Tradeshows and test

-September 25, 2013

After attending the Autotestcon tradeshow in Chicago last week, you had to wonder whether it was a reflection on the application area (electronics test), the industry (military/defense/aerospace), or the medium (tradeshows). And by the way, the “reflection” I’m referring to would be a negative one, as the attendance was poor. I heard a rumor about a customer wondering around somewhere, but nobody could confirm it. Ok, that’s an exaggeration….sort of.

Figure 1: Things were a little sparse on the Autotestcon show floor when the technical sessions were going on.

It’s hard to say the need for electronics test is decreasing and, therefore, tradeshows would be as a result. Efforts around design-for-test and built-in self test have changed the way we achieve test coverage in many areas, but we’re still talking about a $10B+ industry.

Much was said at Autotestcon about the effect of US government sequestration and the inability for Department of Defense personnel to travel. This clearly has an effect, and it hits a tradeshow with as much government spending involved as Autotestcon particularly hard. The show management informed exhibitors of several steps they’re taking for the 2014 version of the show to make it more worthy of the limited discretionary spending that’s still on the table. In other words, no one should confuse it with a boondoggle or GSA-like example of government waste. Will it work? Time will tell.
In fact, the tradeshow decline is pretty well documented over the past decade. If you go back to the end of the 1990s, attendance at a few shows was regularly over 10,000. Nepcon West was one of those – coverage from ChipScaleReview  from 1998 referenced 1000 exhibitors, 300,000 square feet of space, and 30,000 attendees. Those numbers are really difficult to hit today for test and measurement, maybe even when you aggregate all the big shows in the US.

Clearly, the way the average engineer finds out about a new multimeter or oscilloscope has changed since 1998 (to say the least). The parallel might be akin to how weird it’s always felt for me to watch the work environment outlined in the AMC television series Mad Men, which is set in the 1960s. Seeing a workspace without a computer on it blows my mind much more than the “three-martini” lunches in that show. In this day and age, who wouldn’t go directly to the internet and search for “multimeter” instead of waiting months for the next big vendor exhibition to kick the tires?

On the other hand, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) continues to pull in big crowds. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, which produces CES, this year’s version of the show had more than 150,000 attendees. I suspect the personal connection we have with consumer electronics creates a “have to see it in person” feeling that doesn’t exist as much in test and measurement. That leaves our industry tradeshows to either double as technical conferences (which shows like DesignCon  do very well) or function more as forums for corporate meetings with local customers. The latter trend has given rise to the role of exhibit spaces that serve only to funnel people to the offsite meeting room. That’s great if you’re an important customer, but the tire-kicking experience for the average Joe/Jane is essentially gone.

There are countless other influences on tradeshow participation, including virtual events like webinars or live chats, social media like LinkedIn for industry connections, and user conferences like NIWeek  to meet with product developers, so I realize there isn’t a single answer for the declining attendance. Personally, I think the experience of hands-on interaction with technology and the ability to engage with a knowledgeable spokesperson is invaluable for making an informed purchase. Maybe you have the clout to get every vendor to come visit you, but that can consume a lot of time and imply the beginning of a sales cycle that you might not be ready for. Vendor exhibitions provide a relatively commitment-free way to sort through a lot of choices.

Another important thing to note is that a few tradeshows in other regions continue to thrive, even some including components, systems, and applications. Have you been to an Electronica show in Germany? That show hit 72,000 attendees at its latest iteration in 2012. (Another one is coming up this November.) Based on that, you might think this tradeshow decline is a US phenomenon, but I think shows like Electronica are more the exception than the rule.

I’ve posed a few thoughts here, but I’d love to get everyone else’s opinion. What role do tradeshows play in your job as an engineer in 2013? How are they viewed inside your organization? Personally, I find it hard not to be nostalgic for the good old days. Where else is it so easy to come away with a sweet corporate-branded international power adapter?

Answer: at an NI seminar in the United Kingdom, which is where I got this one. If there’s a groundswell of support in the comments field, I’ll try to talk our events department into buying some as giveaways at our next major show. That’s assuming we’ll even see you there….

Also See
Autotestcon Day 2: PXI on the Rise
PXI joined by VXI and AXIe at Autotestcon

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