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Making electric actuators smarter

Hidden in the recesses of many pieces of plant and machinery is the humble actuator – that small device that helps drive equipment and plant around a factory floor. There are many types of actuators – pneumatic, electric, mechanical, magnetic, TCP and hydraulic – and without them some manufacturing plants would come to a standstill.

LINAK has been in the actuator business for the past 34 years. Founded by Bent Jensen in 1984 in the southern Danish town of Nordborg, LINAK has come a long way since Jensen first adjusted a friend’s wheelchair that lead to the first electric actuator being produced by the company.

Now in its fourth decade, LINAK prides itself in the “smarts” it puts into its actuators. Australian sales manager, Lee Aris, believes that the smarts in its actuators are what make them stand out from similar devices.

“We like to call it futureproofing our products,” said Aris. “This ensures that our actuators will communicate with the latest devices, PLCs and SCADA equipment using protocols such as CAN-bus or Modbus.”

Aris said that the more components built into the actuator means less components outside the actuator. In the past, a user would need a control box between the control side and the actuator to reverse the polarity, which would tell the actuator to drive in and out and to read the signals that came back from the actuator.

“However, now the smarts are built into the actuator. This means less installation time, components and costs overall for the procurement manager,” said Aris. “But it also ensures that it is compatible with any new technology that comes along.”

And what are some of the features where Aris thinks electric actuators have it over other, similar devices?

“Parallel drive is a big one for electric actuators when we talk about competition,” he said. “We compete with pneumatics and hydraulics and one of the biggest advantages for us is a parallel drive. It is difficult to get a true parallel with hydraulics or pneumatics, or even electric actuators. We have a hands-on system where we can offer a communication line by connecting two cables. The system is then aware that it needs to draw true parallel function, even if a large weight comes off one actuator and hardly any weight off another. It ensures that the actuator is driving together in a parallel system.”

A couple of buzz words that have been on the horizon of process engineering is big data. And when it comes to actuators, Aris said that data has a role to play in providing information that helps with preventative maintenance and a raft of other issues. This is high on the agenda within LINAK and the company is developing products that will cover these aspects, Aris said.

“Big data is a driver with our actuators,” said Aris. “If you can imagine a machine such as a combine harvester, or any application where an actuator is driving a gate, or a hatch, or a boom, information is being gathered. For example, it might state that when doing a particular operation, it has a certain temperature, or it takes “X” amount of amps to make it move. If all of a sudden the temperature is high because it is taking a lot more power to do the same movement, or the amperage draw is now six amps instead of five amps in order to complete this application, then that is valuable information. It lets a user know that something is not right compared to the normal operating environment.”

This will help with maintenance because service engineers will be able to take that information and decide why the actuator is over or under performing and how to make it work to its optimum.

“Using data to predict a failure before occurrence will be invaluable to machine manufacturers,” said Aris. “We can determine beforehand because of the status of the actuator. While this is a technology that is being developed, we are hoping to offer it in the future – this is what we mean by futureproofing. It’s ensuring that you will get the latest technology built into actuators and therefore help industry run more efficiently.”

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