From f-cell to e-cell – (Almost) everything screams battery

f-cell-logo-kThe World of Energy Solutions (WES) is slowly turning into a battery-only exhibition. The event, whose most recent instalment took place in Stuttgart from Oct. 12 to 14, 2015, was originally launched as the regional fuel cell conference f-cell. Fifteen years ago, a small number of hydrogen and fuel cell experts met in the House of Economy in Stuttgart to talk about their research at test labs and workshops. The conference was accompanied by a small exhibition showcasing products of businesses mostly based in Germany’s Swabia region. The annual gathering became one of the world’s most important dates in the calendar of the fuel cell community, but other topics have meanwhile begun to capture the attention of the audience for around the past three years – especially the issue of battery development. Faced with this turn of events, the question is which path the organizers of the former f-cell intend to take over the coming years.

Actually, now should be the time to plan for the market rollout of fuel cells. It was the reason why Peter Sauber, Founder of f-cell and organizer of the conference, had already established green2market last year. The event was thought to complement the science and research focus of f-cell by providing a forum for marketing and sales discussions. The fuel cell community, however, passed up on the opportunity: The first edition of green2market in 2014 did not take place, as there were too few registrations for it, and even the second attempt grappled with a modest number of participants. It seems that fewer companies than Sauber expected were pushing for market readiness.

This alone would not be noteworthy if there had not been other indications pointing into the same direction: For example, the changing face of the f-cell, which – with each passing year – has become ever less the event it once was. It seems likely that Messe Stuttgart, which has hosted the industry event on the city’s trade show premises since 2012, aimed for the change, as it launched the Battery+Storage in the same year. Originally advertised as a complement to the fuel cell technology show, the event and its counterpart were both quickly taken over by the battery industry. A quick run-down of the list of members sitting on the WES advisory council will confirm these suspicions: There are much fewer fuel cell experts on the council than there had been previously.

Development: worse than expected
In 2011, Sauber was still in high spirits: “This was the best f-cell we ever had.” The 2011 edition was said to have had 46 exhibitors and 1,000 industry representative at the House of Economy. As the location became too small, Sauber decided to have the following event take place on Stuttgart’s trade show premises. Messe Stuttgart must have certainly been happy about the offer to host a sensibly managed event, as hopes were that the trade show had some potential for growth and justifiably so.

The change in location from the House of Economy to the International Congress Center (ICS) and the added number of trade show topics did greatly increase the numbers of exhibitors that year. The first edition of the three-event combo attracted 140 exhibitors and all in all 3,233 attendees – as many as never before. Back then, Sauber confidently spoke of a “launch befitting the scope” of the endeavor.

One year after, the organizers agreed on the new name World of Energy Solutions, which has since stood above the three conference titles f-cell, Battery+Storage and e-mobility solutions. As expected, the individual events did lose in importance, but the organizers hoped to up participant numbers again by broadening the range of what was offered. Reality proved them wrong.

e-mobil BW
The e-mobil BW Technology Day has been around since 2011. It was initially designed by the agency e-mobil BW as a regional event for the electric transportation industry and organized in collaboration with Peter Sauber Agentur. After the event received a more international focus (e-mobil BW conference) in the following years, its name was changed to e-mobility solutions.

The battery sector has been able to make inroads at the ICS over the past three years, but by doing that it began to push out the original f-cell participants. Whereas the 64 exhibitors of the Battery+Storage had booked “regular” size booths in 2013, the 91 f-cell exhibitors had reserved smaller spaces or had joined up to rent out shared booths. In 2014, the trade show already listed more battery than fuel cell exhibitors, but their total number was a mere 138 – not the 200 the organizers had been hoping for. The event continued with its changed makeup in 2015 – and the number of exhibitors decreased again, this time to 120.

The conference part of the trade show hasn’t had any better luck: After around 600 participants in 2013, numbers went downhill, to 550 in 2014 and to 500 attending the symposium last year. Overall participation was around 3,000 over the years, but showed a significant decline in 2015 with around 2,700 attendees. Despite the numbers, Sauber has not lost his confidence. When asked by H2-international about the current situation, he attributed the downward trend, for example, to the lack of commitment by Chancellor Angela Merkel to electric transportation, as was evidenced by the fact that she did not promise the expected additional support during the National Conference in June 2015. “In spite of last year’s slump, we are in a good position,” Sauber concluded.

Key topic: Energy storage
Another reason for the drop to ever lower numbers may be the fact that especially energy storage has become the topic of presentations and discussions elsewhere in the trade show world. For instance, Energy Storage – The International Summit for the Storage of Renewable Energies had its launch in Düsseldorf in March 2012. Within three years, the conference and its accompanying exhibition (20 exhibitors) have become serious competition, as Messe Düsseldorf has managed to bring in well-known partners, such as the German Association of Energy and Water Industries, the German Energy Storage Association, EUROSOLAR and OTTI.

Leading trade show
In 2016, the Energy Storage Europe has been listed as Germany’s leading global trade show on energy storage for the first time. The listing enables start-ups to receive back up to 70% of their exhibition costs as part of a BMWi grant program.

During the first year, the conference organizers counted 350 industry experts. In 2015, there were 1,800 participants across five conferences. After 67 exhibitors in the previous year, last year’s trade show boasted 93 organizations covering the entire energy storage range from batteries and Power-to-Gas to hydrogen. And in 2016, the organizers expect another significant increase (around 125 exhibitors and 3,000 visitors).

The World of Energy Solutions did, in fact, try to get institutional support for the Battery+Storage by asking the German Engineering Association (VDMA). According to Dr. Eric Maiser, head of VDMA Battery Production, however, the association was focused more on mechanical engineering and battery cell production (consumer electronics), which means it shared little with the fuel cell industry. Dieter Manz, CEO of Manz, even admitted: “Electric transportation is currently not on our radar.” Additionally, 2015 brought about somewhat of a marketing blunder, when the VDMA did not present its recent business climate survey “at the World of Energy Solutions,” as claimed in a Messe Stuttgart press release on the WES opening, but had already done so on June 15, 2015. Until today, there hasn’t been any institution that could support f-cell based on mutually shared ideas or professional input.

New focus: coming in 2016
This meant that the WES PR material has put the spotlight on batteries in recent years. Both the press releases of Messe Stuttgart and the previous press conferences mostly revolved around the manufacturing of these power storage devices, so that the f-cell logo can still be found on the website and the schedule, but hardly has anything to point to anymore.

When asked by H2-international about whether there were already plans in October 2015 to change the frequency of the event, Ulrich Kromer von Baerle, CEO of Landesmesse Stuttgart, replied: “Right now, we are not thinking about taking a break in 2016, but we’ll have to assess that at a later time.” Still, it should be clear by now that the organizer had originally hoped for a more positive WES outlook. After all, a trade show host strives for the maximum utilization of hall capacities. Some changes will be needed to achieve that goal – especially in light of the 30th Electric Vehicle Symposium, which is scheduled to take place between Oct. 9 and 11, 2017, at the same time as the WES.

The 2016 date has already been set as well: October 10 to 12. Until then, however, Landesmesse Stuttgart, Peter Sauber and Stuttgart Region Economic Development Corporation should think about how to make the event more appealing again – both for the attendees and the exhibitors. If the entire “World of Energy Solutions” is to be represented, it needs other well-known players as exhibitors and/or partners at the latest in 2017. Another important issue will be how and if the event can hold the interest of the fuel cell community. The cozy atmosphere of the House of Economy is no more and the information exchange so essential to the industry has taken a dive because of it. It is time to rekindle the flame – whether by gaining strong partners, or offering intriguing side events or networking opportunities.

It is not the organizer’s job alone, however, to present novelties. The different market players, the many large and small companies, research institutes and also the associations and agencies: All of them will have to contemplate over the next months and years about where they are heading. Whoever wants to still do years-long research does not need a trade show – a conference to present results would be enough. But whoever wants to market products requires the appropriate platform to meet up with the right contacts at one central spot. And whoever wants to advance products and sell them as well requires both, which is why the combination of conference and trade show has such appeal.

I would wish the WES or f-cell – whichever name they will keep on using – all the best for returning to old strength, as it has been a constant and influential event on the long and winding road towards fuel cell advancement over the past 15 years.

Author: Sven Geitmann

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