Without a crystal ball, seeing fifteen years into the future of fluid power isn't easy. But thinking about tomorrow helps us makes plans for today. That's why H&P interviewed a range of people in the industry — professors, researchers, users, manufacturers, consultants — to find out what they think the future of fluid power holds.
A focus on systems
The trend toward designing around systems, rather than individual components, has been underway for several years. And there seems to be widespread agreement that this trend will continue over the next decade and beyond.
"Systems that are simple to install, connect, and service — as well as components with modularity — are becoming more and more a priority," says Ed Bickel, district sales manager for Bosch Rexroth's Pneumatic Div.
Some companies are already providing valves with the integrated controller and sensors. The step to the integrated electromechanical drive is already reality, such as with this Bosch Rexroth IAC-P valve.
This futuristic-looking handling system from Festo Corp. has horizontal and vertical axes, along with a gripper. The two motion axes are more rigid and precise than standard cylinders, and they offer internal sensor connections with easy terminations at the back. They also accommodate intermediate positions with an internal, pneumatic, mechanical stopper.
Tom Wanke, Director of the Fluid Power Institute at the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE), sees the complete integration of a hydraulic system into the actuator, including the prime mover, pump, and reservoir for true distributed operation and control.
The key to making this a reality is establishing and maintaining a true partnership between academia and industry, says Jack Johnson, noted author and contributing editor to H&P.
"The NFPA has launched a research program, however, it's focused on traditional academic definitions of what research should consist of, namely product development and enhancement. Industrialists have to understand the future of fluid power is enhanced when the greatest possible number of people understand systems on a quantitive level." This means academics must provide models, as well as modeling methods, that applications engineers can understand and implement with user-friendly software.
Computers and modeling
New design methods will be used in the future, many of which will involve computers to help engineers visualize their work, such as virtual design, virtual prototypes, and virtual testing. These processes will also tie into our increasingly global world, allowing designers and users in separate geographical locations to work on a project, transferring models through email or a computer network.
"A remarkable amount of development costs can be saved by building virtual prototypes instead of real ones. Hydraulically driven machines will develop more modularity, so the most suitable power, transmission, and modules can be easily connected," says Prof. Kari Koskinen of Finland's Tampere University of Technology. "Virtual prototypes also allow the testing of real hardware or software operation before building the whole system."
Jonny Carlos da Silva, of Brazil's University of Santa Catarina, agrees. "Due to the increasing complexity of fluid power systems, especially with integration of electronics and other domains, dynamic simulations will play an important role in improving the design process and reducing cost and time-to-market," he says.
Prof. Tom Labus, MSOE, adds that many competitive technologies have had these types of design and simulation tools for many years. "This has put fluid power at a disadvantage in being able to provide end-users with information other than simple package size and dimensions," he says.
But will all this modeling actually lead to any breakthroughs in the fluid power field? According to Johnson, it will. "Improved modeling will lead to new discoveries, especially regarding system efficiencies and control methods, which will produce system designs that aren't conceivable with the current models taught by our two-and four-year colleges."
Prof. Richard Burton of the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, thinks we're getting there. "With the understanding we have gained over the years from R&D, we have a good handle on some of the fundamental physical properties and characteristics of sliding and rotating parts. This will allow sophisticated modeling programs to be refined so that rapid prototyping can become a reality for most hydraulic applications."
Prof. Wayne Book of Georgia Tech believes integration of fluid components with electronic sensors and controls is next. "Pressure and displacement sensors will be the basis for advanced control algorithms implemented inside the components and coordinated with digital networks." This will produce better control at a lower cost, with fewer complications or leakage, he says.
Another interesting way the computer may play a greater role in tomorrow's fluid power systems is from a tuning perspective. Peter Nachtwey, president of Delta Computer Systems, says that once basic functionality is established, motion systems can be tuned more precisely in less time if the performance of the system can be displayed and tuned using graphical tools.
"In the future, diagnostic tools won't be used solely for identifying problems, they will also be used for system setup, tuning, and ongoing production optimization. Ultimately, motion systems will be able to — within reason — tune themselves."
Frank Latino, product manager for valve terminals and electronics for Festo Corp., stresses that in pneumatics, the integration of web-based information technology into components will bring amazing results. "The service is primarily condition monitoring, predictive maintenance, and diagnostics," says Latino. "Pneumatic companies will provide web-enabled products. We will probably see more wireless-based Ethernet technology. End users will either monitor and maintain their own systems, or farm this responsibility out to a service provider."
Via web technologies, companies-will collect plant data related to pneumatic systems. This data will help in maintenance decisions, increase energy savings, and improve uptime and reliability.
Individual fluid power components will surely see remarkable advancements in the coming years. While conceding that it's a risky prediction, Book postulates that new small-scale applications could grow out of micro electromechanical systems (MEMS) and similar technologies. "MEMS technology is producing tiny actuators, sensors, and controllers. They are currently used in medical and similar applications. With the need for small-scale systems with somewhat larger motions, it seems that fluid power has some natural advantages," he says. Applications could include medical, prosthetics, and robotics.
Burton has an exciting view of embedded condition monitoring systems in all components. "The computer and microprocessor technology exists to physically do this, and the fundamental methods for the implementation of condition monitoring are well established for many applications."
Components will continue to see higher pressure while they become lighter and more compact. According to Labus, competitive pressures from alternate technologies will continue to require increases in powerto-weight and power-to-volume ratios. Increases in operating pressure will continue until other restrictions on component size, such as rod buckling for cylinders or manufacturing requirements, become the limiting criteria.
Wanke, too, sees the higher operating pressures, estimating them to reach the 10,000-20,000 psi range. "This would have to be accompanied by strong, lightweight composites or other types of materials that would ensure safe, reliable, and energy-efficient systems." He also foresees 100% zero external leakage systems down the proverbial road. These might be sealed with a non-toxic, contaminant-free fluid that would last as long as rest of the system.