20 May, 2024

The pneumatic versus electric debate

25 October, 2016

The advent of electric actuators has inevitably raised questions about their performance in comparison to more traditional pneumatic solutions. Camozzi Pneumatics’ UK technical sales manager, Shaun Gerber, examines the key issues that should be addressed when evaluating the suitability of one technology over the other.

The rise in popularity and availability of electric actuators over recent years has been the source of much debate and seems to have in some instances divided opinion. Electric actuators are without doubt a significant breakthrough which, at first glance, may appear to offer a more accurate and effective solution over their pneumatic counterparts, but before making any decisions prospective users need to examine the respective merits of both systems.

One of the main arguments made in favour of electric actuators is an ability to offer high precision control and accurate position, velocity, and acceleration of the axis in environments where highly tuned performance is paramount. Such accuracy often comes at a price though, and the associated design and build costs might prove prohibitive to many potential users.

Pneumatics by contrast, may be unable to offer such fine tolerances and are more prone to excessive wear when used at high speeds over time. In general, pneumatic actuation tends to be best suited to simple handling of medium-heavy loads, where extreme accuracies or particular motion profiles are not critical. The design and maintenance of such circuits are relatively simple, thereby reducing the total cost of the project over its lifespan.

There will almost certainly be a greater financial outlay associated with installing electromechanical solutions, when compared to more affordable pneumatic systems, but the lifespan of the electrically powered solution is likely to be greater, so costs will be recovered over time; sometimes making electric the more economic long term choice.

The ability to withstand temperature is one factor where pneumatics is often the only choice, due to its ability to operate safely in extremes of heat and cold; environments which may not be recommended for electric actuation.

The downtime factor

Downtime is another factor that users need to give careful consideration to. Replacement pneumatic parts are usually quick and easy to obtain, resulting in speedy repairs and minimal disruption. By contrast, safe servicing of electric actuator breakdown requires an entirely different skill set and may be dependent upon external resources and out-sourced expertise, which can prove costly both in terms of time and money.

Electric is often viewed as a cleaner technology as it has a self-contained unit, with only a cable connecting to the actuator. This is particularly relevant when used in applications where hygiene is a key consideration such as pharmaceuticals or food and drink packaging; where a possible lubricant leak from a pneumatic cylinder seal could result in a major compromise to health and safety.

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