HANNOVER, Germany, April 8, 2003 — The Hannover Fair has been forced to realize even its respected name does not make it immune to global events and business downturns as it opens its doors in 2003.
This year the giant industrial trade show is facing shrinking numbers and lower expectations. Even as the fair’s microsystems technology section seems to be bucking that trend, many exhibitors here admit that the heady days of visionary enthusiasm have been replaced by a more sober business assessments — namely, that real profit potential trumps pie-in-the-sky pronouncements these days.
“We’re still on the way up, although at a speed that’s a little slower than we had hoped,” said Thomas Stange of thinXXS Microtechnology, a young German firm that develops and produces microstructured components and systems in plastics. “But we haven’t been hit as hard as some other industries.”
The same can be said of the entire microtechnology component of the fair. Although it is the smallest of the “specialist fairs” at Hannover, microtechnology has consistently grown over its three years of life here. This year, 250 exhibitors from 10 nations are presenting their latest developments, 17 more than last year.
Other areas, such as factory automation and research and technology have watched their exhibitors numbers plummet as poor economic conditions and even political uncertainty make companies reconsider whether the expense of setting up a stand in central Germany is worth it. All in all, the number of exhibitors is down 10 percent from 2002. Trade show organizers also fear a drop in the number of visitors who meander among the 25 halls and 689,000 square feet of exhibition space. Last year, Hannover welcomed 244,000 people through its gates. This year, if 200,000 come during the fair’s five days, organizers will be pleasantly surprised.
“Due to costs, companies are definitely sending fewer employees to the fair,” said Klaus Goehrmann, head of Hannover Fair 2003.
Current events also play a role in some companies’ decision to keep their employees at their desks this year. Half of the contingent from the state of Louisiana, which planned to fly to Germany for the week, canceled at short notice, both on account of the war in Iraq.
“One company had to bow out because of its connection to the military,” said Jim Landry, a director at Louisiana’s Department of Economic Development, “the other cited safety concerns.”
However, a total of 97 American companies apparently believe the potential benefit from exposure at Hannover outweighs any possible risks. The number is up slightly from last year.
Neither war nor a stagnant world economy put off Austin E. Short of the new microreplication unit of Avery Dennison Corp. He said his company never had a second thought about exhibiting at the fair and possibly opening up a new market.
“Most of our customers are in the United States or Asia,” he said. “We saw Hannover as a good place to introduce ourselves, especially since microtechnology is so strong in Europe.”
The microtechnology section presents a broad spectrum of the latest developments in the field. Everything from modular systems and microsensors to coating techniques to microengineering is on show. Optical engineering, nanotechnology, laser technology and medical systems have also been thrown into the mix. The emphasis remains on products and systems that are ready, or about to be ready, for market.
Other highlights include a micro production line where the latest in production and assembly technologies are showcased, such as machines that form mechanical and electrical microstructures and assemble components with nanometer precision.
Keeping in step with the current buzz over optics and its potential in Germany, the fair features a Photonics Theme Park, where current applications and future ones are presented with accompanying razzle-dazzle. It is not quite Disneyland, but perhaps the closest a microtechnology trade fair can get to it.
Despite the theme park’s look-what-might-happen exuberance, there is an underlying note of sobriety to Hannover this year.
“This is where we’ll find out whether the upward trend of recent years can be sustained in a difficult economic climate,” said Helmut Kergel of the VDI-VDE Center for Information Technology in Berlin.
Others echo his concerns.
“In future, microsystems technology will have to concentrate more on the end products,” said Uwe Kleinkes, managing director of IVAM. Investors are now looking very closely at the function of microsystems technology in commercial products, and asking themselves if it is a necessary constituent or just a sales gimmick.
At the thinXXS stand, Thomas Stange said he was glad he could point to real products, with real-world applications, in his display cases. He is the first to say he is no pessimist when it comes to small tech and points to the Honeywell and 3M stands around the corner, saying it is a “good sign” if the big guys are seriously interested in expanding their microtech operations.
But he adds that in today’s economic climate, small companies have to work harder. Investors nowadays want to be convinced that a company’s product has market potential before they hand over any funding.
“Sure, people are still getting money,” he said. “But it’s not as easy as it used to be.”