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The growth of intelligent components, subsystems, and systems has opened the door for unique machine concepts, such as this next-generation tree harvester.

Moving hydraulics forward with smarter machinery

Hydraulics are changing. Conventional hydraulic systems are frequently considered unstable and unpredictable. One small action, like the heavy-handed jerk of a joystick, can trigger a chain reaction that puts operator safety and productivity at risk. End users are demanding better performance from equipment, looking to increase productivity and efficiency without impacting the bottom line. How can a machine builder take advantage of the unmatched power density hydraulics provide, without the downsides? By building a smarter machine.

What makes a machine “smart”?

At the most basic level, a smart machine is one with a brain—something inside the machine that can be programmed to do a simple or complex set of tasks, and that can communicate externally. With these basics established, machines can add capabilities, from sensors that find and alert operators to problems, or to advanced control algorithms that allow for optimized efficiency.

While the brain is a requirement, the capabilities of the machine are more important in determining its intelligence. Adaptability is key; a machine that can adapt to the duty cycle at hand and can be reconfigured on the fly is a dynamic, intelligent machine. Instead of one machine good for one task, a smart machine can switch gears easily, from digging a trench as quickly as possible to slowly lowering a pipe into that trench. Additionally, when something fails—and everything fails at some point—a smart machine can sense the problem and reconfigure so it can continue working.

Smart machines can also alert the operator or service technician in the event of a failure, providing a jump-start on repairs through real-time communications. Keeping fleet and service managers apprised as to what is happening in the field makes the job easier.

Before a machine even gets to the field, smart technologies can make it easier on the system integrator and the OEM. Components equipped with a CANbus network are easier to install; instead of requiring a complex wiring harness, they can be plugged in and ready to go much faster. More intelligent components also allow significant ease of customization. One piece of hardware cannot easily be physically changed, but when software is added, the operation of a component can be customized to meet a number of challenges. Instead of stocking five valves for five functions, OEMs can stock one software-enabled valve and load a number of programs onto it.

While one component can make a machine smart, the overall level of integration between subsystems can indicate how smart. Rather than localized smart components, truly intelligent equipment features an integrated system that can communicate from component to component, as well as externally.

Building smart machines

By looking to solve old problems in new ways, Eaton engineers are developing and integrating new smart components. Customers once hesitant to adopt smart machines because they did not want to diagnose or de-bug electrical issues are becoming more comfortable with the technologies. Now the conversation about smart components, and by extension smart machinery, is being reframed. New possibilities are opening up to make machines safer, more efficient, and more productive.

Use dynamic simulation to size components. Using virtual simulations, manufacturers can tune and test hydraulics components in minutes instead of months. This enables them to experiment when sizing components to create a more efficient machine. In the past, it was too expensive and time consuming to try a variety of combinations of hardware to optimize performance and machine efficiency. Digital technology makes it affordable to run those experiments virtually, which results in a machine with reduced heat loss and waste.

Convert losses into gains through energy capture and reuse. Some of the losses that occur in machines can be converted into usable energy. Consider this: instead of losing energy while braking, it can now be stored hydraulically and used to launch the machine—thus, reducing the expelled energy that is lost in daily operation.

Make machines more productive, easier to use and control. Smart machines use innovative sensor technology to automatically measure and manage conditions like oscillation and vibration, improving controllability and enhancing safety. This enhanced controllability allows the same amount of work to be done quicker. For example, if an end user can quickly position their machine for a task on the first attempt, they are not wasting time and fuel to reposition it.

Use energy more intelligently with electronic software and controls. Smart machines can exchange critical information with other machine subsystems to determine exactly how much power is needed for a given service, reducing waste and lowering costs. End users can also manage loads and functions electronically so that the engine and components can be smaller, making better use of energy.

Faster, smarter service. With smarter components, systems can notify operators when service is needed, creating an opportunity for savings across each component within a system. If a machine operator can avoid changing out oil when it is not required, the system can live longer on that particular fluid, instantly generating maintenance savings. If an operator is aware of the condition of a machine’s filters and only has to replace them when needed, instead of when estimated, that generates additional maintenance savings.

Proactive maintenance minimizes downtime. Servicing a machine only when needed is a huge benefit, but staying ahead of major system appointments offers even more advantages. In a smart hose system, for example, a sensor identifies when a hose needs replacing, and notifies the end user weeks ahead of potential failure. Operators can then schedule maintenance before hose failure, minimizing downtime and avoiding the challenge of trying to identify what needs replacing. Preemptively knowing that there is a performance issue, and knowing what parts will be required, allows the operator to arrange the necessary parts and service quickly before downtime becomes a real threat.

The future of smart machines is not certain. Over the years, “smart machines” have gone from smart components to smart subsystems to smart systems. As new engineers enter the workforce, they are bringing new perspectives. No longer can we accept the historic obstacles—the costs for sensors and electronics have decreased while reliability has improved significantly. Not every smart machine needs to include full closed-loop intelligent control—sometimes feedback from components is enough. Electrical devices are sent a command, achieve that state and then report back, and we should accept nothing less from hydraulics.

Ten years ago, we could not have imagined all of the smart technology at our fingertips today. Ten years from now, we will be amazed at the advances. As the industry continues to innovate, though, certain trends—integration, adaptability, and communication—will almost certainly carry on, constantly redefining what it means for a machine to be smart.

Astrid Mozes, Vice President, Power and Motion Controls, Eaton Hydraulics Group, wrote this article for Off-Highway Engineering as part of the annual Executive Viewpoints series appearing in the June 2016 issue.

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