Mobile fluid power is an essential part of the construction, agriculture, mining, and other heavy-duty segments. But although the primary technology is mature, many factors drive change and demand innovation in this space. Pressures from supply chain disruptions, inefficiencies, new market competitors, sustainability objectives, labor availability, capital expenditure optimization, and a fluid global economic climate all impact mobile hydraulics and fluid power.
These factors augment the usual cost pressures that accompany premium equipment, always stretching investment further and adding capability—or minimizing waste/inefficiency—along the way. Market dynamic drivers take the form of several megatrends shaping the market. This white paper study will review these trends, the challenges they bring, and the fluid power technology advancements enabling companies to succeed.
Megatrends Shaping the Market
Population growth and urbanization
Despite the deceleration in growth, the world population still increases by more than 80 million people every year. These rates project the population to double from 5 to 10 billion over a 70-year period from 1987 to 2057, with China and India dominating the growth share.
While the percentage of its population in urban areas remains relatively flat in the US at over 80%, globally, urbanization has increased at a nearly-linear 4-5% rate since 2000, with Asia (the most populous region) below the world average of 56%. These trends signify that the global population moving to cities will sharply outpace other areas, driven by the highest population growth rate in the most populous region, whose citizens have not yet saturated to urbanization.
There has been a higher emphasis on repairing infrastructure in recent years, especially in the US. Legacy bridges, roads, railroads, and ports endure constant demand and need to be replaced at the end of their life cycles. The challenge is that those repairs are infrequent and expensive, so policymakers often delay investment in that segment until the repairs are critically necessary.
Technology changes a lot over the multiple decades of the infrastructure's lifetime, so the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act finally provides $1 trillion to address this recurring opportunity. In addition, the new infrastructure of high-speed internet is a part of that package, adding additional equipment to the package.
Climate change and regulatory pressure
The increase in extreme weather events has led to increased regulations across nearly all segments. The construction industry accounts for 40% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, dominated by carbon dioxide and methane. Regulations are pushing, and corporate sustainability initiatives are pulling significant sustainability improvements with the move to electrification and increased renewable power generation. But with these macroscale influences, the underlying principle is for all relevant industry participants to do more with fewer resources. Emit less carbon, increase recycling of consumed materials and products, improve energy efficiency, and optimize water utilization.
Trends from historical construction industry factors
These megatrends manifest in multiple ways. Growing populations compel mobile fluid power to increase hydraulic equipment's performance and production output to boost project speed. In addition, cost pressures drive the industry toward simpler, more predictable maintenance to reduce downtime and lower overall equipment costs by avoiding disruptive, unplanned repairs. Accurately estimating when and where fluid power equipment is likely to fail can reduce downtime by enabling technicians to address the problem area much sooner. Predictive maintenance uses analytics to forecast a component's potential failure. This benefit saves substantial time for the technician to locate, diagnose, and correct the issue.
Continuous improvements in quality and safety are essential pursuits, as reducing defect rates and protecting operator safety are critical to high-volume or high-risk industries. These improvements could also positively affect the cost, as reducing defect rate boosts throughput and reduces rework. Furthermore, protecting the operators and field technicians is ethical. It keeps the specialist focused on the task at hand if they are confident in the safety measures enacted to protect them.
Opportunities from new market drivers
Sustainability will be an ever-present voice at the table, with climate change driving policy and the regulatory landscape changing frequently. And even as policymakers disagree on the mechanics of improving sustainability, companies are taking themselves to improve in this area. Electrification is a central part of this strategy, as increasing the number of electrically-driven components unlocks the power of the IoT to an increasing number of parts and sectors. (More on the impact of this trend in the advancements to follow).
The global pandemic coupled with increasingly severe weather events has uncovered a massive challenge: resilience. This theme occurs in two primary forms:
1. Energy resilience
2. Supply chain
With the internet becoming more a utility than a convenience (as evidenced by public policy to build high-speed network infrastructure), unexpected downtime is not an option for many businesses. Creating backup and standby energy de-risks power loss by providing parallel options for power when a primary one is unavailable.
Supply chain resilience is similar; industry comes to a complete stop if raw and secondary materials are not available when needed. Many companies are abandoning the Just-in-Time manufacturing model, demonstrating that response to order quantity changes, lead times, and general customer support is more critical than minimizing inventory costs. Batch manufacturing and vertical supply integration are two options. Still, the IoT may offer additional ways to monitor inventory to allow fluid power to continue building while improving resilience to component delays.
Finally, increasing urbanization creates the need for quieter, safer, more customized machines that operate near higher concentrations of people. But, again, these trends seem in conflict, as more people would require more construction at potentially larger scales. Still, the trend toward decentralized manufacturing can offer reduced capital outlays with a more resilient—and customizable—manufacturing footprint.
The fluid power industry is adopting technology advancements to deliver many of these trends and market opportunities. Continuing in this study, we review these technologies through the power transmission and motion control segments.
Power Transmission Advancements
Some of the most significant advancements in fluid power come from improving the design and predictability of power transmission equipment performance. The ability to optimize how energy from source to action point offers benefits across the manufacturing lifecycle. One approach to enhance this challenge is to increase the accuracy of measurements and projections of transmission operating conditions through sensor and software solutions.
Dynamic line ratings (DLR) and flexible transmission control
Any intelligent solution that adapts to changing conditions needs sensors to collect the data for analysis, enabling technology to digitize. DLR uses data from these sensors to improve the accuracy of fluid capacity ratings, using real-time line temperature or sag measurements to compute the line rating. One example is that DLR can incorporate changes in the ambient conditions to the cooling capability to enable higher fluid flow through a line. This technology also actively monitors asset health, tying swings in performance to an alert for operators to drive a corrective measure.
DLR also factors into dynamic transmission control. A DLR-optimized fluid can enter a network of additional hydraulic fluids with electronic control that optimizes all transmission equipment in the network. This approach also enables modular hydraulic equipment to improve flexibility/customization while reducing cost. System designers can employ standard modules to perform common functions, relying on the controls to integrate, balance, and optimize performance. It also decreases "congestion" in fluid utilization, reducing resistance and boosting performance. In addition, this type of topology optimization adds resilience to the system efficiently by supplementing the cognizance of degrading systems with the ability to switch to a healthier circuit dynamically.
Digital displacement pump (DDP)
Another power transmission function enhanced by digitization is a hydraulic pump. Historically, design engineers used pressure to control the pump for system performance. Implementing electronics enables the system to monitor and control load sensing, power threshold, and flow distribution to optimize fuel utilization, performance, and output while minimizing idling losses. These improvements are especially impactful considering the low ~30% combustion efficiency achieved by traditional engines.
Parallel radial piston pumping chambers each include a solenoid valve that can combine [or keep separate] flows to achieve the desired outputs. This advancement is another example of how digitization adds resilience and system optimization without excessive technology redundance.
Energy storage & waste heat recovery
Heavy-duty hydraulic mobile applications generate substantial waste energy through inefficiency despite their high-power ratio. Engineers employ hydraulic accumulators to store this waste kinetic and peak-power excess energy and redeploy based on system-dictated demand. While adding some system components, this recovery increases energy utilization and resilience to increase efficiency and performance while reducing cycle times and overall system cost.
Another extension of this principle is to recover the engine's waste heat (as opposed to kinetic energy), which can be around 70% given the low efficiency of combustion.
A word on electrification
The confluence of electrification with hydraulics creates many opportunities to achieve the industry objectives described above. Although electronics offer higher efficiencies and better sustainability, the power ratio of hydraulics remains an attractive feature construction technology can leverage, especially for heavy-duty, demanding applications. Ideal for motion control (described below), electromechanical components should not be used in isolation but are better used to optimize hydraulic performance. While direct electrification is more efficient than converting chemical energy to electrical through a thermal step (combustion), generating massive electrical power through low-density conversion would be cost- and size-prohibitive. As a result, many OEMs are upgrading their power transmission systems with electrohydraulic enhancements.
As the IoT pervades construction and agriculture, employing:
enhances existing and new system architectures to add resilience, system insight, and customization without excessive capital expense and footprint.
Machine Control Advancements
While power transmission refers to the energy transfer from source to application, motion control pertains to the precision and sequence of machine movement when executing the action. A motion control system is comprised of a controller, drive, motor, and feedback device.
Numerical modeling & simulation
Historically, design engineers sized components to ensure they could meet the highest-load condition, plus a safety margin. This approach worked but left many parts and systems over-engineered, thus incorporating high cost and inefficiency with the design. As explained previously (within power transmission), implementing electromechanical features can enhance existing equipment while optimizing its size. One way engineers can integrate electric enhancement with motion control is to use multi-body dynamic simulations. This approach uses numerical modeling to right-size components for the task and precision the job requires. Modeling substantially expedites sizing iterations with minimal cost, avoiding build-and-test expenses that carry very high cycle times to reach the optimal design.
This approach can also predict vibration, pressure and thermal cycle fatigue, and burst resistance in a given application. These benefits provide confidence in the initial prototype build without excessive safety-margin sizing.
Historically, hydraulic actuators were best suited for heavy-duty applications, while pneumatic and electric components were best for higher-precision motion control. However, recent advancements in electric actuator technology can be practical at higher load conditions with improved durability.
Electric actuators offer clean, packaging envelope-friendly solutions that already deliver precision motion control. Recent technology improvements enable electric actuators up to 4,000 lbs. of load handling. Engineers can achieve higher-load capability by coupling the electric actuator to a hydraulic system and avoiding the complex fluid system and reservoir required for a fully-hydraulic design.
Implementing an electronic device opens the technology up to sensor-based feedback in place of pressure-based. This feature delivers rapid, specific, and dynamic control using software to optimize performance.
The digital twin is an increasingly popular option for improved control fueled by the IoT, AI, and big data. This approach promotes interaction between a virtual model of an asset and a real-world component to optimize positional performance and motion control. The process works by employing sensors on the physical asset to collect data used to build a detailed virtual model. Engineers then use the virtual model to optimize position and distances to verify how their control systems will work in the real world.
Digital twin enables engineers to understand how the performance of a physical asset changes over time and the comparison of specific vs. actual motion. The technology itself doesn't control the physical equipment directly, but it can highlight discrepancies in how accurately the machine is executing its task. A digital twin can pair with adaptive control software to receive physical asset data and update the motion-controlling model dynamically. This application is a real-world example of augmented reality in practice for the fluid power industry.
Challenges and Barriers to Adoption
The technology advancements described above unlock significant improvements to mobile fluid power transmission and motion control. However, despite the numerous benefits of this new technology, challenges and barriers to adoption remain.
The first challenge is the companies' desire to maintain legacy equipment and simply "bolt-on" the new features and components. While it could be prohibitively disruptive to change over, integrating technology advancements completely should be more than a patchwork solution. It is imperative integrators check hardware and software compatibility, assess the security and risk profile of the new system, and test the technology for accuracy, speed, and responsiveness. In addition, achieving IT and OT convergence is essential to realize the full benefit of the improvements.
Cost and training are two additional hurdles to clear when adopting new features into a fluid power system. More complicated smart technology may carry a capital cost, even if the total cost of equipment is lower in the long term. And this complexity brings the challenge of ensuring technicians and operators are adequately trained to use the new equipment and features safely and correctly.
Finally, customization and supply chain resilience can be challenging. The desire to optimize a system for its intended use increases customization for the end-user but makes system design complicated for the supplier. Modular designs and effective integration strategies can help. Still, it is vital to ensure a new design has readily available components and produced at volume to assure secondary or tertiary supply.
There are a multitude of trends that affect the world and business impact fluid power, including:
All of these factors present unique opportunities for innovative technology in hydraulics.
Many of these approaches and technologies present the joint benefits of improved performance and resilience while delivering improved energy utilization, sustainability, safety, and cost. However, fluid power is at an inflection point with the IoT and its move to digitization, and businesses must address historical problems with innovative approaches and ways of thinking.
About the Author
Adam Kimmel has nearly 20 years as a practicing engineer, R&D manager, and technical consultant, with expertise in automotive and mobile applications, industrial/manufacturing, technology, hydrogen and alternative energy, and electronics. Adam has degrees in Chemical and Mechanical Engineering and is the Principal and Founder of ASK Consulting Solutions, a technical content writing, and strategy firm.
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