To get the lowdown on near- and medium-term prospects for the servo market, we interviewed Senior Research Director Tim Dawson in advance of his upcoming report:
Tim, how was 2021 in motion- control?
It was a great year for the industry, with lots of companies enjoying growth ranging between 15 and 50%. Much of this was pent up demand (e.g. restocking or over-ordering), similar to the AC drives market. And there was also the factor that, having spent 2020 coping with staff shortages and the need for social distancing, COVID caused many factories to significantly accelerate their long-term automation plans. Pent up demand meant that many companies order books filled up very quickly at the start of the year. In a surprisingly high number of cases, new order numbers were 60-70% up on 2020, but the resulting overall revenues are usually likely to see a much more modest increase of around 20% overall. The downside has been a log-jam of orders, with some motion-control suppliers now having to operate on 6-8 month lead times.
What’s the outlook for servos over the next 12 months?
Growth is likely to return to more normal levels in 2022 for several reasons. Firstly, the peak in demand which we saw in 2021 will almost certainly mean a softening of demand in 2022. Secondly, we anticipate that raw material and shipping prices will remain high, and the disruption to supply chains will continue. This will keep servo prices high, softening demand.
If we consider the CNC segment on its own though, it may be a slightly different story for CNC products. That’s because machine tools, the biggest CNC segment, is seeing its biggest customers – automotive, aerospace and machine building – enjoy a recovery after a uniquely tough few years.
How do you envisage things panning out over the next 5 years?
We expect the longer-term outlook to remain positive. Motion-control is critical componentry in today’s high-tech machinery. The use of servo equipment increases the flexibility of a machine and flexibility has become a by-word in manufacturing and warehousing. Take packaging machines, for example. Servo mechanisms in these machines give them the flexibility to reconfigure – such as changing packaging sizes – without human intervention. In a time of acute labour shortages, the value of this is obvious, doubly so when automated solutions are seen as an effective way of insulating manufacturing and warehousing processes against global shocks such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tell us something from this year’s research that stood out for you as particularly interesting
Single cable motor connections (combining encoder feedback and power cables) are gaining traction in the USA, where Rockwell Automation are running with the solution in a big way. This technology was a European-led initiative, with Beckhoff and one or two other companies really pushing it, but Rockwell have now pretty much made it their standard offer especially for new machine designs. The company still sells traditional two cable motors for drop-in replacement of old equipment, but it looks like Rockwell, with its very strong US market share, is helping the country catch up fast in the transition to single-cable technology.
Tell us about a ‘one to watch’ tech trend in the industry…
I suggest you keep an eye on smart conveyance technology, which is usually based on linear motors. Smart conveyance tech is one important way that manufacturers will achieve the much discussed goal of “batch size 1”. It is ideally suited to machinery that needs really fast cycle times, often forming a closed loop track where you can have multiple carriers moving independently for enhanced flexibility. For example, in a drinks packaging machine you could have a single filling line that is used for multiple sized products or different beverages. Examples of this technology, used across a range of applications, are Beckhoff’s XTS, Bosch Rexroth’s Flexible Transport System, and B&R’s ACOPOStrak (to name just a few). Smart conveyance is already seeing some good successes in certain high-tech manufacturing spaces, such as Li batteries and medical device manufacture; and some of the big motion players are currently working on new product releases in this market.
What key single piece of market advice would you give to a start-up servo company?
Go specialist and global. There are a lot of small, high-tech motion-control vendors out there who have found very good business by targeting niche applications with high-end products. It means they don’t have to compete with the really big volume producers. If you’re a start-up, it could be a good idea to forget initially offering a general purpose servo. Instead, identify a niche, come up with an all-singing all-dancing high precision solution, and target that niche in as many countries as you can.
Why should anyone buy your upcoming motion control report?
These are incredibly uncertain times for industry, with rising shipping costs and energy and raw material prices, labour shortages and supply-chain blockages, not to mention the continued presence of coronavirus. It’s at times like this that good market intelligence is indispensable. The work of our researchers on the ground – they are in contact with nearly every player in the servo market – means we have our finger on the pulse in what is an incredibly fluid landscape.