New ways to increase productivity with smart systems

Intelligent pneumatics offer flexibility in the age of Industry 4.0, and technology advances such as cyber-physical systems (CPSs) can help valves achieve greater connectivity and intelligence.

By Sandro Quintero October 4, 2019

Intelligent pneumatics combine standardization with flexibility, which is propelling pneumatics into the age of Industry 4.0. The technology behind intelligent pneumatics unites the benefits of traditional pneumatics with those of controlled and complex electrical motion. Despite the simplicity, it integrates more functionalities than conventional technology. The trend in automation towards networked, decentralized, and intelligent systems with optimum function integration is happening because technical and economic requirements are increasing.

The demand for additional features, such as interpreting environmental information, is also on the rise in the age of Industry 4.0. The communication opportunities, including the ability to have components communicate with each other, are opening up new areas of activity. This permits more specific preventive maintenance and clears the way for autonomous production with self-regulating systems.

Status quo, mechatronics

Conventional mechatronic systems bring together mechanical systems, electronics, control technology and information technology and enable them to interact in actual automation applications. They are the only way to ensure pneumatics can be integrated in electromechanical applications and are essential for precise positioning of pneumatic drives.

Modular mechatronic systems facilitate extensive function integration, such as greater system adaptability and standardization. This results in system improvements and optimizations all along the value chain because fewer components have to be selected, procured, assembled and wired. Digital communication provides additional benefits, because for example the influence of electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) on analog values, which helps rule out system faults.

Mechatronics lack flexibility

Despite the benefits of modular mechatronic systems, flexibility can improve. Retrofitting system adaptations during the design and engineering process or parameter changes required for format changes during operation are only possible with expensive and time-intensive modifications.

A modular design offers some flexibility, but only within the limits of the particular module. The general rule is any parameters that could change must already be taken into consideration at the design stage. According to the rule of 10, costs for subsequent adaptations increase by a factor of 10. It makes no difference whether the changes are needed to adjust the sizing to a change in loads, or to add new functions requested by the end customer.

Cyber-physical systems, flexibility, networking

Although numerous definitions exist for cyber physical systems (CPSs), there isn’t a commonly accepted definition. However, what is certain is CPSs will play a pivotal role in Industry 4.0 applications.

CPSs, in terms of their basic structure, are mechatronic systems. They also have integrated smart sensors and greater software intelligence. One possible application is predetermining external influences using data recorded internally without the need for additional sensors, and then sharing this information internally and externally with other systems via suitable communication interfaces.

Such systems can be adapted without the need for new or additional hardware because the functional adaptations are executed using software and apps, or the system auto-tunes itself, or via control system instruction.

Implementing requirements for Industry 4.0 such as system-wide data usage depends on the system, and the product and can be limited as a result. The reason is simple: the data recorded in the device by sensors is not shared with other stations because there is no data interface. For example, the temperature data measured in proportional valves is only processed in the valve itself. No other diagnostic functions are carried out, even though this would provide the means to determine, for example, if there is a defective fan in a control cabinet.

The factory of the future the industry needs products with integrated sensors and an Industry 4.0 interface. It is essential this interface meets international standards for data management and communication. The software interface standard OPC Foundation’s Unified Architecture (OPC UA), published as part of the IEC 62541 series of standards, is a good example.

Flexible technologies, Industry 4.0

Actuators used in the pneumatic parts in the form of a bridge circuit are one of the new technologies driving Industry 4.0 forward. The four 2/2-way piezo pilot and diaphragm poppet valves with integrated smart sensors offer huge flexibility. In contrast to conventional mechatronic systems, these smart sensors are embedded directly in an intelligent valve terminal. This means pressure measurement sensors no longer act as a separate module that needs to be selected via the configurator. The range of tasks is also expanded as the pressure measurement sensors can be used for tasks such as diagnostic functions.

  • Four 2/2-way valves (diaphragm poppet valves) are connected in series to form a full bridge
  • Each diaphragm poppet valve (gray) is proportionally piloted and controlled by two piezo valves (blue)
  • The digitally controlled piston can take on the functions of a wide range of mechanical control pistons found in common directional control.

Motion apps replace hardware

Thanks to downloadable motion apps, the intelligent valve terminal offers the traditional valve functions of 2/2-way, 3/2-way, 4/2-way or 4/3-way valves as well as proportional technology and servo-pneumatic functions in one device. All these functions can be implemented in a CPS using motion apps. This is special because it all can be done with one valve of the same design.

Thanks to fast activation of new functions via software apps, machine developers can create a basic machine type and then, depending on which apps are selected, equip it with different functions and features as per the application requirements. Courtesy: Festo[/caption]

New dimensions in automation

Digitization will have a major impact on production. For the first time, CPSs are enabling solutions that combine mechanical systems, electronics and software and also get systems ready for Industry 4.0 applications, including pneumatics. Compared with modular mechatronic systems, they offer an impressive combination of maximum standardization and a high level of flexibility. Since the intelligent pneumatic valve uncouples pneumatic functions from the mechanical hardware and makes them available via apps, a wide range of pneumatic motion tasks can be performed with one valve type. This offers many measurable benefits along the value chain.

CPS solutions enable complex movements like gentle retraction into the end position as well as various speed profiles or positioning tasks that were only possible with servo-pneumatics or electrical automation. They also make it easy to realize a wide range of functions, condition monitoring, preventive maintenance and it reduces energy consumption. Any higher purchase costs for CPS for simplified processes compensate OEMs and end customers, increases productivity and process reliability.

Sandro Quintero is the product manager — valve terminals & electronics at Festo. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media,


Keywords: pneumatic valves, Industry 4.0

Intelligent pneumatics combines standardization with flexibility, which is propelling pneumatics into the age of Industry 4.0.

Cyber-physical systems (CPSs) will help connect pneumatic valves to other applications for greater connectivity.

Intelligent valve terminal technology allows a wide range of pneumatic motion tasks to be performed with just a single valve type.

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Author Bio: Sandro Quintero is the product manager - valve terminals & electronics at Festo. He has worked with customers across different industries such as Medical, Food Processing, Mining, Automotive, and most recently Electronics and Assembly. This has allowed him to acquire skills in different areas such as sales, product support, and project management. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Mechatronics Engineering from the Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez and an MBA from the University of Texas at El Paso.