Editor's Choice


Pneumatics and digital transformation: overcome what’s holding you back

Second Quarter 2022 Editor's Choice Pneumatic systems & components

While IIoT offers the promise of a revolutionary impact on manufacturing, implementation of the technology has presented real-world challenges that can slow adoption. What holds us back from a broader embrace of digital transformation, especially in pneumatics? And just as importantly, how do we move past that challenge to embrace the opportunity for real improvement in productivity and efficiency?

For end-users responsible for maintaining machines and keeping them running, the path is clear. An IIoT system provides data from the machine, ensuring its systems or components are working within their normal range. In that regard, the end-users are the ones pushing for IIoT implementation. The disconnect is often with machine builders. They may have multiple customers pushing them for IIoT solutions, so OEMs are asking, “How do you implement that? Who has the product to do that? And what should we be monitoring?”

Pneumatics has taken advantage of diagnostic features for some time. For example, we can sense whether the power is too low or too high, or whether there is a short circuit in an I/O system which causes a failure. Now, we move it a step further with sensors and the ability to use I/O systems to capture component performance data. The most common struggle causes people to ask questions such as, “I have all this data, but what does it mean? How do we turn that data into useful information?”


Mark Densley.

Understanding how the struggle creates challenges and opportunities

The focus has shifted to how end-users convert that data into useful machine insights to react to, or even predict, failure. For example, the Emerson Aventics ST4-2P programmable sensor has been in the company's product line for years. It measures travel distance and velocity for pneumatic cylinders. Emerson can sense the velocity of the piston in the cylinder, but it can also use the sensor data to monitor the performance of cushions and shock absorbers used to dampen the load being moved by the cylinder. This ensures they perform within a certain specification window. If you interpolate that data, you can ensure the cylinder is performing as expected and quickly determine if it needs maintenance attention. You can see the data today in the PLC and with an IIoT Edge Device, you can collate, analyse and aggregate the data to create actionable insights to provide continuous realtime monitoring of your machine.

Let’s look at energy consumption, for example. You can measure the system pressure and system airflow by using a technology like the Aventics AF2 air flow sensor and correlate the result to an event and conclude that when you turn on a given valve, you get a certain flow. If the flow deviates from a derived nominal flow when the valve is on next time, this indicates something leaking within this circuit or actuator. For example, the seals may be wearing on the cylinder. You may know something is off, but what you do with that information and how you use it is the differentiator.

The responsibility to address problems uncovered by the data falls on both the OEM and the component manufacturer. Emerson's IIoT approach is not ‘IIoT in a Box’. It understands that success requires collaboration and support as well. OEMs and end-users would typically like to have some additional monitoring to make sure that their machine processes are being controlled correctly. It can collaborate with the OEM to create an open IIoT architecture that ensures appropriate sensors are in place and are sensing correctly to help keep that machine running full-time. This maximises the end-user’s return on investment by lowering the total cost of ownership of the machine.


Involve IT experts early

Customers are increasingly familiar with the concept of a higher level of analysis and data sharing. More importantly, it depends on who you are speaking with in the machine design process. In the past, when Emerson worked with machine designers, it discussed things like power and the air connection. Now, the discussion needs to involve factors such as network connections, security and VPN connections.

It is more important than ever to include the IT department in the design architecture and discuss what those connections look like and how the data is moving. Security issues are also important, especially to end-users, so involve IT experts early in the design to understand factors like how much data will be processed, where it is going and how it is going to connect.

Leverage partnerships for IIoT success

Component manufacturers outfitting the machine need to work together to understand how pneumatics comes into play, creating a true partnership that develops the best IIoT solutions for customers. At the field level the pneumatics, drives, controllers and I/O systems must all work together. The key is knowing how the data is passing between those items and making sure that the data gets to wherever it needs to go, whether that is locally on a web server, or out to a cloud system.

Consider the energy consumption example again. The best way to realise energy savings is to use the correct compressor dependent on the required load. Although Emerson may not produce compressors or control systems for compressors, it can tell the compressor control system what the demand for air is over the next 12 hours with smart pneumatics. And from that, the controls can manage the energy involved in producing compressed air accordingly, because it may not need all the air being produced. This is just one example of components and systems ‘talking’ to each other to affect energy savings.

Put the pieces together for better pneumatics performance

How do these pieces come together to improve the situation for a manufacturer? One vision is to enable a highly autonomous maintenance process. To Emerson, that means the pneumatic circuit, or ultimately the machine, has 100% uptime and never fails. Obviously, components wear out; valves and cylinders go through their specified life cycles and need to be replaced. But the data is there to predict failure before it happens and prevent costly catastrophic failure.

For example, one application predicts the performance degradation of things like pneumatic valves. Based on a life-cycle benchmark and B10 life-cycle credits, Emerson can use the data to track when a given valve will reach, for example 75 million cycles and needs to be replaced. The operations team can receive a message about predictive failure and schedule when to replace the valve before production is disrupted.

Data from sensors also allows it to predict when a shock absorber on the end of the actuator is deteriorating by sensing an increase in the cycle speed, even by a few milliseconds. This would trigger an alarm or even send an automatic email to the component supplier that maintenance needs to be completed or that the component is ready to be replaced. The system could even generate an order and a new component would be automatically shipped to the customer, so the installation could be scheduled to minimise any production downtime.

With the right approach to IIoT technology, you can turn data into actionable information that helps ensure machines are self-diagnosing, provide transparency to end-users and never fail.


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