By Paul Michael, Manager of Tribology Research at the Milwaukee School of Engineering Fluid Power Institute.
Technological advancements in hydraulic systems and fluids have significantly improved both industrial and mobile machine performance by improving equipment reliability, minimizing operating costs, and improving sustainability through reduced energy consumption.
In this article, I’ll explore some challenges facing hydraulics systems today, and what we can expect to see in the near future for improvements in equipment efficiency and performance.
Challenges facing hydraulic systems
There have been some tremendous advances in the technology behind hydraulic fluids, lubricants, and oils in general in recent decades. Advancements in chemical processes to remove contamination and impurities from base oil and in the hydrofinishing done to polish oil to the standards of today’s hydraulic fluid stock have improved fluid life. Drain intervals have increased by a factor of three to six times what they once were. We’ve watched this happen in the automotive industry, as suddenly oil changes have stretched from every 3,000 miles to every 7,000 or 15,000 miles. The same is true of hydraulic fluids.
In fact, the step-change in improving these finishing processes since the early 2000s has doubled the lifespan of hydraulic fluids. In industrial applications, operators are finding that longer-lasting hydraulic fluids leads to reductions in downtime and the costs incurred from frequent oil changes, waste disposal, and maintenance labor. Using a more stable, longer-lasting oil that better resists oxidation and thermal stability can lower the cost of ownership for industrial machinery and mobile equipment alike.
Better stability and longevity are not the only improvements made possible by enhanced base oils. Hydraulic fluid manufacturers have also identified new ways of carefully formulating these fluids to reduce the leakage flow of pumps and increase the torque output of hydraulic motors. This improves both the productivity of the machine and reduces its energy requirements, which is critical in battery-powered equipment.
While advances in pump, motor, filtration, and electrohydraulic control technology have increased hydraulic equipment performance in recent years, upgrading the hydraulic fluid provides a unique advantage. It can drive significant improvements to machine performance without changing any hardware whatsoever. That means that performance improvement can be realized in legacy equipment simply by using an energy-efficient hydraulic fluid that has a high viscosity index and good shear stability.
Better fluids improve quality, lower costs
Plastic injection molding machines are a unique example of how more efficient fluids can drive step-change improvements in equipment performance. This energy-intensive process is used in high-volume plastics manufacturing. Through the use of better performing hydraulic fluids, industrial operators can reduce their machinery’s electrical consumption. Part of this comes from the fact that newer fluids run cooler than traditional hydraulic fluids, ultimately achieving less variation in viscosity with temperature. As a result, machinery faces less risk of internal leakage and achieves a better balance of mechanical and volumetric efficiency.
Perhaps more exciting still is that these efficiency improvements in temperature control don’t just lower costs—they may also drive higher quality in parts production. That’s because high-efficiency fluids afford more control over hydraulic pressure in clamping and injection processes, allowing machine operators to reduce the amount of residue left of the equipment after molding. This affords plastics manufacturers an opportunity to reduce operational costs while commanding a higher price for better quality parts.
Today’s fluids help battery power
Fluid enhancements are also supporting significant changes in how mobile equipment operates. The most notable example is in the area of electrification. While only in the beginning stages today, the shift to electric mobile equipment is happening fast. The Case 580 EV fully electric backhoe and Bobcat T7X all-electric loader are but two examples from heavy equipment manufacturing leaders.
However, these emerging electric options still face some challenges—challenges that advances in hydraulic fluids may help solve. For starters, batteries have their limitations. They tend to be the most expensive part of an electric-powered vehicle. What’s more, battery life limits the number of hours in which electric equipment can be used. Efficient fluids create more efficient hydraulic systems, which allow operators to run battery-operated equipment for longer or, in some cases, use a smaller, less expensive battery.
What comes next for heavy equipment productivity
Is electrification sounding the death knell for hydraulics? Hardly. Electric motors simply do not have the power to weight ratio required to do certain jobs. Fluid power isn’t going anywhere. There are certain jobs that can’t be efficiently done without fluid power. As hydraulic systems become more sustainable, fluids will continue to evolve to support these new demands and provide higher levels of performance.
This is just the beginning of how advanced hydraulic fluid properties can transform equipment improvements and productivity. To learn more about how to harness these improvements, make plans to attend the presentation Hydraulic Fluid Properties, Efficiency and Contamination Control at the International Fluid Power Exposition (IFPE) on March 13, 2023, in Las Vegas.
Only IFPE brings together professionals committed to identifying hydraulic systems problems and solutions. The education sessions provide an exceptional overview of the challenges impacting the industry today, while the supplier and partner discussions taking place on the trade show floor will give business leaders an edge in improving their mobile and industrial equipment efficiency, performance, and sustainability. Take advantage of discounted rates available and register for IFPE 2023 today.
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