Pneumatics are evolving for the digital era
Pneumatic technology is adapting to the concept of digitalization and taking advantage of industrial Ethernet, IO-Link and more to make them connected.
For several years, pneumatics manufacturers have been enhancing their devices to make them truly connected, meaning it is now commonplace to have industrial Ethernet and IO-Link interfaces on pneumatic products. This is allowing pneumatic systems to be more closely monitored and measured – both in terms of the fluid and the equipment – which enables end users to be better informed about performance attributes such as movement, positioning, and flow.
However, increases in connectivity and communication system maturity has meant that industry is now seeing fieldbus protocols being superseded by Industrial Ethernet. While protocol connectivity provides a basic level of diagnostics, we are now starting to see an increase in the integration of sensors, allowing current system performance to be monitored, while also offering indications about future failure modes. For example, more and more historical machine data being stored, and algorithms are being used to uncover trends and make informed future predictions. This progression is allowing users to benefit from enhanced measurement, monitoring and control data. This informs strategic decision-making around machine performance and supports both predictive and preventative maintenance objectives, meaning operational efficiencies can be increased and productivity targets met.
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 easier than ever to access a range of real-time data streams, the challenge is then to uncover its real value.
This is the important next step that needs to be taken, and it requires the complementary skills, expertise and knowledge of both technology and pneumatic companies. 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.
It also may be practical for machine builders to ensure they are partnered with a pneumatics supplier that can provide a scalable and flexible platform that offers a vision for future product development and can support them as technology moves forward.
Looking ahead, control and sensing connectivity on pneumatics is almost entirely hard wired. However, we do expect to see a transition to wireless installation and communication of data as the technology becomes more robust and current security challenges are overcome.
When it comes to creating flexible, smart production, due to the variability of production line size, shape and weight, one of the biggest challenges for pneumatics is automation. However, this is also the biggest opportunity within the “factories of the future.”
Inherent flexibility is one of the main challenges surrounding automation within this market, but advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and flexible machines are already seeing some of these challenges starting to be addressed. To this end, programmable proportional valves, positioners, valves and actuators are providing increased flexibility, with automation replacing some areas of manual labour while also enhancing consistency, quality and user safety.
Another area where we expect to see pneumatics play a significant role is increasing the sustainability of manufacturing. While many machine builders will be familiar with lean principles when it comes to reducing production times, pneumatics can also help reduce carbon footprints. Evidence highlights that in a typical factory, a significant percentage of compressed air is wasted via compressors, actuators and FRLs in the circuits.
Connected devices can collect and map machine performance data to provide insights on where this compressed air is not being used efficiently and how this waste can be reduced. As the manufacturing sector continues to be placed under the microscope when it comes to sustainability and carbon reductions across typically energy intensive sectors, gains around reducing electricity usage (required to generate compressed air) and carbon emissions, will offer tangible commercial and operational opportunity to machine builders.