Blake Griffin, an analyst with Interact Analysis which is one market research firm whose methodology I like, has published a blog post reporting on his latest research into the low voltage drives market. Following a sales slow down this year, different regions of the world will see recovery at differing paces.

He also includes an analysis of the role of LV drives in applications such as predictive maintenance. I’ve been long impressed by the amount of motor, and even machine, performance data that may be gleaned from the sensors built into the typical drive. 

Coronavirus

As a company, Interact Analysis is positioned to model the impact of COVID 19. This is because of the MIO Tracker, which tracks and forecasts manufacturing output levels by country at the industry level. We also have a historical dataset to fall back on which reaches back to the 2009 financial crisis – an event that is comparable to Coronavirus in some key ways, and which has helped us to draw some conclusions about the short, medium and long-term effects of COVID 19 on the drives market.

For 2020, the report shows that a combination of COVID-related factors – such as stay at home orders causing a reduction in manufacturing output and demand, as well as factory closures and furloughed workers – will come together to cause a drop in the drives market of over 10%. However, the drop is not as severe as it was in 2009, and there is light at the end of the tunnel. There are strong prospects for a return to growth in 2021 and drives manufacturers and vendors should make their plans with this in mind.

Growth in the LV drives market sits just above that for the output of the manufacturing industry as a whole. This is a long-term trend and it helps lead to some key future conclusions about the drives market in the post-Corona world. Between 2007 and 2019, the underlying growth rate for LV drives was 3.8%; for the period 2020-2024, the forecast CAGR is significantly higher – at 5.3%. The implication is that the market will recover in a similar manner to how it did during the 2010-2014 period.

In terms of recovery to actual 2019 market levels, this is highly variable according to region. The earliest regions to recover to 2019 levels will be China, South Korea, and India – all of which will do so by 2021, and indeed China has already returned largely to normality. Meanwhile, France, Germany and Italy will not recover until 2024. In the case of Germany, this seems counterintuitive given how widely reported it has been that the country has managed the virus itself very well. The problem for Germany is that it is crippled by its heavy reliance on exports, many of which are to far more badly impacted countries. Of the top ten drives regions covered in the report, the UK stands alone as being the single worst impacted region and, even by 2024, will not have recovered to 2019 levels of drives sales.

The Trend for Low Cost Drives

The research shows that the trend for low cost, reduced functionality drives is becoming an ever more important segment of the market. Such drives tended to be cabinet mounted, to be rated at IP20 or lower, and to offer power ratings of 0.1-3.7 kW. Price points can be exceptionally low, with the most keenly priced products – generally 0.4 kW in Asia – coming in at around the $100 mark. The presence of higher regulations and, increasingly, tariffs, in the EMEA and the Americas is not stopping the growth in the low cost drives segment in these regions.

Hitting such a low price point requires advanced functionality such as encoder support, to be stripped out, although some still have additional plug-in options (e.g. for digital communications). ABB and Yaskawa have had low cost products since the mid-2000s, but the trend is being turbocharged by the rapid emergence of Chinese drives vendors onto the global stage, such as INVT and Inovance. While the high-end OEMs may have little use for low cost LV drives, many others report that they are very keen on such products because they can be bulk bought and easily stored to replace faltering drives as needed – helping to minimize production or machine downtime. Observing the behaviour of established vendors is key to determining just how marked the low cost drives trend will be, and seeing leading companies enter the low cost market such as Siemens (with the V20) or Yaskawa (with the GA500) is instructive.

Other Important Trends – Product Substitution and Predictive Maintenance

Other important trends include an increasing move for product substitutes actually displacing LV drives in certain areas. One of these is electronically commutated motors – or ECMs. ECMs are IP55+ rated brushless DC permanent magnet motors – similar to stepper motors. They are increasingly helping companies achieve energy efficiency objectives in high energy usage applications that do not require the computation capabilities an AC drive offers. Some can now achieve IE5 levels of efficiency, leading to dramatic cost savings. Uptake will be most notable in Europe where energy efficiency regulation is the most stringent.

Finally, a word on predictive maintenance… Drive manufacturers should move away from seeing predictive maintenance as a means of extending the life of only the drive itself. Though this is important, a larger consideration is about how to use the drive as a sensor to harvest useful data on motor health, preventing motor breakdowns on fast-moving production lines. A drive can produce data on motor behavior which cannot be produced by the majority of smart sensors. Namely, drives can produce a profile of the electrical behavior of the motor it is controlling. For example, if a motor is under undue stress, its electrical demands will increase.  If this data is used in conjunction with smart sensors, it allows an additional source of data for triangulation which can improve the accuracy of machine learning algorithms. Predictive maintenance is one of the most important up-and-coming industrial trends. Forward-thinking LV drives manufacturers should act now to ensure they capitalise on this.

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