By Keaton Holappa, Applications Engineer, Connected Hydraulics & i4.0, Bosch Rexroth Corporation
When people think about hydraulics as a fluid power solution, many picture a hydraulic system from the 1960s and ‘70s that’s noisy, hot, and oily, but also robust and powerful. Back in those days, mechanical and electrical valves were used to control a complete system or actuator with pure mechanical and electrical interfaces. Commonly, these would be mechanically operated or solenoid valves controlled by buttons or switches and relay logic.
Then everything changed. With the rise of Industrial Automation, significant benefits for users of hydraulic equipment began to emerge. Efficiencies increased, production quality improved, and component lifetimes extended, but with this new technology came new problems.
Electronically controlled hydraulic systems are much more difficult to understand, support, and troubleshoot. Traditionally electrical or mechanical, hydraulic control functionality includes several layers of hydraulic, electric, and software controls. Individuals working with these types of systems require additional knowledge than what is required for older systems. Companies that interact with modern hydraulic systems need access to these skilled individuals. Unfortunately, they are rare and more expensive to employ.
Thankfully, just as Industrial Automation solved some of the problems of traditional hydraulic systems, technology has recently emerged that is solving the problems of modern hydraulic systems. “Connected Industry” or the “Industrial Internet of Things” is the concept that manufacturing facilities, machines, and workers are all connected using computer networking technology, and in many cases, via the internet.
In a world with Connected Industry, digital products and services offer a variety of features that simplify the lives of industrial equipment users. Common features include condition monitoring, self-configuration, and predictive maintenance, to name a few. These are incredibly valuable when applied to hydraulic systems. Individuals interacting with hydraulics don’t need an in-depth understanding of the system to operate and maintain it. Instead, simplified interfaces to the hydraulic system allow operators to focus on production, while maintenance personnel have an easier time planning and performing maintenance tasks.
This is the true value of the Connected Industry for hydraulics, or, Connected Hydraulics. As a manufacturing center that uses hydraulic systems, it can be costly when production is down due to a hydraulic maintenance issue, and perhaps equally costly to employ a skilled team of professionals to properly plan and perform maintenance tasks for this system. In the world of Connected Hydraulics, this is no longer an issue.
What if instead of a large team of experts, a “virtual technician” existed? This virtual technician would constantly examine all data points available in the system and inform the maintenance staff of exactly what and when upcoming maintenance was required for the system. Then, the maintenance team views a step-by-step process in Augmented Reality on how to solve the problem. Downtime could be predicted, planned for, and avoided, yielding massive monetary savings. While this all may seem a bit of a fantasy, these types of systems already exist in some industrial applications. Although we are still many years away from a fully Connected Hydraulics system, there are already early adopters who see the potential and are becoming more competitive in their markets from the benefits.