A view of fluid power’s next generation

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The Institute for Fluid Power Drives and Systems (IFAS), located at the RWTH Aachen University in Germany, has long been considered one of the world’s preeminent research centers for investigating and advancing hydraulic and pneumatic technology. The Institute had been led for 24 years by Prof. Hubertus Murrenhoff, but just a few weeks ago he handed the directorship over to Prof. Katharina Schmitz, a PhD graduate from the university and former technical director of Hunger Hydraulics.

IFAS Director Katharina Schmitz

At the IFK 2018 conference held this week, Prof. Schmitz outlined the future direction of IFAS, and how it relates to industry trends, innovations and the future of fluid-power research.

Based on in-depth discussions with university leaders on how to cluster research interests and topics to serve future research directions, they created a new structure in five main areas. One research group will focus on mobile and stationary systems and, to emphasize that fact, they have changed the name of the institute from “drives and controls” to “drives and systems.”

“Apart from systems, we need another group with the important topics of digitalization and automation. In the area of fluid-power components, we remain strong, as well as in tribological investigations and fluids,” said Schmitz. The fifth group will focus on simulation development with validation, which has always been a strong research driver.

“So, let me take a deeper look at what is going on in those different research groups,” she continued. “For example, mobile and stationary systems will focus on designs with the overall goal to improve the efficiency and controllability of the system, as well as the planning of maintenance intervals and also the operating life. The research here focuses on redesigning systems, considering the full power flow.” For example, it will take into account new types machine controls, mechatronics of power systems as well as human-machine interaction, said Schmitz.

The second group, digitalization and automation, is a new group dealing with the changes that surround what is often called the fourth industrial revolution: Industrie 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things. Here, the research must cover a quite-broad topic that is a very complex. “On the one hand, we’ll have smart systems, smart components that communicate with each other and leading, for example, to improve efficiency of the overall system as well as the controllability. It is important for us to maintain the ruggedness of the hydraulics or the fluid power system, even through this electrification or digitalization.

“On the other hand, we will have components that not only gain their smartness after the production process, when it is implemented in the system for example, but they also have this smartness and this possibility to collect information during the production process. So, in our opinion, this will lead to new production optimization processes and also individualization during the production process. In addition, we will definitely focus on condition monitoring and predictive maintenance.              

“The research of fluid power components has always been a strong research ground and IFAS will continue with this research,” she continued. That includes not only component design, as they might start from basic researchfor example, tribological contextand then also end up in industry related product design.

“So the goals changed a little bit. We will definitely focus on optimizing efficiency and endurance of components but we will also focus on new innovative materials and new production processes. The miniaturization of components will also play an important role as well as in the development of smart components.

“The research group tribology and fluids focuses, as the name implies, on the tribological investigation of systems and components, with the overall goal to improve efficiency but also to improve the environmental compatibility and the performance,” she said.

So one research goal is to improve or develop sustainable fluids and investigate their fluid properties—at pressures up to 8,000 bar. In addition, the research staff will investigate sealing developments and how that relates to surfaces and new materials.

The fifth group, simulation and development, has the overall goal of improving simulation time, in order to have fast system simulations of very complex systems that can be used in hardware fluid test rigs. The unit will also focus on improving the resulting accuracy by including physically based models into fluid power simulations.

To handle this ambitious program, IFAS facilities and test rigs will shortly be moving to new facilities—in part due to a fire in a neighboring institute that mandated a temporary relocation of the fluid-power work. The silver lining, Schmitz emphasized, is that the refurbished building will have been completely cleaned and updated, including a major electric power upgrade, new HVAC and an enhanced compressed-air grid, as well as new climatic chambers and a new anechoic room.

“Finally, I would like to conclude by giving you an overview of what IFAS is really about, and that’s the power of the people. We have very good staff at the Institute with highly motivated employees, starting from students over to permanent employees, and then the scientific staff members.” This team works along the three pillars on which our Institute is built: the education of young students, encouraging growth among scientific staff members to reach high potential within industry, and continuing the important research and development work, added Schmitz.

“IFAS stands here as a generator of new ideas for innovative projects. For example, in precompetitive research areas generating new ideas for the feasibility, and then later on going into industry cooperation where we are a strong partner for developing these ideas into products. In addition, whenever it is necessary IFAS has the capacity for the meta research, to gain valuable information for these two areas involving the precompetitive and production phases,” she said.

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