Internet 4.0 Building Networks at Hanover Trade Fair

The world's largest industrial fair, the Hanover Messe, is always a headline grabber, but this year it is set to be more high profile than usual, thanks to a visit by U.S. President Barack Obama.
The Hanover Messe, the world's largest industry trade fair, is all about upgrading for the digital era.

Digital networks and the way they are changing countries and business will be the theme for this year’s Hanover trade fair, which is to be opened on Sunday by both U.S. President Barack Obama and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The spotlight will be on the digitalization of industrial production, a pressing issue for industry in recent years, often referred to as Industry 4.0 or the Internet of Things. Under the event's banner: “Integrated Industries – Discover Solutions” the trade fair will showcase more 100 solutions which use digital networking to ease production in the world's factories.

“We are touching on a nerve for both exhibitors and visitors,” Jochen Köckler, who heads the management of the event, said on Wednesday. “The future of industry lies in networking.”

Around 5,200 exhibitors from 75 countries have confirmed they will take part in the event, 400 more than two years ago. At the same time, the trade fair is increasingly international: some 58 percent of the companies taking part come from overseas this year.

Of these, China will be the most highly represented with some 600 stands, followed by the United States with 465, compared to between 80 and 100 who tend to take part.

As usual Germany steals the show, with two thirds of the exhibition space taken up by German industrial companies, including giants like Siemens and a range of young startups.

And Mr. Obama's decision to travel to the industry jamboree, held in the central German state of Lower Saxony, has helped lend this year's event its distinctly U.S. flavor. Attending alongside the U.S. leader will be Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, Secretary for Energy Ernest Moniz and Secretary for Commerce Penny Pritzker.

“The who's who of U.S. industry will be on show here and they will be represented by their top managers,” Mr. Köckler said. “This includes a large proportion of the titans of American industry and the I.T. sector,” he said, adding that the list of participants included General Electric, Intel, Microsoft, Cisco and Honeywell.

Both the U.S. and Germany are pushing ahead with digitalization, meaning that the event is likely to spark interesting discussions. While Germans are known for their highly modern machines and factories, their counterparts from the United States offer skills in analyzing big data and their experience at creating new business models from this data. “In Hanover, we want to bring together the best from both worlds,” Mr. Köckler said.

The networking of industry in all stages of production will form a major talking point at this year's fair. Companies in the sector have spent many years discussing this topic, which is in its fledgling stages but is seen as make or break for the future.

A discussion is underway whether German firms, especially its economically significant mid-sized companies, are doing enough to encourage digitalisation

One trade fair participant, Till Reuter, who heads Kuka, a leading robot-maker worldwide, said he expects the breakthrough of the fusion of industry and technology in five years. “But it is an ongoing process,” he said. “Our production is already highly-networked and automated. But it will get really exciting when customer desires can directly feed into production.”

He outlined a future where people buying trainers, for example, could place a precise order including colour and style, which will be received by computers overseeing the production line.

Other hi-tech topics include a focus on advance-warning service mechanisms to alert managers to parts of a machine which are showing signs of wearing out.

Another major theme in Hanover will be energy. “The energy transition is itself in transformation,” said Andreas Kuhlmann, who heads the German Energy Agency. “We have the most diverse range of energy production in the world here in Germany.”

But given this wide range of energy sources, a result of Germany's policy to exit nuclear and boost the role of renewables, it is increasingly important to synchronise the different forms of production. Digitalization is the solution to this challenge as it can help solve this increasingly complex puzzle, Mr. Kuhlmann said.

As in the last few trade fairs, robots will also be a common sight at Hanover. This time, though the robots will increasingly leave their protective areas and demonstrate how they can work hand-in-hand with their human colleagues, taking on the brunt of heavy or dirty factory tasks. Also on show will be light-weight construction, for example 3D printers which offer a fast-growing range of possibilities, and a glimpse into the high-tech startup scene which creates them.

Some 115 of these tech newcomers will be housed in Hall 3, which caters for the category “not older than five years, and technologically focused,” Mr. Köckler said. These startups form an important plank of the push towards industrialization, as they frequently accelerate the process of change among their bigger rivals and provide services for the more established industry giants.

Meanwhile, a discussion is underway about whether German firms, especially its economically significant mid-sized companies, are doing enough to encourage digitalization.

Stefan Sommer, who heads the German auto supplier ZF, which makes automated parts for cars, argued that these complaints help keep the sector on its toes: “This constant nagging is good. It motivates us,” he told Handelsblatt.

“This is just as important for mid-sized firms as for big industry. Ignoring this trend is just not an option,” Mr. Sommer added.


Grischa Brower-Rabinowitsch heads Handelsblatt's companies and markets section in Düsseldorf. Martin-Werner Buchenau reports from Stuttgart as Handelsblatt's Baden-Württemberg correspondent. To contact the authors: [email protected]com and [email protected]