Paul Slaughter, Managing Director of Actuated Solutions Ltd, considers the dynamics of the actuation market and the impact of technology on the growth of electric and pneumatic actuation in two major markets.
Developments in technology, the increasing mechanisation of manufacturing and process automation; along with the growth of our cities, transport links and infrastructure have all taken huge leaps forward in the last 30 years.
The actuation industry, which plays a key but often unheralded role in keeping the wheels of commerce turning, has had to be agile and innovative in order to develop solutions that meet the demands of an increasingly automated and data-driven world.
We live in an information-led age where everything seems to come with ‘smart’ as standard and the actuation industry is no exception. Intelligent valves have gained momentum and are commonly specified across a raft of installations and, in turn, actuation is increasingly required, not only to deliver basic functionality with high performance, but also provide accurate data and instant feedback.
Water, Water Everywhere
The water and wastewater industry is a market where electric actuation has grown exponentially over the past 20 to 30 years. In water treatment works and desalination plants worldwide it is almost exclusively electric actuation that provides the accuracy, reliability and system information that is required to control the ebb and flow of the planet’s most vital resource.
Furthermore, the water industry continues to present the major growth area for this market. Challenges such as leakage, ageing infrastructure and concerns about health and safety increase the need for high performance system management and high performance actuation. This is one reason why we have developed our hugely popular HQ series of electric actuators, which push the boundaries of what is possible to achieve even with small-sized actuators.
One of the major reasons electric actuators often take the upper hand in the water industry is the reliability and peace of mind they offer when used on large-scale, and often unmanned sites. Electric operation offers energy savings, reduced long-term running costs, clean technology and, critically, quiet operation.
Safety First with Oil & Gas
However, the needs of another major market for actuation – the oil and gas sector- are quite different. Despite the advances in technology generally that we’ve seen during the past 30 years, the demands of this sector are still relatively rudimentary, with safety and reliability at the core.
Oil and gas production has a long history of using pneumatic actuators offshore and onshore, largely due to the mechanical simplicity of piston operators and their ease of maintenance. Typically, the industry requires actuators that can deal with extremes; whether that be operating or climatic temperature, weather conditions or usage cycles. Because they are tough and resilient and can deliver thousands of cycles with minimal maintenance; pneumatic actuators remain the de-facto choice.
However, the primary requirement in this environment is, of course, safety and because a spring return pneumatic actuator will naturally fail in the closed position (in the event of a loss of power), it is still considered to be the best failsafe option. Pneumatic actuators also operate much quicker than electrically powered units, so they close more quickly too. Additionally, pneumatic components offer increased safety within this combustible environment - as instrument air supply poses no sparking hazard.
Perhaps the most notable advance in product technology over recent years has been the introduction of Electro-Hydraulic products which can also provide failsafe applications when air is not available. Our own Electro-Hydraulic product - the KEH series - is a real step forward in quarter turn actuation and we know it performs exceptionally well even in the most challenging of environments.
Ongoing development and increasing crossover
We know from experience that actuator manufacturers are constantly seeking to improve their products; as today - even our most standard actuator provides an exceptional level of specification. Technology has also developed enormously and now, through the use of smart controls, it is possible to monitor and diagnose issues with both electric and pneumatic actuators so that maintenance can be streamlined and downtime reduced.
Although, there is no doubt that there will always be a fundamental need for fluid power actuators, electric actuators are without doubt starting to encroach on some of the more traditional domains for fluid-powered - particularly where there are weight or space restrictions.
At ASL we offer a wide range of both electric and pneumatic products and have been serving the water and oil & gas industries amongst others - all of which require very different actuation solutions - for over 15 years. And, in conjunction with our manufacturing and distribution partners, we look forward to meeting the needs of our customers over the next 15 years, whatever they may be…
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