Frost Perspectives

Fluid Power: Journey towards Achieving Efficiency

Aug 12, 2016

fluid power journey.JPGAn emphasis on developing energy-efficient applications and intuitive solutions is likely to elevate fluid power manufacturers' position.

Fluid power uses oil, water, or compressed air to operate conventional pumps, motors, valves, actuators, and cylinders. In today's dynamic industrial environment, manufacturers are exposed to the volatility of changing end-user requirements, economic uncertainty, and more environmental regulations. The focus is shifting from simple hydraulic and pneumatic systems to integrated and compatible solutions.

Fluid power manufacturers have a vested interest in improving efficiency to help customers save energy and lower costs. An estimated 4 to 5% of manufacturer revenue is allocated to product development. Key areas of concern are discussed below.

Reducing fluid leakage caused during equipment operation

Hydraulic equipment, which employs one of the oldest industrial technologies, is witnessing a steady increase in innovation. Hydraulic equipment is renowned for its robust designs that tolerate shocks and extreme temperatures. Hydraulic equipment can carry out operations with higher power density than other power transmission products, but it is also prone to energy wastage because excess oil, which is transferred at high force to the piston pump or pressure valves, can become overheated and cause internal leakage.

The increasing emphasis on energy conservation and cost reduction is prompting innovations that help to reduce or eliminate fluid spills. A key development is hydraulic fluid with optimal viscosity (between 10 and 100 mm²/sec) to reduce excessive heating, cavitation, and internal leakages. Hydraulic equipment manufacturers are continuing to enhance sealing products by using high-quality materials, such as polyurethane, synthetic fluoropolymer, and other elastomers, to increase durability and longevity.

Pneumatic manufacturers are developing technology that helps to monitor and maintain the quality of compressed air, including advanced dryers that play a vital role in preventing air contamination. Compressed air contains moisture that forms into water droplets as it cools. Water comes in contact with dirt in the equipment is and circulated through the air pushed into the equipment, which could cause damage or malfunction. Pneumatic manufacturers are enhancing dryer capabilities to not only absorb moisture but also recycle purged air to reduce the pressure drop. These dryers include a programmable logic controller system that ensures a continuous supply of air in the machine to eliminate downtime. When these features are combined in a pneumatic system, it helps to control excessive energy consumption and reduce maintenance costs.

Need for compact solutions to improve equipment performance

Compact solutions can play a key role in achieving greater efficiency. The dramatic rise in demand for these solutions is primarily because they can be easily mounted on the entire system. They are prominent in the pneumatic market, where every product — from valves and cylinders to fittings — can be downsized yet still meet ISO standards for pneumatic equipment. Manufacturers strongly believe that miniaturization will gain traction because it reduces product space, accommodates other critical applications, and integrates with electronic control systems. For instance, when multiple solenoid valves are required in a pneumatic system, the miniature version can be easily accommodated and facilitate faster response time due to its close spacing inside the manifold. These valves can reduce power consumption by converting low voltage current into high pressure output. Robust construction, reduced energy usage, and easy installation improve overall equipment performance.

Lower electronic motor and drive prices are encouraging manufacturers to integrate these products into fluid power systems for greater accuracy and control. It is a bid to remain competitive as some end users consider replacing systems. Compact and flexible solutions with electronic integration offer more control over equipment. For instance, high pressure losses can be minimized by using electronic actuators and cylinders; operation can be controlled based on system load demand for higher energy savings.

Leveraging intelligent platforms to achieve production efficiency

Connectivity and data acquisition will also help to transform the market as manufacturers embed smart sensors and create a layer for Ethernet protocols to facilitate digital communication. These solutions provide real-time system performance data that allows users to analyze equipment performance to detect blockages, spillovers, contamination, or component problems and make corrections to fluid flow, temperature, or energy consumption.

An intelligent valve, for example, can perform on-board diagnostics to determine whether it is properly functioning and predict potential maintenance issues. Bluetooth connectivity allows even the most challenging tasks, such as calibration, to be performed remotely. Smart sensors will enable manufacturers to reduce maintenance costs by transitioning from emergency repairs to preventative maintenance, which improves reliability and production uptime. Intelligent technologies can be integrated on an Industrial Internet of Things platform for efficient and intuitive operation, lower operational costs, and a greener environment.

What can be expected from fluid power manufacturers in the coming years?

The fluid power market has reached maturity; manufacturers are broadening their product and service offerings by embracing new technologies. However, economic uncertainty in developed countries continues: The market remained sluggish in 2015 and is expected to be so in 2016 as well. As strict hygiene or carbon emission regulations are imposed across the entire value chains of key end-user industries including food and beverage, automotive, and electronics, fluid power manufacturers are focusing on novel solutions that support green technology and reduce total cost of ownership. The traction of the Industrial Internet of Things is likely to result in market growth over the next 10 years.

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