Automation Brains & Brawn

  • June 13, 2014
  • Feature

By Bill Lydon, Editor

Industrial control systems are the “brains” of any automated manufacturing system. Many of these systems require motion systems - “brawn” - to accomplish the physical aspects of automation. The ability to increase manufacturing efficiency and quality is accelerating with more sophisticated automation, motion devices, and drive systems. To achieve high-speed manufacturing, more precise, high speed electrical, hydraulics, pneumatics and mechanical power transmission devices are required. Industrial automation technologies have advanced at a rapid rate. Motion hardware has also advanced to keep up with the new speed and precision demands of flexible, make-to-order manufacturing. The brains of a sophisticated industrial automation system command the brawny motion subsystems to deliver efficient and productive manufacturing results.

Flexible Manufacturing

The growing need for flexible manufacturing means production lines need to be physically adaptive in real-time. This requires fast, precise motion and drive devices that automatically reconfigure production lines. These real-time adaptations allow manufacturers to fulfill customer orders on demand and achieve flexible manufacturing objectives.

An increasing range of motion and drive technologies (electric, fluid power and hydraulic) are available for engineers to build mechatronic systems. The good news is all these technologies have improved and are refined to meet the new manufacturing requirements.

Fluid Power

Automation engineers who are not familiar with fluid power can benefit from learning about its unique capabilities. Fluid power can be used to exert tremendous force in a small footprint. Fluid power is a term used to describe hydraulic and pneumatic technologies that use a fluid (liquid or gas) to create motion or apply force.

With hydraulics, the fluid is a liquid (usually oil), whereas pneumatics uses a gas (usually compressed air). Fluid power systems easily produce linear motion using hydraulic or pneumatic cylinders, whereas electrical and mechanical methods usually must use a mechanical device to convert rotational motion to linear.

Fluid power systems generally can transmit equivalent power within a much smaller space than mechanical or electrical drives, especially when extremely high force or torque is required. Fluid power systems coupled with automation also offer simple and effective control of direction, speed, force, and torque using simple control valves. Fluid power systems often do not require electrical power, which eliminates the risk of electrical shock, sparks, fire, and explosions.

Hydraulic systems are extremely powerful. For example, a system with 2,000 psi can exert 10,000 lbs. of force from a cylinder about the size of a soda pop can. In contrast, pneumatic systems operate at lower pressures. A cylinder with a 2 in. diameter piston (3.14 sq. in. area) and fluid pressure of 1,000 psi can exert 3140 lbs. of force.

Pneumatic systems usually operate at much lower pressures than hydraulic systems, and allow components to be made of thinner and lighter weight materials, such as aluminum and engineered plastics. Pneumatic systems are generally simpler because air can be exhausted to the atmosphere.  With hydraulic systems, fluid is usually routed back to a fluid reservoir.

Heat generation is usually not a concern with pneumatic technology since the stream of compressed air running through them carries away heat. Since pneumatic components require no electricity, heavy and expensive explosion-proof enclosures are not required.

Technology Integration

Today, motion devices are embedded with technology that simplifies engineering, installation, programming and maintenance. Motion devices with embedded communications (CAN, Modbus, DeviceNet, Profibus, EtherCAT, Ethernet, etc.) are simply connected to industrial automation networks. More integrated motion devices have a complete embedded controller, usually programmed with industry standard IEC 61131-3 software.


All of the above motion devices become the building blocks that engineers use to create mechatronic systems. Mechatronics unites the principles of mechanics, electronics, and computing to generate a simpler, more economical and reliable system.

Learn More

For manufacturing companies to stay competitive, engineers must keep up to date on the range of new technologies.  These technologies include drives, gears, motors, mechanical transmission systems, linear motion systems, condition monitoring, vibration reduction, industrial networks, and software. Success comes from engineers that know how to combine automation and motion technologies to create hybrid systems that meet the goals of flexible and agile manufacturing.

The 2014 Industrial Automation North America, collocated with the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS),includes the inaugural 2014 Motion Drives and Automation (MDA) North America exposition. MDA North America provides the opportunity for engineers to sharpen motion knowledge and learn from industry experts first hand.

MDA North America includes the IFPE Fluid Power Zone which is focused on the integration of fluid power with other technologies for power transmission and motion control applications. The Fluid Power Zone is a dedicated display area showcasing the latest hydraulics and pneumatics products, technology, and services hosted by the National Fluid Power Association (NFPA). The NFPA is an industry association that works to advance hydraulic and pneumatic technology through the association’s many programs and initiatives. MDA North America also offers a variety of conferences, workshops and training sessions that address the most pressing issues and newest trends in the industry. Participants will network with key industry players and learn from industry experts. The MDA North America is managed by Hannover Fairs USA, the U.S. subsidiary of Deutsche Messe, based in Hannover Germany. Deutsche Messe, based in Hannover, Germany, develops and manages events in Germany and the United States, as well as other key emerging markets of China, India and Turkey.

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