At this Spring’s Fluid Power Technology Conference in Milwaukee, three panelists from major OEMs discussed the future of mobile hydraulics, and what changes designers can expect to see in the coming years. Sitting on the panel were Gary Dostal, Manager – Mechanical Engineering, Komatsu Mining Corp.; Greg Downs, Senior Principal Engineer, Zoomlion Heavy Industry NA Inc.; and Gary Kassen, Engineering Director for Hydraulics and Pneumatics, CNH Industrial.
One of the issues that has come up with mobile hydraulic for decades is whether electric actuation technology is a threat sitting somewhere out on the horizon. But Downs said that there’s still a ton of hydraulics on these large off-highway machines, and engineers should instead focus on electrical integration with hydraulics, which is actually a good thing.
“There’s a lot of electronic controls on these machines,” he said. “I’ve been pushing to use more of the electric joysticks so that we can program and eventually get to where we can automate certain functions — for example, have automatic brake control for our excavators. There are different ways of doing that. You can assist for the operator and even have automated preprogram functions — and that’s the kind of direction I want to go. Eventually, you’ll be able to take a 3D model of what you want your landscape to look like, your grade or ditch or whatever, and program that in. And the excavator would automatically dig that profile.”
Kassen explained that he doesn’t see any near-term threat from electrics.
“It’s going to be very hard in the next 10 years to displace hydraulics completely,” he said. “I do think there’s opportunity for electrification and I think it adds value to the hydraulics. If you can decouple the hydraulics from the engine, there’s a big opportunity for efficiency improvement and electric motors can provide that decouple coupling. You can also distribute your hydraulics. So, you’re not using a single pump to run all your functions. You can have multiple functions, multiple pumps around those questions.”
The IoT and mobile hydraulics
According to Downs, a lot of diagnostics are moving to the cloud. He is seeing a lot of interest from rental fleets, where people want to know where their equipment is, and even be able to turn machine on remotely.
“The biggest problem is, is keeping it secure so they can’t be hacked,” Downs said. “I can envision a machine center where they are not only working with single pieces of equipment, but equipment is working in concert with one another, maybe an excavator and a dozer are working together. We’re not quite there yet.”
“I would say the big opportunity is improving reliability,” Kassen added. “The last thing our customers want is not to be able to get their work done. If we can, as an industry, tell them when their pump is going to fail or a hose is going to fail, that they can do preemptive maintenance so they’re not going to have downtime when they need the machine. I think that’s a big opportunity for our industry.
Dostal agreed that reliability is a key gain to be had from the integration of the IoT and hydraulics.
“The preemptive or predictive maintenance is pretty important. In the mining industry, especially when you’re working with some of the surface equipment, they try to schedule downtime,” he said.
Dostal said that if a mine wants to do repair on a shovel, for instance, it’s better to know when a component such as a pump needs attention, so as to maximize downtime of the machine.
Too complicated to repair?
There have been stories in the press lately about farmers complaining that machinery is getting so complicated that they’re unable to troubleshoot themselves in the field. With some OEMs, only authorized repair people are allowed to work on the machine, otherwise voiding the warranty. And it is sometimes half a day or more before a technician might make it out to the field — an eternity when a farmer is trying to harvest in between periods of bad weather.
Downs noted that when he was growing up, he used to work on cars a lot.
“We’d build an engine and we didn’t have to have a PhD to do it — but you can’t do that anymore. The reason is because they have cars that are more reliable and a better quality. You give up simplicity for the complexity, because they are better performing, more efficient,” he said.
“Several years ago, I was talking to a farmer about his combine harvester,” Downs said. “He explained how he could work on it during his harvest, when the machines had a lot of belts and chains and mechanical drives. But I told him that he’d been asking for much higher productivity, more speed, bigger grain tanks, longer seasons. All of these things mean more efficiency. So, you give up some of that ease of maintenance for systems that are much more complex but also simplified in that your software diagnoses issues. In order to get the higher production, the higher efficiencies, that’s what you give up. The days of being a shadetree mechanic, going out and changing out things, is becoming less and less.”
Kassen agreed that the machines are getting a lot more complicated, but he thinks that’s also an opportunity to use the intelligence on the vehicles to self-diagnose what the problem is.
“Instead of a see-a-leak or hear-a-noise problem, with electronics, you can’t see what the problem is. So, we have to have the intelligence built into the vehicle so they can self-diagnose what’s wrong. We can also get insights into what areas of reliability might be more important to focus on, such as contamination, control, leakage, or fatigue,” he said.
Downs thinks predictability is the next big thing on the horizon.
“We’re already fighting to achieve it,” he said. “About 80% or failures are caused by contamination, but there’s really no reason that should be a problem today, with the filtration systems that we have and the standards we have.”
Downs said that with more and more sensors, he sees a day soon where so much data is gathered and analyzed that machines will get to the point where the software can start predicting failures — and even schedule planned maintenance using that data.