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Pneumatics: a future in food?

12 March 2017

Andrew MacPherson, industry sector manager, Food & Beverage at Festo, talked to Food Processing about pneumatic technology trends in the food sector. 

Is the use of pneumatics in the food industry growing or shrinking – and to what do you attribute this?
I think the use of pneumatics in the food industry has reduced slightly in recent years, but is now fairly stable. With the increase in demand for more flexible machinery and higher production rates, electric drives have replaced pneumatics in non-food zones of the manufacturing process, for example packaging lines after a product has been packed in its primary packaging. However, pneumatics still offers a good lower cost option when it comes to food zones and wash down areas. In addition, many of the required operations are basic open-close or push and pull, for which pneumatics are still a good cost effective solution. 

What are the main benefits and barriers to the use of pneumatics in the food industry?
The main benefits of pneumatics are their ability to be used in wash down areas – providing the correct products are selected – and their power-to-cost ratio, compared to electric drives. But a growing concern for end users is the associated energy costs – with compressed air being a very costly resource. As a result, many food manufacturers might prefer all electric machines, with no compressed air functionality – but the current cost of electric drive technology still make pneumatics a viable technology option. 

Are there any particular applications in food production where pneumatics technology excels?
Reject stations for end-of-line inspection is still an area where pneumatics wins over electric drives. You cannot yet achieve the same load and speed characteristics with electric drives at the same price point. When you need a blast of air to reject a lightweight product, or a cylinder to reject a larger box, pneumatics is still currently the best option. 

Can you comment on the importance of ensuring safety when employing pneumatic systems, and how can this be achieved?
There are two main areas that must be considered when using pneumatics. The first is: can you safely isolate the air supply when you need to? For example, when you need to replace a filter element, a gauge or a pneumatic cylinder, you must ensure that it’s safe to do so by switching off the compressed air supply and venting the system, so it is not pressurised. The second area is when considering an emergency stop situation: a risk assessment must be carried out and the correct level of safety dump valve must be used, in line with the latest machinery directives.

Is it possible for pneumatic systems to have the same ‘smart’ connectivity/communication capabilities seen on many electro/mechanical solutions? How can end users ensure that their pneumatic systems are able to become part of the move towards Industry 4.0 and connected enterprises?
It is certainly now possible to utilise some of the same ‘smart’ connectivity when using pneumatic systems. By using pressure switches, you can gain access to force information. With the use of flow meters, you can detect when you have leakage in the system, potentially identifying a failing component. By using reed switches, you can detect movement which can be fed back to a controller to give cycle times, life cycle and potentially highlight any problem areas with the process. Servo pneumatics can also be used to optimise your machine’s process and provide feedback and levels of control in line with Industry 4.0.

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