19 May, 2022

The great leaps forward (May 2013)

07 May, 2013

Ian Morris, director of the British Fluid Power Association, looks back at some of the most important aspects of disruptive change that have taken place within the world of fluid power and related equipment, resulting in greater standardisation, increased efficiency and more accurate monitoring and control.

Pneumatic equipment is all around us – both in our domestic lives, in our place of work and in the services we rely on every day. However, it could be seen as one of the great unsung heroes of engineering. This is largely due to the fact that pneumatic equipment can be so efficient that people can forget it’s there at all. For example, if you consider the gas strut on the boot of most cars, here we have a pneumatic component that most people don’t even think about; it just does its job, and very effectively too. Also, the door opening mechanisms on London tube trains are pneumatic. Hardly anybody would give them a second thought, but the commuter’s everyday travel experience would be far less convenient without them. In addition to reliability, much of the pneumatic equipment on the market today also offers the benefit of easy maintenance; for example, most fitters are capable of quickly removing a quick-release fitting and putting a new valve or component.
However, behind the scenes things weren’t always this straightforward. Over the past few decades there have been two major periods of sea change within the fluid power and related equipment arena. These could be summarised as: greater parts/equipment standardisation and developments in electronic monitoring and control. Let’s take a closer look at each of these developments in more detail, and the major benefits they offer to everyone from the systems designer, engineer and fitter to the end user.
A few decades ago many manufacturers of fluid power-related parts – including pneumatic equipment – adopted a more proprietary, brand-specific stance when designing and producing their wares. This naturally resulted in some major incompatibility issues between different brands. The constraint of different mounting plate configurations, flange specifications, pipe sizes, port configurations, thread dimensions etc. offered by different suppliers was a regular bugbear for designers, engineers and fitters. These days, however, such considerations within territories such as Europe and the US have to be unified by law. This means, for example, filter regulator units can be sourced from one company and valves from another, and should all fit together. Therefore, parts can be chosen that together produce the very best system for the end customer’s needs without being hampered by a host of compatibility issues.
Additionally, the past few decades have seen machining tolerances continue to improve, along with the resilience and quality of materials used to make fluid power-related parts and equipment. Such developments have reaped major practical benefits such as reduced leakage, faster running times and longer parts life. These developments are ongoing and continue to set ever higher benchmarks in quality and efficiency.
Better control
And what of more recent innovations that have raised the bar even higher in terms of greater precision, efficacy and reliability? There is little doubt that one of the most notable developments in the world of fluid power and related equipment over the past decade or two has been the interfacing of electronics with fluid power-related components such as valves, pumps, motors etc. – together with the greater use of electronic communication systems such as CAN bus. And, as with the greater ‘mix and match’ capabilities afforded by the standardisation of fluid power-related components, one of the key advantages of electronic controllers is their modular ‘plug and play’ construction, and the subsequent ease with which the systems builder can connect the separate units. Through greater standardisation, the best choice of components and parts can be built into the circuit. Then, by fitting the CAN bus the exact position of valves, pumps, motors etc. can be read and monitored automatically. And with today’s sensors being so flexible and affordable, they can be fitted to a variety of components within the system. In so doing, individual parts can be monitored by the CAN bus in order to improve system performance and anticipate any pending problems. This practice can substantially reduce the risk of system failure and resultant expensive downtime.
Greater accuracy
The use of CAN bus can also lead to enhanced performance. For example, it can facilitate a level of fine tuning that had hitherto never been possible. Previously, needle valves, for example, would have been screwed in until the fitter determined that the positioning was ‘about right’. Now, more precise positioning can be programmed electronically. Also, the needle valve can now be moved by a solenoid, therefore affording more precise placement – much more so than could be achieved through relying on manual settings.
Remote monitoring
The advent of modern communication systems also means users are able to remotely monitor a system via CAN bus through the use of a laptop or tablet PC. If the CAN bus points out that something needs to be adjusted, this can be done remotely. For example, if the rod of a cylinder has been set to move backwards and forwards every 5 seconds but has drifted to 5 ½ seconds, this can be easily adjusted via a computer.
The ‘green’ advantage
Through the use of CAN bus technology a system can also be adjusted to operate at outputs that more accurately meet the precise requirements of the user without wasting energy through over capacity. In this way, substantial energy savings can be made, as well as affording a direct benefit to the environment.
Improved levels of safety
Developments in communication systems and remote monitoring have also increased safety in the workplace. If a system in a factory suffers a fault it naturally needs to be shut it down immediately in order for the problem to be rectified as soon as possible. If this process is done manually there can be some risk to the safety of the person carrying out these tasks. Modern electronic control means shut-off buttons can be activated remotely, while remedial diagnostics of the faulty components can also be conducted via a laptop, rather than relying on physical inspection of the equipment – with all the resultant safety risks, such as swinging robotic arms or the event of the machining cell starting up again while the maintenance engineer is on the wrong side of the safety gate. Electronics means safety shut-off buttons can be positioned in many places. For example, guarding can be found all around a machining cell in an automotive plant. When the key is placed in the lock of the safety gate the system is told to move to the rest position before the gate can be opened. If this process is done manually it can take a considerable time to set up and the reliance is very much on the individual conducting the task effectively. However, as with any human activity there is always the risk of human error, or even injury. By taking the individual away from machining cell on the shop floor, and allowing all the remedial work to be done remotely, there is no risk of, for example, a wayward boom suddenly striking the worker while he/she is surveying the faulty part.
No longer a dream
So it can be seen that with major leaps forward in terms of standardisation and harmonisation of fluid power-related parts, improved overall efficiency of mechanical equipment and the advent of electronic control and CAN bus communication, system harmonisation is no longer a dream but very much a reality being lived out every day within industry.

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