Are pneumatic systems smart enough to survive?

08 March 2020

As Industry 4.0 starts to change the manufacturing and process industries, many have questioned whether pneumatics has a future. Control Engineering Europe asked some pneumatics providers what they think.

Q: Is there still a role for pneumatics technology in an increasingly digital manufacturing sector? And, if so, how is the technology adapting to digitalisation and the need for real-time process data? 

Steve Sands, head of product management at Festo GB (SS): When considering the alternative drive technologies available, pneumatics – with its higher power density, reliability, simplicity, fast cycle times and low initial investment cost – continues to play a key role in most industrial automation projects. New product developments, focusing on improved performance, mass manufacturing techniques and reduced materials usage are providing even lower manufacturing costs. Energy usage and lifetime costs are of course serious issues, they can be addressed with software tools ensuring components and operating pressures optimise air consumption according to the application. 

Pneumatics fit readily into the digital world, most actuators are already monitored with switches detecting their end positions for sequential control.  It has always been possible to set watch dog timers within the PLC and monitor changes in positioning times but this can be time consuming to set up and in reality, is rarely monitored by the operators. With the introduction of artificial intelligence algorithms anomaly detection can now be realised in a self-teach way. The system learns what is normal and can be taught to identify the anomalies.  In this way existing sensors can offer insights on operation-critical functions. The incorporation of IO-link connectivity in many sensors enables further diagnostics, self-monitoring and simple parametrisation and set-up.  

Zachary Gustafson, director of integration & marketing at Emerson (ZG): Pneumatics continue to provide a simple and reliable method of making things move so are omnipresent within manufacturing. The digital transformation of manufacturing operations will not remove the need for mechanical motion and power applications and it will even present some significant growth opportunities in terms of the insights and analytics customers can gain from their existing and new pneumatic systems, including greater reliability, reduced energy consumption and optimised performance. 

For many years, pneumatic systems have been available with integrated digital communications to allow PLCs to more efficiently turn valves on and off and channel I/O data via various industrial networks. Technologies such as this, along with edge technologies, are supporting predictive maintenance strategies by offering information on the condition of valves, cylinders and actuators, as well as contributing towards sustainability programmes by monitoring the energy efficiency of pneumatic systems. This can help minimise the risk of machine downtime, reduce energy consumption and CO2 footprint, and significantly lower total operating costs.

Sam Mudge, marketing & product management director at IMI Precision Engineering, Motion Control EMEA (SM): While we are seeing an increase in uptake of electrical actuation solutions, it should be noted that pneumatic solutions are increasingly being digitally controlled (for example via I/O link), giving users enhanced data gathering and monitoring capability. For many manufacturers pneumatics continue to offer advantages over other forms of actuation – with the low friction and compressible nature of air, pneumatics are often unmatched in response and cycle times. 

It is important to be aware of the complementary nature of pneumatics within a digital environment. Users now have an opportunity to upgrade their existing pneumatic solutions by adding intelligent sensors to access data-driven oversight.

The use of sensors enables pneumatic systems to be more closely monitored which keeps the end user better informed about performance attributes in areas such as movement, positioning and flow.

This insight can then be communicated through a range of protocols, giving access to real-time process data and providing a window into how the system is behaving. Ultimately, this will result in more uptime and a more reliable process. 

With the move towards an increase in all round performance insight and measurement from data, we are also seeing the evolution of smart dashboards. While it is now easy to access a range of real-time data streams, the challenge is then to uncover the real value from the volumes of data generated. This is the important next step that needs to be taken. It will also be interesting to see where the data analysis takes place in the future, as cloud and edge computing solutions continue to gain traction.

Rich McDonnell, market development manager at Parker Hannifin Pneumatics (RM): Parker’s recent market research on the factory of the future indicates that pneumatic technology will continue to fulfill a critical need in the emerging digital manufacturing environment. Our goal is to drive actionable diagnostic and prognostic information for use in smart factory environments. 

In the near-term, the introduction of smart products will provide the traditional control functions along with actionable intelligence which is critical to track plant machinery uptime and availability and OEE metrics. 

Q: How might end-users/machine builders future-proof their pneumatic equipment and process lines?
SS: Connectivity is becoming easier with the broader use of standards. Protocols such as OPC-UA, IO-Link and Ethernet IP are enabling simpler integration between devices with data flows and structures becoming easier to read. Digital twin enabling devices now allows devices to be self-recognising and easily incorporated into control structures in the future – digitally in simulations and emulating when in operation. However, the broad uptake of these technologies will be dependent upon a cross-company, inter-departmental approach – it will require a company-wide strategy involving the traditional engineering and operations functions but HR, IT to ensure the technology can be implemented and the work force is engaged.

The future of pneumatics remains strong within high volume manufacturing environments. There is a constant pressure to reduce purchase and life-time costs and the pneumatics providers continue to respond with new product introductions. Looking ahead, we can expect the integration or addition of smart sensors with on-board intelligence and communications that will gather data to reduce energy consumption, optimise production and reduce downtime through predictive maintenance. Artificial Intelligence algorithms will be available as function blocks to identify and support the most critical functions.   Digital twins will reduce design, build and commissioning times and support smart maintenance with virtual and augmented reality support.  The digital era is definitely an exciting period for pneumatics.

ZG: Implementing edge analytic devices and IIoT-enabled pneumatic solutions creates an opportunity for end users and OEMs to revolutionise their operations or machines by enabling the acquisition and accessibility of greater amounts of data and insight, at far greater speeds. Built in diagnostics will provide the ability to monitor energy consumption, compressed air leakages, pressure, and even the health of valves, cylinders and actuators. Gaining access to actionable insights will enhance operations and improve Operating Equipment Effectiveness (OEE). My advice is to start small, realise the expected benefit and then expand.

SM: Users already have an opportunity to future proof, without incurring huge capital expenditure commitments, using a variety of digitally-enhanced products that can help  upgrade existing lines.  

When machine replacement or maintenance is needed is a good time to add these digital devices to provide an element of connectivity and laying a foundation for future needs and system capability.

RM: To future-proof their offerings there is a need for machine builders to provide their customers with open source components and subsystems such as IO-Link enabled products.

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