The hydraulics industry is moving to smarter machines. Conventional hydraulic systems can become 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 seeking better machine performance, looking to take advantage of the unmatched power density hydraulics provide, without the downsides.
There are many facets to this smart machine movement–intelligent components, better communication between operator and machine, automated machine decisions, and more. But, in our world of ever-changing and scalable options, what truly 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 simple or complex sets 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–as 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 original equipment manufacturer (OEM). Components equipped with a CAN bus 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 several 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.
As the level of computational power has increased, companies have been able to increase the level of sophistication to allow for better smart control. As little as eight years ago, component developers were writing code using only integer math, trying to execute programs quickly enough to improve controls. As technology has improved, companies like Eaton have been able to do much more with onboard controllers at lower costs.
Integration has also changed significantly. Where a smart machine may once have only incorporated one or two intelligent components, the capabilities of electrohydraulics today have allowed controllers and components to work together to optimize machines like never before. Electrohydraulics are not new, embedding electronic controls into hydraulic components has been around for a number of years, but optimizing systems at the machine level, rather than the component level, has come a long way in the past five years.
Telematics, or the technology focused on communicating data over wireless networks, is making it possible for companies to use the data being gathered by their smart equipment. Terabytes and even exabytes of data are available, and the ability to easily gather and store that data makes it easier for fleets to optimize day-to-day operations.
Another major change over the years has been the increasing permeation of smart electronics in everyday life. As people have grown accustomed to accepting smartphones, smart TVs, smart cars and more, they have become more accepting of the technology in machines as well.
The discomfort of switching from all hydraulics, which has historically been viewed as reliable and robust, to a world where electronics are integrated into systems, has been a challenge. Many in the industry thought the equipment would not be as reliable and did not want to face the potential of needing to debug and diagnose electrical problems. Over time, however, additional intelligence has been developed to make machines capable of self-diagnosis, eliminating the need for an end user to figure out what is wrong. Additionally, as time passes and companies begin utilizing smart machines, their electrical components are being proven in use–de-risking a machine by demonstrating it in action.
As Eaton engineers work to develop and integrate new smart components, they are looking to help solve old problems in new ways. By reframing the conversation around the capabilities of smart components, new possibilities are opening up to make machines safer, more efficient and more productive.
Taking stock of the intelligent products that exist now, and the capabilities of today's smart machines, developers look to apply these technologies to other products. Reviewing machines from the system level allows engineers to take note of products not yet integrated into the overall intelligent system and see where additional intelligence would be beneficial; and if they can be retrofitted into an existing system.
Looking ahead, the changes over the past several years are important. The ability to adjust components in real time is key to the adaptability and overall intelligence of the equipment. Engineers and component designers are investigating new ways to ease customer concerns and increase comfort.
Two potential ways to help increase customer comfort are auto-commissioning, in which components are automatically set up by algorithms, and adaptive controls, where settings can be automatically adjusted based on what the machine is doing. If a machine can suffer a component failure, and then automatically adjust its settings so that it can still provide the necessary performance, customer concerns about the robustness of electronics will decrease significantly.
Over the years, "smart machines" have gone from smart components to smart subsystems to fully integrated smart systems. As the industry continues to innovate, the next step may be communication between machines. For example, coordinating between a smart wheel loader and a smart dump truck so that a new dump truck is always ready would optimize a work site process–no more waiting for a dump truck or having too many lined up doing nothing.
The future of smart machines is not certain. Ten years ago, we could not have imagined all of the smart technology at our fingertips today. Predicting what will happen ten years from now is nearly impossible, but certain trends–integration, adaptability and communication–will almost certainly carry on, constantly redefining what it means for a machine to be smart.