Small Things Are Big in Fluid Power

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By Rob Spiegel, Senior Editor, Automation & Control

Trends in industrial fluid power reflect the overall direction of industrial electronics. Equipment is getting smaller, smarter, and more efficient. The megatrends in hydraulics and pneumatics include miniaturization, environmental (meaning both clean and ever more efficient), and greater intelligence via electronic controls. These trends extend from the present into the future. As always, fluid power beats electric power in specific industrial functions. The overall market for fluid power continues to grow, although in some regions growth remains slow.

How small can you get?

One of the biggest trends in fluid power is ever smaller size. Miniaturization in many forms plays a good part of fluid power’s future. “Fluid power customers are following industry-wide trends toward miniaturization. Small and lightweight wins over large and heavy,” Mary-Jo Keenan, applications engineer at Beswick, tells Design News. “At the same time that customers are downsizing, they are adding more features to their products. This puts even more pressure on design engineers to find the smallest fluid power components possible.”While miniaturization continues to become more important, durability is also a strong factor in fluid power. “Smaller in size not only saves valuable space, but it is aesthetically pleasing to the end user,” she tells us. “In addition, customers require durable materials that can withstand extreme pressure and temperature conditions while providing corrosion resistance. Also, we have seen a greater demand for accurate pressure and flow control with high flow capacity in a compact envelope.”

Jerry Walling, marketing and business development director at Fabco-Air, tells us there is continuing pressure to make fluid power equipment smaller. “Our customers want it smaller, cheaper, and faster,” he says.

Growth for fluid power varies by region

Generally, the fluid power market is growing, though recent growth and future expansion in the fluid power market varies by region. Walling sees growth in terms of geography. “We’re seeing growth in the Southeast US because of automotive,” he says. “We’re also seeing growth in the northeast.”

Fluid power vs. electric power

As always, the need for hydraulic and pneumatic power is evaluated against the alternative of electric power. “Fluid power can go around corners and go into nasty areas because it has fluid,” says Frey. “Direct drive or mechanical drive are also benefits of fluid power, especially for reversing. I can do much more with respect to observing the rules of Mother Nature with fluid power. Hydraulics are also used to reduce the impact of shock.”

Hybrid systems that mix hydraulics and electronics are becoming more common. “Do I go electric, all hydraulic, or a blend of the two? You take the best of hydraulic and best of electric and try to marry them,” he says. “There is always the faction that might be looking to go 100% electric. For small packaging operations, they can get away from using hydraulics. But then you get bigger and stronger, you probably need hydraulics. It’s hard to beat the power ratio of hydraulics.”

Beswick’s corrosion-resistant stainless-steel fittings.

There are some areas where fluid power has traditionally been a superior choice over electric power. Often the decision comes down to the simplicity of fluid power, or it comes down to an environment in which electric power can’t operate. “Fluid power is known for its power density when compared to other forms of power. You also get relatively simple design, assembly, and maintenance,” says Keenan. “Fluid power can also be used in environments that electrical components cannot such as when there is an explosion risk or when electromagnetic interference is a concern.”

Cost is always a factor. Often fluid power is less costly than electric power. “Fluid power products are less expensive compared to comparable electric products,” says Walling.

Environmental concerns

As in most areas of industrial technology, environmental concerns and overall efficiency have become major concerns. “You need to make products with less waste now. In other areas of the world, they’re more serious about efficiency than in the US, but even in the US now, customers are asking how they can reduce energy consumption by 10%,” says Frey. “Fifteen years ago nobody would have looked for that efficiency out of a pump.”

Fluid power has become a positive alternative to electric power when it comes to going green. “In industrial hydraulics, there is an interest in going green,” he says. “The entire country hasn’t taken the green pill, but in areas where electricity costs are high or regulations are demanding, customers are looking at a hybrid of hydraulics and electrical. There are cost and government incentives to green up and retrofit with hydraulics.”

The future of fluid power

A number of trends in fluid power are likely to extend far into the future. For one, plants are outsourcing engineering tasks to their vendors. “Customers are relying more on engineering support from vendors as their engineering staffs become smaller,” says Keenan. “There will be a continuing demand for high performance, compact envelope, and customization.”

Other megatrends that have hit the fluid power market include system-on-a-chip and 3D printing. “Micro-technologies such as lab-on-a-chip are making a bigger impact, and the 3D printing of components could open new design possibilities,” she says. “Novel ways of operating and actuating valves could also provide designers with better options in the future.”

Growth is always based in individual industrial sectors. Those sectors have geographic implications. “Our customers span the globe, from operating in locations close to our factory in New Hampshire, to the Far East,” says Keenan. “We find that companies that design products for a specialized industry, such as medical, food packaging, or biotech, will congregate in a specific geographical location depending on availability of qualified engineers, tax breaks, and available real estate.”

While parts of the industrial fluid power industry experienced contraction in North America recently, there are some sectors such as fracking in oil and gas that are expecting more growth. “The fluid power market has been growing. Last year there was a decline in the US, but no one is saying fluid power is out,” Jon Frey, director of product management for industrial hydraulics at Bosch Rexroth, tells Design News. “The US is stronger than other areas of the world. Asia is having a tough time. Asia is still growing, but it’s not on fire like it was five years ago. Fluid power products are used in fracking and natural gas exploration, so that helps with growth.”

Electronic controls bring intelligence to fluid power

Like most industrial equipment, fluid power has become more intelligent. The advancement of electronic controls is becoming a big part of new fluid power equipment. “One trend in fluid power is the electrification of hydraulics. That includes on/off valves and pressure controls. Over the past few years we’re seeing more proportional controls and more controls in the pump,” says Frey. “The electronic controls are helpful if you have a machine with sequential operations, such as a plastic injection machine. It does one function, and after that, another function. The electronic controls provide a certain amount of pressure for a certain amount of time. Electronic controls make sure the pump only does what’s needed when it’s needed.”