We are in the midst of another industrial revolution, but this one has us with our heads in the clouds and our hands ready to cut the wires.
We all know fluid power is a multifaceted technology, but it is also a mature one. Changes are coming, however, as companies look to tie fluid power components and systems into the Internet of Things, also referred to as Industry 4.0. In fluid power, the Internet of Things (IoT), refers to the concept of using data analytics on information coming from a multitude of sensors to increase productivity. Products can be embedded with wireless sensing technology that communicates to other devices or the operator through the Internet, or in some cases, the Ethernet. While the IoT has only recently been receiving a lot of press, some companies have already recognized its importance and how it can affect the future of fluid power.
Gonzalo Rey, director of research and technology for Moog, identifies two categories of the IoT: device connectivity and the applications that exploit this connectivity. “Today, networking and device level connectivity and addressability are part of the typical fluid power installation landscape. The applications that exploit this fine grain connectivity themselves can be categorized as those that address device-level value added and those that aggregate this information to provide installation-level value,” he said. “Moog products have connectivity; this is the extent to which we have implemented the IoT at this time,” he continued.
It seems the main focus for many companies implementing the IoT is on increasing uptime, productivity, efficiency and product quality. “By capturing data that exists within components and systems and making it available, we can create not only information, but actionable knowledge—from when a hose will fail to how a pump can be run more efficiently,” said Ben Hoxie, manager, Engineering Centers of Excellence, Eaton Hydraulics.
Beyond connectivity, Frank Langro, director of marketing and product management at Festo, said his company is “investigating technologies that support concepts such as de-centralized processes and customized manufacturing.” Bosch Rexroth is taking a similar approach. “We are combining hydraulics with digital controls and decentralized intelligence,” said Karl Tragl, president of the Executive Board. “We have developed a complete range of motion controls for hydraulics replacing valve functions by software.”
This brings up an important component of IoT, “Big Data” and cloud-based software, which allow the amount of data available to increase tenfold. But it’s not about how much data is gathered, rather what you do with it, said Jeremy King, product marketing manager, Bimba Manufacturing. “[We] take the knowledge of our products and combine it with ‘Big Data’ to provide real insights into how the actuator and system is performing. These insights are the real value of Big Data.”
“As software services continue to grow and customers become more comfortable putting their business data on the cloud, they will start to see the value of moving manufacturing data there as well,” he continued.
Hoxie echoed King’s sentiments, adding that engineers are actively researching how future iterations of these products may be delivered through the cloud. “With data available in the cloud, information can be better tracked and used, giving customers needed information, as well as providing companies insight to how customers are using products,” he said.
But what about the risk factors associated with storing information on “the Cloud”? Alex Edwards, manager, Software, Electronics and Controls Center of Excellence at Eaton Hydraulics, offered this response: “There are real and perceived concerns over the security of products, which customers can mitigate by ensuring that safety measures are taken as integration occurs.”
Vast quantities of data can be overwhelming. Training is key to getting the most out of an IoT integration, said Edwards. “It is important to train staff to handle the increase of software and electronics on these products, and the data and analytics they provide. This will allow customers to take true advantage of the opportunities the IoT offers.”
Another key for successfully integrating IoT is adding it where it will be valuable without distracting from what is important, added Hoxie.
So where will IoT hold the most value? Are certain components better suited for integrating this technology? Some say yes, while others aren’t as ready to call out specifics.
“I think the natural progression is the use of sensor technology to facilitate the exchange and transmission of data,” said Langro.
Hoxie also points to components that are naturally more sensing oriented, such as control elements, as being more compatible. However, he also said that components that have not historically seen controls, like hoses, can now be incorporated into the IoT and offer significant value.
Alternatively, King doesn’t think any one component of fluid power is more compatible than another. “It’s not the component that is important, but what that component does that matters,” he said, echoing his thoughts on Big Data. “If the component is critical to the customer’s operations, it should be connected to the IoT so new insights can be derived that help improve the user’s experience.”
Along the same wavelength, Rey said there is no barrier to incorporating the IoT. “As a device-level issue, they [components] are all more or less equally suited from a technology standpoint, provided electronics have bought their way into them already. As far as ‘better suited,’ with respect to adding value to have a device as part of the IoT, it is hard to say because the IoT experience base is so limited at this time.”
Regardless of experience base, the advantages of integrating the IoT are numerous. Most notably is its ability to increase uptime and remote diagnostic capabilities. However, advantages vary based on who is looking at the data, said King. “From Bimba’s perspective as a component manufacturer, we now have our products telling us how they perform in a given situation … From the perspective of an OEM, IoT opens up many new business opportunities and allows them to differentiate on something besides prices. An MRO can increase uptime through predictive analytics,” he said.
Similarly, application also determines the types of data captured and its benefits to the end user. For example, said Edwards, the end goal in industrial equipment is typically automation, and so IoT becomes most important for simplifying configuration. “Knowing the energy consumption of an industrial machine can help customers make design changes to maximize efficiency,” he said.
On the other hand, in mobile applications, IoT is used to find component efficiencies and actionable items to maximize machine operator productivity. According to Hoxie, this is prevalent in large fleets of mobile equipment. “The data mining capabilities of the IoT are helping fleet managers remotely manage equipment and spot problems before they occur,” he said.
Perception versus reality
With technology continuing to advance as rapidly as it has in the past decade, it’s easy to get caught up in the thrill of it all. When talking about the IoT in particular, this notion is exacerbated when the media is involved.
“The media is roughly 10 years too late to the topic,” said Rey, “and in a desire to ‘catch-up,’ it is generating a large volume of publications as it re-discovers the many facets of the IoT. This gives a sense of velocity that it is overblown.”
Tragl sees two possible misunderstandings about the IoT. First is that integrating the IoT is something only large corporations can afford. “Our experience at Bosch Rexroth is completely the opposite,” he said. “We follow an iterative approach where we decentrally realize many ideas on a small scale to gather experience. Step-by-step we expand successful pilot projects and introduce Industry 4.0 organically. I think this is also a good template for small- and medium-sized companies to start with.”
The second, but possibly most important misconception, is that plant floors will become fully automated and devoid of humans. This is not the case, said Tragl. “In the future, we will see a lot of people working together with machines. But their role will be different; they will more likely coordinate and control processes, which means that they will need different skills than today.”
This is not to say that the IoT will not affect fluid power in a big way. “Fluid power is typically a slowly changing market, so the changes the IoT makes may not feel sudden and dramatic, but rather steady and continuous,” said Hoxie. “It [the IoT] is a significant, long-term trend, one which we may not fully understand the impact of until we are using the next generation of hydraulic products and components.”
“In 10 years, it will completely transform how people will interact with machines. A great place to see this is agriculture, whether it is smart tractors that help optimize planting and crop selection, or grain bin sensors to reduce spoilage,” added King.
Langro pointed out that some industry experts predict complete implementation of manufacturing facilities in 15 to 20 years, while others expect to see the transition sooner.
Regardless of time frame, one thing is certain: Once the full economic value of the IoT is realized, implementation on some level will become almost mandatory.
“Any piece of equipment shipped from now on that is not able to upgrade itself to support the IoT technology evolution will be removed from service before the end of its design life and replaced by something that can support the up-to-date IoT standards and functionality,” said Rey.
It looks like it’s safe to say that if you’re not actively researching the IoT, you should be, and your customers probably already are.
ELECTRONICS VS. FLUID POWER
Some industry professionals might argue that electronics has an advantage over fluid power when it comes to implementing the IoT. What are your thoughts?
Jeremy King, Bimba Manufacturing
It is as easy to get data from a fluid power device as it is from an electronic device. One has to simply integrate the sensors and connect them up. Providing data to the IoT is trivial; it is having people who understand what that data means that is important. In many ways, fluid power engineers have the advantage of knowing a lot more about the entire system so they can derive deeper insights from the data.
Ben Hoxie, Eaton Hydraulics
We see electronics and fluid power as integrated solutions. Machines will continue to need the power and efficiency hydraulics provides, but with powerful intelligence electronics software provides. The future is in coupling these capabilities together for maximum configurability, efficiency, intelligence and power.
Frank Langro, Festo
I tend to agree that the electronic-based products have a “leg-up,” so to say, in that they have an inherent ability to transfer data that a purely pneumatic product might not have. However, the integration of pneumatics and electrics has evolved and will continue to evolve, making it feasible to integrate sensors and communications into traditionally “dumb” products like air supply units or cylinders.
Gonzalo Rey, Moog
It is hard today to find a piece of a fluid power kit that does not have electronics. If … the question means “pure” electronics … then one element of their advantage is that their obsolescence horizon is much shorter than for a fluid power installation. That makes it easier to keep the installed base up-to-date with the IoT, and therefore, a lot easier to support. To combat this, fluid power devices must support safe and convenient field upgrades.
WHO MAKES WHAT
Company: Eaton Hydraulics
Product: LifeSense Hydraulic Hose Condition Monitoring System
How it works: The system consists of a hose diagnostic unit (HDU), sensor, hose and web portal. Wireless configuration that electronically monitors length of hose assemblies keeps track of data in real time and interprets the health of each assembly. The system will warn a user of impending hose failure immediately, giving time to repair or replace the hose before it fails.
Company: Bimba Manufacturing
How it Works: A remote monitoring platform for Bimba products, IntelliSense collects 2,002 data points per second from a single pneumatic actuator. Customers can then use the data to enhance uptime, product quality and machine efficiency.
Product: Highly Integrated Smart Actuator
How it works: The custom-designed hydraulic actuator incorporates a sensor netowrk, onboard loop closure for force, position and velocity control and EtherCat interface into one unit. It’s available in a range of solutions up to 200,000 N of output force.
Company: Bosch Rexroth
Product: Hydraulic Power Pack
How it works: Continuously monitors all relevant system states of the power unit. With its own intelligence, the HPU transforms this data into knowledge using condition monitoring and predictive maintenance functions to improve the uptime of machine efficiency.
Filed Under: Fluid Power World Magazine Articles