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01.03.12

Pneumatics in the 21st century

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Feb/March 2012

Ian Morris, director of the British Fluid Power Association, looks at the advantages of pneumatic equipment within a range of industrial sectors, and focuses on some of the more recent innovations that have made pneumatics more compelling than ever as an effective means of producing mechanical motion.

Pneumatics is a fluid power technology that has long been deployed in an array of industrial sectors such as mining, offshore/marine, rail, road transport, construction and even dentistry. Examples of pneumatic equipment include everything from pneumatic actuators, cylinders and motors, tools such as industrial nail guns and drills, pressure regulators, pressure switches and vacuum pumps, air brakes on trains, buses and trucks, not to mention air compressors. This equipment can provide the user with a cost-effective, flexible, reliable and safe means of producing mechanical motion.

Sound of the Underground

Every day thousands of people get on and off trains on the London Tube system and take it for granted that the doors open and close with that familiar and reassuring quiet hiss.

How many of them realise that it is in fact a fluid power technology, pneumatics, which is driving the doors and creating that confidence in the safety and reliability of such a fundamental part of the train journey?

The sliding doors on many vehicles, and particularly trains, are for the most part operated pneumatically, and this has stood the test of time for many years as cost-effective, reliable and, above all safe, in an industry where passenger safety has to be the first priority.

With regard to pneumatic actuation, the biggest marketplace for this technology is often referred to as ‘general industrial’. This market comprises a very large customer base for lightweight low-cost pneumatic movement actuators that are deployed on everything from factory assembly machines, stamping machines, sorting machines and much more. In terms of vertical market sectors within this industrial space, they are very diverse and cover pharmaceutical, food & beverage, printing and packaging and many more sectors besides. Therefore, during a market downturn, this level of user diversity means pneumatics isn’t normally as badly affected as some other technology sectors that are more reliant on a narrower band of industry sectors. So, from the supplier’s, contractor’s and distributor’s perspective, it is heartening to know the pneumatics market is therefore comparatively well-protected against the vagaries of market demand.

Maintenance and durability

Business aspects aside, there are also a wealth of advantages for users in choosing pneumatics as their preferred mode of power transfer. Take maintenance, for example. If we compare a linear drive unit based on a pneumatic cylinder with an electric rack and pinion drive, we can see that on a rack and pinion system there are many wearable parts, such as bearings and gears. The pneumatic cylinder, on the other hand, just moves backwards and forwards day in day out, with only minimal levels of friction taking place. Additionally, the lack of complexity regarding most pneumatic parts means the maintenance of components is a simple process when the time comes.

Pound for pound, the pneumatics option is very cost-effective to operate on a daily basis too. There is also simplicity of installation to consider. These days, the use of highly reliable and flexible nylon tube makes routing much less of a problem. Fast-fit connectors, as their name suggests, make assembly very quick. Another compelling selling point for pneumatic components is their simplicity of design and very good power-to-weight ratio. Pneumatic components are lightweight and easy and quick to install. The design of modern fittings means pipe installations can be done very quickly and cost-effectively – it’s often a simple case of ‘plug and play’. And because of the affordability of pneumatic equipment such as cylinders and actuators, together with the related nylon tubing etc, holding inventory is not a high-cost proposition.

With pneumatics there are also pronounced energy benefits to consider. In static conditions a pneumatic system (or, indeed, fluid power systems in general) do not use any energy. For example, when users want to hold a pneumatic cylinder in its current position they simply lock off the valves necessary to effect the task and the cylinder stays static.

The British Fluid Power Association (BFPA) will be exhibiting at the International Fluid Power Association (IFPEX) from 17 to 19 April 2012. 

Tell us what you think – have your say below, or email us directly at opinion@railtechnologymagazine.com 

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