7 July, 2022

Boardroom Report - Challenges and opportunities

11 February, 2021

of pneumatics. “With infinitely variable positioning, and the capability of being re-configured ‘on the fly’ as different product sizes, weights, or even types pass along the line; electric drives certainly appear to have an advantage over static, dedicated pneumatic systems,” he says. “However, ‘technology agnostic’ manufacturers have been working to harness the power of both electric and pneumatic technologies to develop solutions that offer the best of both worlds. While the ubiquitous pneumatic cylinder has long been the mainstay of many linear pushing or pulling applications, there are times where electric technology would be more convenient, but the cost has been prohibitive. This could perhaps be on a conveyor system where a single-track stop is required a long way from the air supply, or maybe a piece of desktop laboratory equipment which is moved regularly and where the availability of air is not guaranteed.

“New lower cost ‘pneumatic replacement’ cylinders such as Festo’s Simplified Motion System (SMS) are designed to be a drop-in replacement for just these types of applications. Utilising closed-loop stepper controls, they offer reliable end-to-end positioning with variable dynamics but at a fraction of the cost of servo drive systems and with simple IO-Link or digital control.

“In the same vein, pneumatic systems are now being equipped with the kind of flexibility that one would typically associate with electric drive systems. Increased connectivity either through Fieldbus or IO-link technologies allows many once ‘dumb’ pneumatic devices to communicate throughout the automation architecture and provide data about their performance and staus back to the higher-level controller.”

Cuthbert believes it is evident to all of us that digitisation has sped up during the pandemic. “Clearly, COVID-19 has disrupted our social lives and meant that many of us no longer meet face to face, but I feel there have been some advantages,” he says. “Webtec prides itself on its Make it Blue philosophy, a four-step approach to understanding our customers’ needs and developing a custom product offering. As part of our aim to listen to our customers’ needs, we always want to have a three-person team made up of sales, component design and hydraulic system engineering. The improvement in virtual meeting technology like MS Teams has meant that we can pull together the best group of people for the application, wherever they are in the world, to meet with the customer wherever they are and all at very short notice and in a manner that is now very widely accepted. This has the enormous advantage of improved responsiveness and better clarity of customers’ real challenges so that we can engineer the best solution for them.”

Parker-Bates believes Festo’s Motion Terminal is a good example of how intelligence was added to a ‘dumb’ valve terminal to provide a fully programmable pneumatic system. “The Motion Terminal controls not only pressures and flows but additionally the speed and operation of the connected pneumatic cylinders, while also providing a time-stamped validation of the operation performed: delivering the kind of performance that would only have been capable previously with high end, high-cost automation systems,” he explains.

Parker-Bates maintains that the digitalisation of the factory is at the heart of all innovation taking place in the fluid power industry, and the declining cost of electric motive power will inevitably lead to a gradual migration away from pneumatics to these more controllable, connected technologies in many simple applications. “However, pneumatics is fighting back with more efficient, cost-effective, intelligent and flexible products,” he adds. “So, rather than being side-lined by digitalisation, pneumatics is a technology that fits hand in glove with its electric counterparts and is key to delivering the transformation that will drive future manufacturing.”

Buxton reiterates that there will be greater use of technology that addresses the cost (both financially and environmentally) of travel; that is to say, more of what we have seen during the Pandemic – home working, communications, virtual reality for three-dimensional training etc.

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