keen on any upgrade which reduces component costs. This has benefited the sub-sector of intelligent drives. These are single-box products which combine a drive with either some form of basic positioning capability, or a full motion controller.
In Baldor’s case, this typically strips out around 30% of direct component costs compared with the purchase of a separate drive and motion controller. But of course, the associated machine building costs – which are probably an order of magnitude higher — are also reduced because of eliminated wiring and assembly tasks.
One of the interesting facets of the intelligent drive market is that it is polarised between simpler drives which include only a basic motion control capability – capable of simple ‘positioning’ tasks such as point-to-point and indexing to meet the needs of machinery sectors such as packaging and converting – and products offering a full-featured motion controller. This latter product is the segment that is particularly driving growth, and Baldor expects to see more competitors over the next couple of years.
In the current climate, not surprisingly, there is little evidence of major shifts in motion controller technology. The key deterrent is that OEMs are postponing new designs, and as a result motion control suppliers are mainly engaged in cost-reduction exercises with customers.
However, some trends are still apparent. Perhaps the most significant is the continued take-up of fieldbuses. Using fieldbuses for I/O handling is now a well established trend. The cost reductions (from less wiring, and less assembly labour) is a major factor in stripping costs out of existing designs. Many OEMs that are using the current lull in demand to develop next-generation equipment are also actively considering employing fieldbuses for digital connection to drives.
Another coincident trend is the rise of high speed serial and networking technologies such as USB2, Firewire and Ethernet. From Baldor’s experience, these are exhibiting a great attraction to machinery OEMs, and could result in a considerable reshaping of the OEM segment of the industry – possibly not in 2002, but during 2003. The scenario is that the speeds offered by these technologies means that ultimately OEMs can dispense with motion controllers offered in the form of plug-in bus cards for PCs, with all the system integration difficulties these pose, in favour of easier-to-handle serially-connected devices, which are able to run fieldbus protocols over, say, Ethernet. This approach puts a lot of added-value possibilities back into the motion controller designer’s domain, and in this area users can expect to see advances as motion controller manufacturers announce their next generation offerings.
However, it is almost certainly in the realm of software that the motion control market will undergo its most significant, if least obvious, shift. The demand on automation designers for increased functionality is rising rapidly, as end users demand new features such as highly graphical man machine interfaces, sophisticated safety mechanisms, and links to local and factory-wide networks.
For users of boxed ready-to-go products, this is already resulting in more sophisticated motion control software – increasingly with growing levels of ‘canned software’ for common applications such as feed-to-length and flying shears. This is an intrinsic feature of Baldor’s Mint language because of its keyword-based approach, and Baldor continues to add more single-command ‘applications’ every year.For the OEM market, the demand is for tool suites which simplify projects, and cut time to market, using techniques such as multi-tasking and Wizards for example. Other demands from OEMs include software tools to run under operating systems other than Windows-based systems.
One last trend of note relates to the interest in linear motors. 2001 was predicted to be a watershed year for the technology, with Baldor expecting some 20% of design-ins to exploit the technology in some form. Indeed, Baldor saw some large design-ins during the year but, overall, a significant technology shift did not take place.
This was largely due to risk avoidance – many OEMs avoided designing machinery with linear motors simply because they might add extra costs, thereby decreasing sales potential in a difficult market. However, Baldor remains modestly optimistic of renewed take-up in the coming year, predicting they will be used in around 10-15% of design-ins.