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The future belongs to electric actuation

The future belongs to electric actuation Despite some obvious advantages, electric actuators have a smaller share of the market than you might have thought. Mark Simms finds out why, and how impetus is building for change.

The supposed death knell for hydraulic and pneumatic actuation has been ringing for decades, with viable alternatives in belt and screw actuators having been with us for just as long. So does it comes as a surprise to learn that electric actuators only account for around 10% of the UK market, with hydraulics accounting for around 60% and pneumatics around 25%?

Not according to Piers Olsen, director at Olsen Actuation, who argues that cost and environmental factors are only now beginning to drive a shift away from the traditional technologies. With the energy argument very much in favour of electric actuation, with simpler installation requirements, and with the potential for leakages in fluid power systems being increasingly seen as problematic, Olsen believes electric actuation could easily triple its market share in five years, taking 10% share from both hydraulics and pneumatics.

"There are many good reasons to go all electric," he explains. "When compared to hydraulics, electric actuators reduce installation costs by eliminating the need for complex hydraulic controls, and they have significantly reduced costs of use over the life of the system. At the same time, electric actuators offer simpler logistical setup and maintenance: there is no need for a hydraulic power supply and distribution system, and you eliminate the maintenance associated with hydraulic fluids, contaminated oil supplies, fluid leaks and fire. In military and defence applications in particular, electric actuators have reduced combat susceptibility, eliminating vulnerable hydraulic lines and reducing fire risk."

With increasing emphasis on reduced weight, electric actuators again offer advantages, with integrated designs that provide maximum force density while eliminating the need for fluid power subsystems. They also offer increased efficiency while using existing energy systems and so eliminating the need for additional fluid power supplies of associated systems. Finally, with no fluid leaks, electric actuators represent a fundamentally environmentally friendly option.

Electric actuators are creeping into a number of markets where traditionally hydraulics or pneumatics have ruled the roost. In the energy and process control sectors, electric actuators are now bringing benefits to areas such as modulating valve control, damper control, turbine control, wind turbine blade pitch control, production of metals, production of chemicals, formulation, pipeline controls and power generation.

In defence applications, electric actuators are the technology of choice for munitions handling, weapons positioning, magazine control, valve control, hatch opening and closing, gun and camera mounts, and turret control. In food processing and packaging, electric actuators are increasingly found in volumetric filling, dispensing, packaging, processing, injection, butchering, forming, pizza assembly and slicing. There are numerous applications, too, within automotive manufacturing, industrial automation, health sciences (patient positioning, dispensing, rehabilitation, sport medicine, robotic surgery, assists and lifts, mobility) and more. Olsen Actuation is active in all of these application areas, and can point to numerous case studies working with some of the biggest household name brands. All in all it paints a picture of rapidly increasing adoption and use of electric actuators of all forms.

Indeed, a report from the Office of Naval Research said that "the move to integrated all-electric designs will significantly improve efficiency, effectiveness and survivability, while simultaneously increasing the design flexibility, reducing costs and enhancing quality of service." Looking at the aerospace industry, meanwhile, the IEEE identified that "there is a general move to increase the amount of electrically powered equipment on future aircraft; high power electric actuation systems are being proposed on many new aircraft.

Operating in the UK and across Eastern Europe, Olsen Actuation provides a complete engineering solution built around linear actuators from Exlar, which has just been acquired by Curtiss Wright. Exlar electric cylinders offer a hybrid of electromechanical technology in a single package, providing faster and more precise control when compared with hydraulic, pneumatic or ball screw cylinders. The unique inverted roller screw design with embedded servo motor means the actuators are physically compact per given force, and offer significantly improved travel life when compared to ball screws. And since the actuators only use energy when they are running, there are significant energy savings over hydraulic and pneumatic systems. The design also makes the Exlar actuators extremely quiet, which again is becoming more and more important in the industrial environment.

The Exlar actuators are typified by the Tritex range of integrated actuators. "The concept of the Tritex range is to eliminate the need for separate drives, cables, couplings, etc, and of the need to size the products correctly to make the system work," says Olsen. "Tritex integrates all of that into a single product." The latest innovations include a hexapod design, a high power actuator that will provide 43 tonnes of force, and a new ATEX product range.
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