Pneumatics in the 21st Century

Ian Morris, director of the British Fluid Power Association, looks at the advantages of pneumatic equipment within a range of industrial sectors, and focuses on some of the more recent innovations that have made ­pneumatics more compelling than ever as an effective means of producing mechanical motion

Pneumatics is a fluid power technology long been deployed in an array of industrial sectors. Examples of pneumatic equipment include everything from pneumatic actuators, cylinders and motors, tools such as industrial nail guns and drills, pressure regulators, pressure switches and vacuum pumps, air brakes on trains, buses and trucks, not to mention air compressors. This equipment provides the user with a cost-effective, flexible, reliable, safe means of producing mechanical motion.

With regard to pneumatic actuation, the biggest marketplace for this technology is often referred to as general industrial. This market comprises a very large customer base for lightweight low-cost pneumatic movement actuators that are deployed on everything from factory assembly machines, stamping machines, sorting machines and much more. In terms of vertical market sectors they are very diverse and cover pharmaceutical, food and beverage, printing and packaging and many more sectors besides. Therefore, during a market downturn, because of this level of user diversity means pneumatics isn’t normally as badly affected as some other technology sectors that are more reliant on a narrower band of industry sectors.

Maintenance and durability

There are also a wealth of advantages for users in choosing pneumatics. In maintenance, for example, if we compare a linear drive unit based on a pneumatic cylinder with an electric rack and pinion drive; we can see that on a rack and pinion system there are many wearable parts, such as bearings and gears. The pneumatic cylinder, on the other hand, just moves backwards and forwards day in day out, with only minimal levels of friction taking place. Additionally, the lack of complexity means maintaining components is a simple process when the time comes.

Simplicity and affordability

Pound for pound, the pneumatics option is very cost-effective to operate on a daily basis too. There is also simplicity of installation to consider. These days, the use of highly reliable and flexible nylon tube makes routing much less of a problem. Fast-fit connectors, as their name suggests, make assembly very quick. Another compelling selling point for pneumatic components is their simplicity of design and very good power-to-weight ratio.

Safety

Pneumatics as a technology in itself can also be a highly suitable technology in flameproof applications. Take mining, for example; pneumatics poses very little risk of fire and so compliance with such legal requirements as the ATEX Directive and what equipment the Directive deems acceptable in environments with a potentially explosive atmosphere is not much of an issue. However, due to the growing number of electronic components used for control and monitoring, any system should be checked for compliance before installation and use.

Benefits of electro-pneumatics

Recent technical innovations have made pneumatic equipment even more attractive for different industrial applications. Chief among these is arguably the increased use of electronics with pneumatic equipment.

The reaction speed of an electronic controller is faster than that achieved before this closer relationship between pneumatics and electronics came about.

Designer friendly

This hybrid methodology of coupling pneumatics with electronics makes a lot of sense; whether in terms of programming flexibility, speed of operation, better control and monitoring, even better safety for the user. The hybrid model also equips systems designers with flexibility due to both simplicity of operation and adaptability, together with the overriding affordability of pneumatic equipment.

Flexibility

In the past the pneumatics industry employed a number of rotating and tripping switches to control the on/off function of systems. Now with the PLC  users can program a more complex pattern of events. For example if users want a piece of equipment to take longer to close or longer to open, they program it electronically while the action is still performed by the pneumatic cylinder.

Energy efficiency

In static conditions a pneumatic system (or, fluid power systems in general) do not use any energy. For example, when users want to hold a pneumatic cylinder in its current position they lock off the valves necessary to effect the task and the cylinder stays static.

Suitability

Within some environments, electrical alternatives may be more suitable such as in food plants as they don’t produce any exhaust air. However, conversely, in heavy industrial environments pneumatics would arguably be more suitable because of pneumatic equipment being more robust, simple to operate and cost-effective to maintain.

Summary

Pneumatics is a proven technology, which, together with recent developments, offers equipment that is easy to use, effective, reliable, flexible, energy efficient and affordable to maintain. In all branches of industry, pneumatics certainly has a valuable part to play.

The British Fluid Power Association

T: 01608 647900

www.bfpa.co.uk

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