The evolution towards electronic control of fluid power is not slowing down, which clearly mirrors the infiltration of consumer electronics in daily life, and it appears there are few aspects of life untouched by microprocessors and electrons. There need not be a dichotomatic relationship between electronics and hydraulics, as each has their unique strengths which compliment, rather than oppose each other.
The most common stepping stone to full electrical control of hydraulics is the lack of manual control, and this concern comes mostly from machine manufacturers, not from end users. Industrial machine manufacturers have long since given up the pretense of lever valves being required to back up their PLC run machines should the touch-screen HMI go west (I’d love to see an injection molding machine running from lever valves).
Industrial machines are highly productive due in part to computer control; end user manufacturing companies have long accepted there could be both electrical and hydraulic failures on a machine, and prepare themselves with fridge magnets from both fluid power and electrical serving companies. However, the off-highway/mobile machine industry is lagging behind – as they tend to do – when it comes to giving up the old lever valve. End users want machines that work, and they care not if they are pushing buttons or pulling levers.
I’ve seen wood processing equipment with multiple banks of power-beyond valves, sequence valves and other auxiliary functions to create an auto-sequencing log-splitting operation. This system could be easily and reliably replicated using inexpensive machine controllers and an integrated manifold for not much more than the mess of valves and plumbing on the current machine. The machine manufacturer is worried their customer wouldn’t want to spend the extra few bucks for one button control of an automated machine function, but they should be more concerned about the farmer operating the machine while playing Words With Friends on his $650 iPhone 5.
Also, the same farmer doesn’t seem to care there are no levers on that iPhone 5 to take over operation of their iTunes account should the touch-screen fail. Although I’m sure touch-screens fail, I’ll bet my house that it happens fewer than failures of lever valves.
Just as you cannot buy many toys these days not made from injection-molded plastic – as actual metal or wooden toys are too expensive to produce – there will become a time when electronics are so much more economical and reliable than even the venerable log-splitter valve. I won’t be sad to see that day, but until then, who wants to play a game of Words With Friends?