The advent of the Internet of Things (IoT) has given rise to the prefix ‘smart’ for a whole variety of consumer products. With IoT also spilling over into the industrial world, the same can be said for industrial components and systems used in production facilities. While pneumatic components have been used in production facilities for a wide variety of applications, they were utilized for their simplicity, reliability, speed, and power, and were not known for being smart. However, with the rise of the Industrial Internet of things (IIoT) and the Industry 4.0 movement, smart pneumatics has assumed greater importance today. For starters, energy efficiency is a hot topic for manufacturers and end users alike, as they strive to reduce energy costs amid a global push to reduce the carbon footprint. To this end, manufacturers have realized that developing smart pneumatic components is necessary, not only to address the current demand for energy-efficient products, but also to remain competitive in the market in the future. While IIoT/Industry 4.0 is still in the nascent stage, it is expected to become more popular over the next 5–10 years, as sensor costs decrease and Ethernet penetration increases. Smart pneumatic products are also effective in slowing down migration toward electric equipment, which is a visible trend in some end-user industries, such as automotive, semiconductors, and packaging. The slower-than-anticipated rate of adoption of IIoT/Industry 4.0 solutions should not deter manufacturers, because demand for smart products could significantly increase in the near future, and not being able to offer smart products could eliminate a manufacturer from the competition altogether. Within the context of the pneumatic equipment market, some products that come under the purview of smart products include pneumatic valves, pneumatic actuators, and pneumatic grippers.
Compressed air is often considered the fourth utility in manufacturing plants owing to the ubiquitous presence of compressed air systems in production facilities across multiple industries. While air is considered free, compressing air for use in pneumatic systems is an expensive process. The US Department of Energy (DoE) estimates that nearly three-quarters of a compressor’s lifecycle costs is attributed to the electricity costs associated with compressing air. Additionally, pressure drops due to ineffective design or component failure or air leaks result in wastage of the compressed air. Wasted air results in increased energy costs, as the compressor is always running, sometimes at a higher power setting to compensate for the pressure drop. It is estimated that for every 1 psi increase in operating pressure, power consumption of the compressor increases by 0.5%. In this climate, reducing air consumption has direct benefits, as lower air consumption increases energy efficiency, and consequently reduces the end-user’s energy costs in a production facility.
Pneumatic valves are one of the most critical components in a pneumatic system and are used to control and direct the air flow in a pneumatic system. With IIoT and Industry 4.0 increasing in popularity, pneumatic valves have emerged as the focal point of the smart movement. A smart valve can be defined as any pneumatic valve that incorporates sensors and other electronics to provide operational feedback to the controller. This information is used by the controller to optimize valve operation and help smart valves reduce air consumption, and by consequence lower energy consumption for end users. Besides energy efficiency, smart valves also promise enhanced connectivity. Along with the popular fieldbus protocols, smart valves are increasingly becoming Ethernet compatible, which not only offers faster data transmission but enhanced diagnostic capabilities. By adding more sensors in the pneumatic circuit and integrating software with hardware, various types of data are exchanged between machines, enabling real-time condition monitoring. Condition monitoring provides useful feedback about valve functionality, and users can take action if a valve is not performing according to the manufacturer’s specifications. However, the real benefit of smart valves is that they enable predictive maintenance. Data analytics enables users to identify operational profiles that indicate possible component failure, enabling valve replacement at the next scheduled maintenance. Unscheduled maintenance is usually costly, as it is not easy to identify the failed component, especially if there are hundreds of valves in a production facility. Furthermore, production stoppages and manual inspections are a time consuming and costly exercise. Similarly, while preventive maintenance does not affect productivity as much as an unscheduled maintenance event does, it could result in the premature replacement of valves. Therefore, predictive maintenance provides end users with a useful middle-ground that allows them to predict when a valve could probably fail, thereby synchronizing the valve replacement with a scheduled maintenance event, with minimal interruption to production. Smart valves are also usually designed to be universal, allowing easy replacement of parts due to a common footprint. Hence, smart valves not only offer lower energy consumption, but also offer increased operational efficiency.
Pneumatic actuators are also critical components in a pneumatic system. A smart actuator, much like a smart valve, can be defined as any pneumatic actuator that uses sensors and other electronics to provide operational feedback to the controller. These can include useful data such as speed, force, end-of-travel, stroke length, and cycle time. Collection of this data enables condition monitoring to determine if an actuator is performing according to the manufacturer’s specifications. For example, condition monitoring systems alert the user when an actuator takes longer to actuate, or is travelling faster or slower indicating deteriorating performance. By using this information, actuator performance can be optimized, saving end users time and money. Additionally, as with the case of the smart valve, actuator failure can also be predicted in a similar manner. In addition to valves and actuators, another product that is attracting attention for being smart is the pneumatic gripper. Pneumatic grippers are end-of-arm tools and are available in several configurations, such as parallel grippers (2 or 3 finger), angular grippers, and vacuum grippers. Grippers are becoming more popular across multiple industries owing to the growth of robotics, and pick-and-place systems. Smart grippers offer increased energy efficiency, enhanced connectivity, as well as greater precision and safety. Grippers can carry items as light as a few hundred grams and as heavy as a few thousand kilograms, depending on the gripper’s configuration and the robot’s payload.
While IIoT/Industry 4.0 adoption is slow in the pneumatics market, the adoption of smart pneumatic products is slightly faster, on account of the quick return on investment offered by smart products. While end users are aware of IIoT/Industry 4.0, they are still not sure about how these concepts are applicable in their production environments. A significant portion of end users (mostly Tier II and Tier III companies) would prefer to wait until there is a clear consensus on industry standards, especially with respect to connectivity and cybersecurity. However, the advantages of smart products are more clearly understood by end users. In addition to the quick return on investment, smart products also offer a lower total cost of ownership (TCO), increased productivity, and easier maintenance. Over the last few years, there has been an increasing threat to pneumatic equipment from electric technologies, as the latter involves lower TCO. However, pneumatic equipment suppliers have shown that TCO can be significantly lowered by using smart pneumatic products. With the decreasing cost of sensors and other peripheral equipment, Frost & Sullivan anticipates that smart pneumatic products will help slow down the migration away from pneumatic equipment towards electric equipment.