Control the Air

Advances in Diagnostics and Connectivity Propel Pneumatics to New Uses

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Dan HebertBy Dan Hebert, PE, Senior Technical Editor

If your machine uses pneumatics—or has the potential to do so—you can simplify installation, detect leaks and lower operating and maintenance costs with some recent advancements.

Studies conducted over the years by SMC (www.smcusa.com) revealed that of the energy consumed by a typical factory, 20% goes to the production of compressed air. Of that 20%, up to 30% is wasted by leaks.

"Historically, leak detection has been costly and time-consuming," says Pam Ohlemiller, product manager at SMC. "Many methods have been used, most of them manual and all of them cumbersome and/or expensive. Our automatic leakage detection system (ALDS) solves the leak detection problem. By quantifying daily the amount of leakage on a machine, the ALDS provides companies with clear data containing the exact value of the leak in liters per minute with a detailed report listing the location of each leak."

Suppliers are adding connectivity options to their pneumatic products, including tight integration with PLCs.

Remote diagnostics isn't limited to leak detection. "Fieldbus-enabled valve manifolds with integrated communication and I/O are replacing conventional hardwired pneumatic manifold solutions," reports Enrico De Carolis, director of technology development at Numatics (www.numatics.com/g3).

Gone are the dreaded DIP switches and the often confusing status LEDs. "Our G3 platform integrates a graphic display on every module, with accessible pushbuttons and intuitive menus for easy configuration, status checking and point-of-use diagnostics," De Carolis explains. "The platform even enables configuration and online diagnostic monitoring via standard web browsers via Ethernet-based protocols."

Other suppliers are adding connectivity options to their pneumatic products, including tight integration with PLCs. "Our AirLine remote process actuation and control system is compatible with the Rockwell Automation Point I/O System," notes Andrew Pierro, the field sales manager for pneumatics at Bürkert Fluid Control Systems (www.burkert.com). "AirLine is the only system that allows Point I/O modules and our solenoid pilot valves to be mounted in a single, compact, rail-mount assembly. This assembly supports virtually any field device, pneumatic or electronic. Depending on the application, the system can incorporate up to 13 modules with a maximum of 64 valves accepted."

Machine builders know that the only constant in machine design is change, so they prefer to use components that accommodate field modifications. "Valve manifolds offer OEMs the benefits of simpler installation and reduced leakage in pneumatic systems, but they create a challenge when an end user changes a design or wants to add features," notes Bradlee Dittmer, product marketing manager for valves at Norgren (www.usa.norgren.com). "Our VS manifolding valve product range solves this problem by building in capability to expand the manifold in the field without tearing it apart or replacing it. Modular design allows for expanding in single stations to as many as 16 valves."

Many industrial machine OEMs combine pneumatic and electric actuation to achieve optimum performance. "In many cases, electric and pneumatic components are complementary, which is why this design decision is largely dependent on application requirements," explains Tom Wood, marketing manager at Bimba Manufacturing (www.bimba.com). "Our Original Line Electric actuators and pneumatic cylinders handle a wide range of applications as a complete motion control solution or as an actuator only, ready to accept any user's motor." Wood says you can read more in the whitepaper, "Debunking 'Conventional Wisdom' in Actuator Selection and Deployment," at www.bimba.com/pdf/Bimba-OLE-Whitepaper-0411.pdf.

Festo takes flexibility a step further with its controllers. "Our CPX controller family can act as a host for most of our valve terminals," notes Sachin Kambli, product manager at Festo (www.festo.com/us). "The CPX forms a unique system that can combine pneumatics, servo-pneumatics, electric drives and I/O on the same platform—ideal for control of an industrial machine or robot. The other advantage of the CPX platform is that it can communicate over most industrial communication platforms, thus enhancing connectivity." 

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