About 4,000 attendees greeted ABB Chief Executive Officer Joe Hogan as the Zurich, Switzerland-based diversified power and automation systems and components supplier kicked off its annual user conference, Automation and Power World. “There is hope at last (about the economy),” stated Hogan in his keynote address. “We are in a recovery, but it is still tenuous in the developing world.”

Hogan began with the state of the company in broad terms. He had reorganized the company about a year ago into five divisions. To get a sense of the size of the company just in the automation market, the “discrete automation” unit is at about $5.4 billion in sales–more than competitor Rockwell Automation in total, for example. It process automation unit adds another $7.8 billion to the corporate top line.

Much of Hogan’s talk, as well as many sessions and exhibits in the 100,000 square foot exhibition hall, focused on power and enery efficiency. The theme begun last year at the merged “Power World” and “Automation World” conferences continued this year–the confluence of power and process automation. This fact was backed up by Chief Technology Officer Peter Terwisch’s presentation at the press briefing where he threw in one process automation comment at the end of an otherwise power and energy focused talk.

While there was some talk of the recent acquisition of Ventyx acquisition, said to give ABB the tools to help manage energy better, the only news release was the announcement that ABB will invest $90 million in the United States to build a factory that will produce high voltage AC and DC cables. Executives hastened to explain that these aren’t your father’s cables. They are specially designed for such applications as moving electricity from remote power generation sites–for example wind turbine farms far out at sea–to places in the electric grid robust enough to handle the load.

Terwisch’s one comment about automation at the press briefing was to note the company’s virtualization technology for the 800xA platform. Later I got an indepth look into the new, but as yet not formally announced, cpmPlus History–a new historian that not only is capable of acquiring tremendous quantities of data, but also has built-in tools for analysis and scripting capability for development custom analysis built on more complex math and algorithms if required by the customer application.

In another presentation I was able to attend, Clovis de Almeida from Petrobras in Brazil explained a substation project at a refinery using the IEC 61850 protocol. The valuable thing about project leaders sharing experiences is that he could provide details about places where things didn’t go as planned and how they were able work through the challenges. Although he was also quick to say that many problems came from suppliers other than ABB at a couple of points.

I think the size of the event reflects the growing recovery. While this one was a record, some credit probably goes to planners who located it in Houston enabling many engineers a better opportunity to drive in for a day or two rather than having to submit a travel budget for air fare and hotel for several days. As I continue on the spring tour of conferences, we’ll see how widespread this surge is.

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