Is energy efficiency hurting the pneumatics market? Not a problem...yet!

While people are becoming more environmentally aware and conscious, this hasn't led to a transition away from the pneumatics sector. It is, however, having an effect on how pneumatics are designed.


In 2011, the market for pneumatic actuators (cylinders) was estimated to be worth $3.7 billion, having grown 8.2% since 2010. This represents an increase in global revenues of $277 million. How is a market for low efficiency technology showing any kind of growth in a climate that is arguably more energy conscious than ever before?

There is no doubt that air power is much less efficient than electromechanical actuation. Studies conducted in recent years by companies such as SMC Corporation of America have suggested that of the energy consumed by a typical factory, 20% goes to the production of compressed air, and this increases in instances of air leakage. This represents significant annual running costs for users of pneumatic systems. Modern electromechanical actuators claim to lower operational running costs by as much as 66-90%, and also offer improved performance, so it is easy to see why many predict that the days of air power in factory automation are numbered. The two main barriers to immediate wide-scale conversion are the greater upfront price of the electromechanical alternative, and the fact that customers currently having in-house expertise of traditional fluid mechanics would need to acquire new levels of electronics systems expertise.

Considering the lower running costs of electric actuation it seems surprising that the latest data obtained by IMS Research shows that during 2011, the market for these higher efficiency electromechanical actuators grew by $253 million (to reach $2.2 billion). This is actually smaller than the $277 million increase of the pneumatic actuator market during the same period, and shows little supporting evidence towards the mass replacement of pneumatic actuation with electric linear actuators. Why is this? Do customers really care about energy efficiency and running costs?

The answer to this last question is yes; however, this is not currently being reflected in a transition away from the pneumatics sector. Rather it is having a greater effect on the way pneumatic systems are designed. One of the largest trends in the pneumatics market is that towards integrating electronics with air power to provide optimized air systems, frequently with closed-loop feedback. This has introduced greater levels of system measurement and control. Now fluid systems using networking communication are not only able to transmit control data, but supply device status, configuration and diagnostics information which can highlight system inefficiencies and optimize performance cycles and hence running costs. The result of this is not only preventing the transition away from pneumatics, but is also increasing the potential user base for air power technology into applications requiring higher levels of performance previously unavailable with air.

This is good news for pneumatic vendors for now, but for how long will this mutually beneficial partnership last? We mentioned earlier that the barriers preventing conversion from air to electromechanical alternatives were the higher upfront costs of the electromechanical system, and the need to upgrade in-house expertise from traditional fluid mechanics to electronics capability. So while the addition of electronics to pneumatic systems may be maintaining the feasibility of air power systems in this energy conscious climate, it has effectively eliminated the barriers that are keeping a large portion of the market base using air power. So rather than preventing replacement, there is reason to conclude that it is actually encouraging it for some future point.

Profile photo of Robert Carter, a principal analyst for IMS Research who specializes in the power transmission. Courtesy: IMS ResearchHowever there is still no evidence to support the decline of the pneumatic market just yet. The latest report by IMS Research shows clear evidence of sustained demand for air power actuation through to 2015. According to current growth rates, the mechanical actuator market is not likely to exceed that of pneumatic actuators for another 10 years. The introduction of electronics within air power is a large reason why this hasn’t already occurred. However, the big question is, at what point will the effects of integrated electronics in air power systems turn from positive to negative?

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