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Risk taking a look

There is a fascinating world out there – so why don't more electronics engineers go out and see it? Tim Fryer reports.

Other industries revel in 'getting out there', hunting down and soaking up the information that will give them the competitive edge. These people mix with their peers, learning about what is good and bad in either the technical or business practices of other organisations.

In fact, many conferences in the business services sector, for example – the people who provide cleaning and catering – will have 'networking' built in as part of the event. The networks that are developed can provide useful sources of information, business contacts and mentoring.

And yet such a notion seems alien to most engineers. Something as non-specific, apparently purposeless, as 'networking' is deemed a waste of time. In fact, even conferences don't appear to have the appeal to engineers that they do in other sectors. Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is a way of structuring and measuring how an individual is bettering themselves. It is encouraged in many sectors as a way of having motivated staff bringing current and innovative ideas into their organisations.

The General Medical Council, for example, recently released guidance for doctors to help them set objectives and to manage their own CPD, while the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) stipulates 20 hours of CPD a year is required in order to retain membership.

Engineers, however, apparently remain unenthusiastic about anything that takes them away from their place of work, despite efforts from representative bodies. The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), for example, encourages a minimum of 30 hours of CPD a year. Ten hours of this, it suggests, can be taken up with training courses, seminars and the like, while the remaining 20 hours could be less structured activities like attending events and exhibitions. And yet it remains notoriously difficult to bring engineers blinking into the daylight. While the IET's Code of Conduct expects members to 'keep their knowledge and skills up to date', enrolment in the CPD scheme is voluntary.

So whilst many sectors have embraced the idea of CPD, why are engineers so reticent? Why does a trip away from the desk appear to be a luxury, rather than an opportunity? Indeed, is it the engineers who are making this judgement call, or is it senior managers who would rather see their staff industriously employed at their desks? In a recent survey of New Electronics readers, 55% said they did not go out to any event at all. This is not a British phenomenon – the demise of engineering events is global.

But there are exceptions. Smaller, tightly focused events, based around a single topic or supplier, are starting to gain in popularity. The Motiv8 Forums, as an example, have addressed RF & wireless, LED & lighting and power electronics successfully to audiences of 100 to 150 engineers. And from a single supplier perspective, National Instruments, albeit with its various alliance partners, has made its annual NI Days a stand-out event on the test, instrumentation, design and control environments.

The German phenomenon
On a larger scale, there is one obvious market that bucks the international erosion in engineering exhibitions and that is Germany. Electronica, its stand out event for electronics, takes place every two years in Munich. The next – its 50th anniversary event – takes place from 11 to 14 November 2014. So why do tens of thousands of electronics engineers make this biennial pilgrimage? "They get the chance to see and learn about everything the electronics industry has to offer from a huge number of exhibitors from around the world in 12 halls," said Anke Odouli, exhibition director. "In that sense, it is unique. As well as the show itself, electronica is the place where the global electronics industry comes together every two years for high level meetings with customers, suppliers and distributors."

In 2012, 46% of visitors and 63% of exhibitors came from outside Germany, underlining its claims to be a truly international event. "electronica has been a gathering for the global electronics industry from the beginning," continued Odouli. "This is simply the best place for industry representatives to get a comprehensive overview of the global marketplace. The entire world of electronics - from developers to buyers and executives - gathers here for four days."

Momentum, then, appears to have propelled electronica to its preeminent role, but that is only part of the story, argues Odouli. "These 50 years stand for expertise, knowledge and tradition. However, the electronics trends of the future have also been presented in Munich for 50 years. Progress is not just important to our exhibitors, it is also important to electronica itself. That is why we collaborate with the industry and with important trade associations and partners to continue developing the fair so that it continues to meet everyone's needs."
However, other German events, notably Embedded World and PCIM in the electronics sector, have also built momentum. Have German show organisers found a formula for success or are German engineers more conscious of their own CPD agendas?

Resurgence in the UK
While the latter may well play a part, the former is more important, and that is the opinion of Ed Tranter, exhibition director of the Electronics Design Show. "For too long, exhibition organisers have been stuck in the past: fill a hall with exhibitors and expect the industry to turn up. That may have worked in the 1980s, but it doesn't work now. What the German shows have succeeded in providing is content."

It may take British engineers a while before they start to believe that a UK event will prove to be a worthwhile day out of the office. But that belief is building. This year will see the launch of the Embedded Design Show, building on the successful introduction last year of the Electronics Design Show – itself an addition to the Engineering Design Show launched in 2012. Each of the three shows has its own identity within this combined event, and each will have its own conference and workshop programme.

"We didn't decide this was what British engineers needed," said Tranter. "We asked them what they needed and have built an event to meet those needs."

Tranter continued: "There were many facets to this. Having a collection of leading suppliers to make up our exhibitor base is clearly key. Having a high quality conference with top level speakers, supported by in depth technical workshops is also vitally important. And having so many complementary engineering functions under one roof is unique. These are the things that set us apart. We believe we have a balance in this format that will appeal to everyone."

Other factors had to be taken into account. Initial research revealed that, along with content, the most important factor (61%) in deciding whether to visit a show or not was its location.
With 100 miles travelling deemed the maximum distance people were likely to travel, the optimum place to be convenient for the maximum number of engineers was, unsurprisingly, the West Midlands.

"Maybe the obvious choice would have been the NEC," said Tranter, "but the right choice was the Ricoh Arena in Coventry. People like it, can access it easily and it has that modern design that fits in with what the Electronics Design Show is all about."

Tranter has a point. Last year, 3100 engineers visited and when the doors open at the Ricoh again on 22 and 23 October, more than 4000 are expected.

It seems that engineers, even in the UK, will be tempted out by the right event. And who knows, there might even be some time for some networking!

Tim Fryer

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