The hydraulics industry has entered the smarter machine movement. The industrial equipment market is seeking reduced energy consumption, improved control and automation, allowing the many micro-decisions in a work circuit to be programmed in advance so when an operator pushes a button or pulls a lever, the machine adapts and responds smoothly and efficiently.
Smart machines mean different things to different people; there is a long, varied list of what makes an industrial machine smart, and none of it is truly right or truly wrong. However, there are key features that machine owners and operators agree make a machine smart.
"Smart" can mean different things for different machines. A machine as simple as an iron might be considered smart because it includes an automatic shut-off feature. As machines gain complexity, though, their intelligence must also grow. A computer or a car with just one smart feature may meet the basic definition of smart, but it would almost universally be considered dumb. What makes a machine smart, therefore, is relative; is it smarter than other equipment in its class?
The first building block for any smart machine is something in that machine that can be programmed, such as a control circuit, microprocessor, PLC or PC. Anything that will work as a brain, be it a simple control circuit for an iron or a multi-functional PLC or PC program for industrial machinery, qualifies.
Once a brain is established, an interface and method of communication with the outside world is important. A machine that can communicate with the world around it, whether displaying or reading information, and then processing it in some way, would certainly be considered smart. Frequently, smart machines include prognostic and/or diagnostic capabilities, where a machine's programming interfaces with sensors and can display messages, providing guidance to operators as to the state of the machine and what preventative maintenance or repair measures are needed. Taking communications even further, intelligent machinery may be able to make inferences and adapt to its surroundings, sensing a change in the environment and then making a decision to do something different because of that information.
These smarts can be embedded in components or played out as capabilities. But in general, to be considered smart, machines must include real-time controls and data monitoring for more efficient, controllable equipment.
If a time traveler from 1970 or 1980 arrived at a manufacturing plant in 2000, they would almost certainly say the equipment in the facility was smart. Machines have continuously changed over time, making more decisions, adding new ways to communicate, accessing more information and finding new and different ways to adapt to their environments. As the years have passed, machines have grown increasingly flexible.
Expectations of equipment have had a big impact on the changing nature of machine intelligence. Hybrid technology, for example, saw some earlier smarts. When mixing hydraulic, electronic and mechanical power in new ways, there are multiple actuators in play, and these actuators must learn to work together. Hybrid equipment would not be possible without smart technology, as these machines need to make split-second decisions to work properly—decisions no operator could hope to make quickly enough.
At Eaton, we have been working with customers for years to build smarter machines. Components serve as the building blocks to create systems that have more intelligent features, thus developing smarter machines.
The trend of the ever-changing intelligent machine will only continue. It is unlikely that a machine will reach a point where it is smart enough. Engineers, machine designers and programmers will keep pushing to create the next feature, the next smartest technology. As customers seek better controls, longer lasting components, easier and reduced maintenance and improved efficiency, machines will push ahead into new forms of intelligence.
Efficiency has been a particular challenge for the hydraulics industry. While the products are robust and reliable with high power density, efficiency improvements have not come as easily when compared to alternative power sources. Smarter components and system configurations have made strides in this area, and as new features are created and new integration possible, the conversation may change around the efficiency of hydraulics. So far, the industry is watching this play out in variable frequency drive technology, where a variable speed electric motor, rather than a fixed motor, drives hydraulic pumps to increase industrial equipment efficiency.
Prognostic and diagnostic capabilities will advance as well, though it is difficult to see where they will go and how far. Engineers will look to determine what tools end users need and what guidance is missing from today's machines as they work on improved human machine interfaces, sensors and programs. Communicating this information is key as well, and wireless communication will take on a larger role. The industry is moving towards this technology now, and the trend will grow. With the capability to wirelessly share information from an industrial machine, the right people can be alerted immediately to an issue, rather than needing to go through the protocols of the hard-wired systems.
Finally, customers will become better at utilizing the immense amounts of data provided by smart machines. Instead of overwhelming owners and operators with data points, machines will get better at reading data, flagging important information and making recommendations on what to do. The industry is in the early stages with this, and as we gain knowledge about what is normal in smart machinery, predicting and suggesting maintenance requirements will become more sophisticated.
Today's smart machines may be considered dumb in ten years. Tomorrow's machines will be able to make more decisions, handle and process more information, and communicate in more and better ways. The IQ of equipment will always be increasing and the definition of a smart machine will change again and again.