Hydraulics is sometimes considered a ‘dinosaur’ technology for generating high forces, but today’s connected hydraulics deliver added value for machine builders and end-users thanks to integrated intelligence and connectivity, says David Stubbs, Product Support Specialist, Bosch Rexroth UK.
Nothing else offers the same power density, robustness and reliability as hydraulics or the ability to deliver high forces and torques. Today’s hydraulic systems, equipped with sensors, intelligence and state-of-the-art connectivity, offer significant benefits for machine builders and end-users. Referred to as connected hydraulics, these integrated technologies add value in four key areas for machine builders and end-users, namely design, installation and commissioning, productivity and availability.
Suppliers of electrical products such as servo controllers and variable-speed drives were quick to add connectivity in pursuit of digitalisation, Industry 4.0 principles, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and the Factory of the Future. Pneumatics soon followed suit, with connectivity added to valve islands and fieldbuses conveying data from sensors mounted on actuators. However, suppliers of hydraulics were somewhat slower off the blocks, partly because many companies in this sector had little or no experience of the necessary communications and control technologies. On the other hand, Bosch Rexroth, with its long track record as a drives and control company, was well placed to integrate intelligence and connectivity with its industrial hydraulics, offering customers an all-in-one solution to the problem of how to incorporate hydraulics seamlessly within machinery that is, in all other respects, compatible with Industry 4.0.
Benefits for machine builders
Some in the machine building sector have been reluctant to make the move to connected hydraulics, arguing that customers are unwilling to pay for the extra features, despite the potential benefits. On the other hand, machine builders who have adopted connected hydraulics are finding it reduces their overall costs. First, the design time is reduced because of the software tools available for simulation and configuration – including digital twinning. Second, the machine’s installation and commissioning time can be slashed due to the built-in intelligence, predefined parameters and ease of communication with laptops, tablets and smartphones. Commissioning of these intelligent hydraulics can be carried out by engineers or technicians who are not hydraulics experts. Furthermore, remote diagnostics can prove extremely valuable to the machine builder during the warranty period and, subsequently, if the machine builder is contracted to be responsible for maintenance. Given the cost of engineering time, the savings soon outweigh the higher price paid for connected hydraulics.
When machine builders are supplying customers who have already adopted Industry 4.0, offering connected hydraulics gives them an undeniable competitive advantage over machine builders reluctant to go down this route. Enlightened customers appreciate machines that can link to higher-level systems via open communications protocols.
Benefits for end-users
For end-users, maximising productivity is a major benefit of connected hydraulics. Shorter response times, higher switching speeds and faster flow rates all deliver incremental improvements that add up to greater throughput and enhanced profitability. Where frequent product changeovers are required, connected hydraulics can boost productivity by enabling changeovers to be achieved through software rather than by altering settings and making adjustments manually.
Companies also gain advantages in other less obvious ways. For example, connected hydraulics with speed-controlled pumps achieve higher energy efficiency and, therefore, energy costs are reduced and sustainability credentials enhanced. Similarly, intelligent management of hydraulic fluid through inline analysis and predictive maintenance can reduce the frequency of oil changes. Consequently, less new oil needs to be purchased, and there is less spent oil to dispose of.
Connected hydraulics, with integrated safety, also benefit availability by enabling zonal shutdowns; instead of stopping an entire machine, some zones can continue operating while others are stopped for maintenance, to clear blockages or for other reasons. In addition, if block-and-bleed valves are connected intelligently to the machine’s safety-related control system, access to the machine can be gained far more quickly – and in a safe manner – without the need to follow time-consuming lock-out and tag-out procedures. Where autonomous servo-hydraulic axes are equipped with ‘safety on board’, they can be incorporated easily within the machine’s safety-related control system, which saves time in design and commissioning, as well as helping to maximise availability.
Major impacts on availability or OEE (overall equipment effectiveness) also stem from remote diagnostics, which can reduce downtime through faster troubleshooting. Another important factor is predictive maintenance that enables wear to be detected and timely action to be taken before a breakdown occurs. Bearing in mind the types of task for which industrial hydraulics are used, the prevention of unplanned stoppages can be extremely valuable.
The world of industrial hydraulics has changed enormously in the last five years. Whereas it once lagged behind competing technologies, today’s connected hydraulics add genuine value for machine builders and end-users, delivering financial benefits and competitive advantages. Looking to the future, we can expect to see connected hydraulics making even greater advances, with onboard artificial intelligence and self-optimisation being just two examples.