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An exciting future for the hydraulics industry

By Joff Collins, Managing Director, Armada Engineering

Many people have a tendency to view hydraulic systems as ‘old technology.’ This is not surprising when you consider their history. The Ancient Greeks were skilled at hydraulics and constructed water-powered wheels, simple hydraulic pumps and sophisticated irrigation systems as long ago as 300 years BC.

However, one of the striking things about the hydraulics industry is that it keeps finding exciting new applications for this technology. Wind Turbines are a relatively new technology, but hydraulic systems play a vital role in their construction and operation. Despite the high-tech nature of many modern oil and gas installations, hydraulic systems still form the backbone of many of these facilities. Some of the latest and most sophisticated solar farms require the use of hydraulics to rotate the solar panels so that they track the movement of the sun. And of course, the marine application of hydraulic systems is becoming ever more complex, from superyachts and commercial ships to advanced military vessels.

One of the key strengths of hydraulic systems is their ability to generate a high level of power density. That is one of the main reasons why hydraulic systems haven’t been supplanted by electrical drive systems, apart from in certain specialised applications. And industrial clients continue to demand more and more power density. Added to this, modern hydraulic systems can be built to be very reliable and robust.

Hydraulic technology has not stood still. There have been a number of important improvements over recent years, including more advanced and ‘smarter’ pumps, valves and actuators. One example of this has been the much wider use of variable displacement pumps, which help to deliver greater energy efficiency.

The industry continues to innovate, and I think we can expect the following changes over the next ten years:

Smarter hydraulic systems. There will be a continued evolution of sophisticated electronic control systems, allowing for better, more precise operation.

User-friendly operation. There will be more focus on systems that require less specialist training in order to be operated. Making systems more user-friendly in this way will increase their value and usefulness for the owner, while also helping to reduce the risk of damage through operator error.

More advanced components. We can expect to see significant improvements in quality and performance for many different components, including control valves, hoses and hydraulic fluids.

Reduced environmental impact. Operators will become more demanding in wanting lower emissions, reduced carbon footprints and systems which protect more effectively against leaks and environmental contamination.

Increased energy efficiency. This will be needed in order to improve the commercial payback from hydraulic systems and cut down on any unnecessary waste of energy. At the same time, operators will be looking for systems that have reduced noise and vibration, while also delivering improvements in reliability.

Intelligent maintenance. The use of high performance sensors will allow big leaps forward in pro-active maintenance. Systems will be continuously monitored so that maintenance can be performed on the run, rather than waiting for scheduled downtime. This will extend the overall life of equipment and reduce the cost impact of unexpected repairs.

You can see from all the above trends that the hydraulics industry continues to change and adapt in order to deal with new technical challenges. Far from declining in importance, hydraulics continues to find diverse and specialised applications across a range of industries. In fact, the next decade could be one of the most exciting and important periods of growth and development for the hydraulics industry.

Not bad for a technology whose roots can be traced back more than 2,000 years.