Evolution or Revolution? Print E-mail
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Written by Peter Grundy   
Monday, 31 December 2007 19:00

Like the equipment itself, trade shows follow a development curve.

Better Manufacturing The electronics marketplace is stable, with growth occurring mainly in key regions or sectors. In much of Europe and the U.S., the market has shifted to medium-volume, highly complex assemblies and prototypes. This is a generalization, but it highlights the difficulties show producers face trying to maintain exhibitions in mature areas. The costs of running any exhibition in a stable area start to eat into profits; worse, long-running exhibitions can start to look tarnished.

Does this matter? Well, yes. For it’s not a matter of greed among organizers, it’s more the market perception. As manufacturing costs are pared to the bone and fewer engineers employed, there are fewer funds and people to release to travel to far-off exhibitions. Therefore, the home exhibition has a part to play in educating new staff and showing equipment to those who cannot travel. However, a shrinking region cannot support more than one exhibition: If two separate exhibitions are set up in the same region in a shrinking environment, cannibalization is a risk.

This is the state of the market today.

The real key to exhibition growth is in revolution. When surface mount was in its infancy and through-hole technology was the de facto standard, anything in the SMT world either was genuinely innovative, or at least appeared to be so, and there was always a variety of new ideas and developments to see. Consequently, most exhibitions were busy and most regions could support two or three per year. The world has turned and SMT has become mainstream. The revolution has all but ended. We are in a phase of evolution.

Wandering an exhibition the size and strength of Productronica, one realizes just how little genuinely revolutionary development is taking place. Sixteen years ago, nearly every booth displayed something entirely new. It’s the same everywhere, of course, but Productronica may have survived because it takes place biennially and it has built a reputation for information dissemination.

In the past, to keep pace with the times, engineers needed trade shows. They now have the Internet to launch their information trawl and, in theory, could evaluate all they need from their desks. They can download specification sheets and glossy images, find peer reviews, and in fact, do everything save for touch and feel the physical machine.

The burning question: Can an exhibition survive on evolution or must there be revolution as well? On the evidence of this year’s Productronica, survival prospects look good. But is the same true for smaller, more parochial shows? I believe the two major factors to be the ability to educate a local audience and be able to demonstrate technology successfully to those who need to see it in action as well as read the theory.

Many shows have working lines or a featured products area, but the impact is less in a show as large as Productronica. Large shows are like department store windows; small shows are like university labs. Visitors to smaller shows are often new graduates, junior engineers or apprentices needing the hands-on to translate the concepts they have read into reality.

Our shows have evolved into evolution demonstrators. If a totally innovative, revolutionary development occurs, it will create a change in the exhibition world and change the show focus until stability resumes. An analogy for this is the machine tool industry, which underwent a revolution in the 1970s when automatic tool changers were engineered into lathes and milling machines to create machining centers. Prior to that, all tools were changed by hand.

Themes of increased placement speeds or coping with legislation are evolution, not revolution. It’s a subtle distinction. If we ever get a truly “lights-out” factory that can run automatically and unattended for long periods, that will signal a revolution. We are a long way from that. The pressures on manufacturing (Figure 1) will never go away, but they show areas of development that might one day lead to a revolution.



If that is the case, the exhibition world will have plenty to do toward promoting these inventions, although I suspect the current format – a couple of major shows worldwide, supplemented by many small regional events – will remain. In the meantime, start saving for a new pair of comfortable shoes.

Peter Grundy is director of P G Engineering (Sussex) Ltd. and ITM Consulting (itmconsulting.org); This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . His column appears bimonthly.

 

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