What role is there for pneumatics in an increasingly automated and digitized world? Andy Parker-Bates, product marketing manager at Festo, investigates


ccording to the British Fluid Power Association (BFPA), sales of

pneumatics have been growing over the last few years, demonstrating that the technology has lost none of its favour with UK manufacturing. In fact innovators within the industry are embracing the Industry 4.0 revolution as an opportunity to drive pneumatic technology forward into a whole new generation of products and solutions to meet the challenges of future manufacturing.

PERFORMANCE OEE (Overall Equipment Effectiveness) is the key concept underpinning much of the development across the pneumatics industry. Industry 4.0 will provide new understanding of machines and processes, allowing them to be autonomously configured and optimised, and so driving up machine availability, performance and quality. Pneumatics has already proven itself

in terms of its rugged nature and ability to withstand and adapt to the rigours of its working environment, be that ATEX, washdown, cleanroom, mobile, or submerged. Added to this, improved material properties, new production techniques and high-volume manufacturing are driving down the cost of core components such as cylinders and valves, while driving up quality and reliability. This makes pneumatics a natural choice for high-volume, repetitive, fit and forget applications.

RELIABILITY The ability to predict when a particular machine component will fail has been a goal of industry for many years; and the real benefits of condition monitoring are derived when it is extended down to actuator level. The Germany ParsiFAl 4.0 research project is exploring how to make this possible. It brings together a number of leading technology partners from industry and academia to develop new sensor technology and electronics in thin foils. The project aims to attach a label like an adhesive strip to a Festo pneumatic cylinder to gather sensor and user data which is then sent wirelessly and securely to a corresponding control system. In this way, drive data such as position, dynamics and environmental parameters can be monitored simultaneously by

Festo’s Motion Terminal responds to fluctuating production demands with intuitive functional changes to its valves in much the same way as an electric drive

sizes, electric drive technology is extremely well placed as its infinitely variable nature adapts to whatever the manufacturing process demands of it. Capable of being re-configured ‘on the fly’ as different product sizes, weights, or even types pass along the line, electric drives certainly appear to have an advantage over static, dedicated pneumatic systems. But who said pneumatic systems must be static? Festo’s Motion Terminal is the pinnacle

several labels in a unit. An energy harvesting system, which generates energy from the movement of the piston, is expected to supply the foil system with power in conjunction with a thin film battery. By analysing component level data and production environment characteristics, and modelling this against the manufacturer’s own test data, predictions can be made about the expected life of a particular device under its actual real-life operating conditions. Control elements can subsequently be optimised by self-learning systems to either provide less arduous operating dynamics, or to maintain maximum productivity until the current production run is completed.

ENERGY EFFICIENCY One of the biggest challenges for pneumatics is the cost of compressed air and overall lifecycle cost, so manufacturers have been addressing this issue by promoting a more efficient use of compressed air through best engineering practices and efficient product design. One such example is the Festo

MSE6-E2M Energy Efficiency Module, which can detect when a machine is idling or in standby and automatically shut off the flow of compressed air to the machine. The unit also provides leak monitoring and captures live flow, pressure, and consumption data which can be sent across an industrial network connection or up into the Cloud, allowing users to undertake long-term energy usage analytics and control. In fact, improved connectivity and data capture provides evidence that the economics of pneumatics are relatively stable and makes total cost of ownership easy to predict.

FLEXIBILITY With the promised rise in mass customisation and ever smaller batch


of pneumatic development today. Using piezo-electric controlled valves tied to software-driven motion apps, the Motion Terminal is able to change the functions of its valves in much the same way an electric drive can. Each valve can effectively replicate the functionality of up to 50 separate pneumatic components, allowing operating pressures to be changed digitally to suit a particular

The ParsiFAl 4.0 research project is developing new sensor foil technology that can be applied like a label to enable condition monitoring of pneumatics at actuator level

product type, with cylinder travel times and stroke lengths adjusted for different product formats. Once again, a connection to the plant’s fieldbus network ensures that control and diagnostic reporting happen seamlessly and in real time.

INTO THE FUTURE Digitalisation of the factory and the declining cost of electric motive power will inevitably lead to a gradual migration away from pneumatics to these more controllable, connected technologies. However, developments are already

taking place in the industry to create more efficient, cost-effective, intelligent and connected products. So, rather than being side-lined by Industry 4.0, pneumatics is a technology that fits hand in glove with its contemporaries and is key to delivering the transformation that will drive future manufacturing.


Rather than being side-lined by Industry 4.0, pneumatics is a technology that fits hand in glove with its contemporaries


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