01 May 2001
How about a $74 billion motion control market?
An old acquaintance and current reader sent me an issue of the "Digital Power Report" (www.powercosm.com), a newsletter put out by Gilder Publishing in Housatonic, Mass. He wrote that I "might be interested in their analysis of the rosy future for motion control."
Like most messengers, I like to bear good news. Since the time of the ancient Persians, people have generally liked to fÍte the bearers of good news and slay the bearers of bad news. I would rather make my readers happy.
"The Powerchip Paradigm II Broadband Power" report makes it appear that the future of the motion control market could be very bright indeed. The motor vehicle industry alone could constitute a market of $74 billion annually. That doesnít include locomotives, ships, aircraft, forklifts, heavy machinery, etc. The report predicted that all of these power applications will be servo controlled, using electric motors at the power output. Drive trains will be eliminated. No more gears, belts, pumps, etc.just electric power.
There is, however, no time frame. Nor are there any projected sales figures. The $74 billion estimate is one I put together in the following manner: There were 40 million passenger cars and 17 million trucks produced worldwide in 1999. Figuring that the drive mechanisms are worth $1,000 per car and $2,000 per truck, we get a figure of $40 billion for the cars and $34 billion for the trucks.
The report concluded, "The companies in the thick of this transition are going to get stupendously rich."
However, this reminds me of a seminar some 20 years ago, at which I was one of four speakers.
One of us spoke of the immense effect computers would have in the future, telling fantastic stories about what was to be. One gave a talk about technology that was in current usage. I spoke about future sales trends in computerized automation, giving future industry sales estimates. Another told the audience the steps required to produce an integrated circuit (IC), and how much each step would cost.
After the presentations, each of the presenters sat at a different table, and the attendees were invited to sit at the table of their choice. I was relieved that I got a fair number. The fellow who was talking about the present got only three or four. The one who gave the specifics on IC design and production filled the seats and had rows of people standing behind him. The futurist was absolutely alone.
The "Digital Power Report" reminds me of the futuristís talk. In retrospect, I suspect the futurist had some good ideas that eventually came true. The trouble is, he had no timetable for anything to happen. Nor does the "Power Report."
In our fundamental definition of "motion control," developed by interviewing engineers on how they use the term, is the concept that motion is controlled by a signal, usually electrical and computer generated. In the past, motion control has been used mainly to achieve more precise and responsive control. But in some applications, an electrical signal is generated to control an element at a remote location rather than to achieve more precision. An example is an actuator located in the wing of a large aircraft. Smaller aircraft employ a mechanical linkage instead.
The gist of the reportís optimistic argument that servo-controlled electric drives will take over automobile propulsion is that "mechanical shafts, belts, pulleys, chains, wheels, gears, and calipers" provide the inertia that keeps the drive stable. "But now we have smart chips and power chipstechnology smart enough and fast enough to tame the hair-trigger power train. . . . This changes everything."
Granted, improved chip technology makes possible more stability than before. But is it really instability, resultant from the lack of a mechanical coupling, thatís kept us from replacing that coupling with electrical signals sent to a motor?
Electric drives have been around for a long time in diesel/electric locomotives, where thereís plenty of space. There have been electric cars for as long as weíve had gasoline cars, although their utility is diminished by the fact that there isnít any convenient electrical drive source. Batteries need recharging; fuel cells arenít yet ready. Gasoline/Electric cars are available and looking better all the time.
Coming back to our lonely futurist, many of the fantastic things he predicted did come true. They took a number of years.
$74 billion is a lot of money. MC
Edward A. Ross is president of Ross Associates in Needham, Mass., and author of The Ross Guide to the Motion Control Industry. Contact Ed at (781) 449-5123; fax: (781) 449-2942.