No industrial revolution without 5G

Digital networking has been a big topic for years at the Hanover industrial fair. What the event shows in 2019 is just how important fast data transmission technology is for market players. DW’s Andreas Becker reports.

Robots are mastering the most spectacular tasks; their human colleagues are wearing VR headsets and using data gloves to make sure that the 3D printer produces the right part just in time — all of that may be fascinating, but doesn’t really steal the show anymore at the world’s biggest industrial fair, Hannover Messe in Germany.

It’s the same images all over again, but maybe the most important things are invisible. While the exhibition halls in Hanover haven’t changed that much, the technology on display has been brought up to date.

The motto of this year’s show is “Integrated Industry — Industrial Intelligence.” So, what it’s all about is the advance of artificial intelligence (AI) and complex facilities that maintain themselves or at least report about any glitches.

Smart and fast

“Over the past five to six years we’ve worked to become the lead fair for Industry 4.0, that is for fully integrated plants,” said Jochen Köckler, head of the Deutsche Messe organizers. “What we can show here is that integration is getting one more boost from the new 5G data transmission standard.”

At the fair’s 5G Arena, a special test field was set up, enabling machines to communicate with each other about 100 times faster than before. It may not look so spectacular at first glance, watching robots doing their job and self-driving machines getting from A to B. And yet we’re witnessing a significant quality improvement, with more sensors in use, more data transmission processes — and all of that wireless. Not only does this lower costs, it also makes the machines in question more flexible.

With or without China?

Right now in Germany, 5G frequencies are being auctioned off. At the same time, there’s a big debate to what extent Chinese equipment providers such as Huawei should be allowed to contribute to installing the necessary infrastructure in the country.

Köckler hopes German policymakers will not slow down 5G developments. “Policymakers have to provide the right framework for making the best of this technology,” he told DW. “China — and most of our exhibitors come from there — is fully betting on this technology; there’s large-scale competition going on among them.”

In her opening address at the Hanover fair, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke out against a ban on Huawei technology. “I’m against excluding anyone by definition,” she said, without specifically mentioning Huawei, though. “What’s important is that agreed standards have to be adhered to.”

How to earn money

More than in previous years, exhibitors are focusing on digital business models and thus the question of how to earn money with integrated technology.

“Digitalizing business models is a task that will keep us busy for 10 years,” said the managing director of Germany’s Mechanical Engineering Industry Association (VDMA), Thilo Brodtmann.

Industry’s new reality

He argued that German companies had covered about two-thirds of the way there and were able to offer their clients new products. “The day when we can finally turn a profit with this is just around the corner.”

Industry or IT fair?

Digitalized business models, the processing of big data, cloud-based services — the borders between these segments are fleeting, which has contributed to the demise of the CeBIT IT fair in Hanover.

The head of Germany’s Electrical and Electronic Manufacturers’ Association (ZVEI), Klaus Mittelbach, said the disappearance of CeBIT was no cause for concern as Hannover Messe was a good platform for German industry champions, many of them small and medium-sized enterprises.

The rest of the world doesn’t seem to bother either. Organizer Jochen Köckler says there are 6,500 exhibitors this year, of which 1,500 are from China. “Some 60 percent of the companies present are from abroad; that’s a new record.”

Sweden as the special partner of the Hanover industrial fair this year is rubbing home the message that it has the highest percentage of renewable energy in its overall energy mix and can at the same time provide the cheapest energy for industry in all of Northern and Western Europe. That, the country says, has prompted Amazon to build three large data centers there form its cloud services.