The UK pneumatics automation market: tolerable for now, but is there trouble ahead?

Assembly Automation

ISSN: 0144-5154

Article publication date: 1 June 2005




(2005), "The UK pneumatics automation market: tolerable for now, but is there trouble ahead?", Assembly Automation, Vol. 25 No. 2.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2005, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The UK pneumatics automation market: tolerable for now, but is there trouble ahead?

The UK pneumatics automation market: tolerable for now, but is there trouble ahead?

Keywords: Pneumatic equipment, United Kingdom

The UK pneumatics market grew by over 4 per cent in 2004 following 3 years of substantial decline, but is expected to falter again in 2005, notes Festo in a review of pneumatic automation trends. The leading vendor also strikes a warning note for UK machine builders that despite the current small-scale growth, their international competitive advantage is being eroded by the relative failure to adopt industrial networking (Table I).

Compared with counterparts in the much stronger machine building sector in Germany, UK companies are lagging over by 3 years in the adoption of fieldbuses – a vital technology for the advancement of machine design. And with Ethernet technology now starting to penetrate to the lower automation layers – providing factories with top-to- bottom integration – further indecision could prove fatal.

“Network connectivity is an element of almost all major underlying trends in machine design”, notes Jacqui Reid, Networks and Control Product Manager at Festo.“ Easier reconfiguration, faster commissioning, improved diagnostics and better human-machine interfaces are all benefits that are aided by good use of networks. The current evolution of network connectivity from lower-level fleldbuses to Ethernet could pose a real danger to OEMs that remain aloof, but this technology shift can also be viewed as an opportunity to take a giant leap forward”.

Table I Pneumatic equipment sales in the UK

2001 2002 2003 2004 (estimate) 2005 (forecast)
£236.4m (28 per cent)      £222m (26.1 per cent)      £221.4m (20.3 per cent)      £230.9m (£4.3 per cent)      £235.5m (£2 per cent)     

Source: Festo. Approximately 75 per cent of these figures relate to pneumatic automation equipment, with air power tools and airline equipment making up the remainder

Jacqui Reid also points to the exacerbating effect on uncompetitiveness posed by the relative lack of maturity of fieldbus use in the UK. In UK pneumatic applications, there are still four significant technology contenders compared with just one in Germany (Profibus, which has around 80 per cent market share) a situation that typically results in additional machine building and service costs (Tables II and III).

Table II Ratio of pneumatic valve terminals sold with field bus connectivity

UK 35 per cent
Germany            >60 per cent

Source: Festo

Most UK machinery sectors have grown over the last year, but Festo has seen most change in the electronics industry – largely as a result of the recent boom in semiconductor fabrication equipment (which itself is now starting to falter) – followed by growth in biomedical equipment and in food processing and packaging. The latter is generally the largest single market sector in the UK for pneumatic automation, driven by the seemingly unstoppable trend towards more highly processed and packaged foods, and is set to assume even more significance as the UK industrial manufacturing base in almost every other sector is eroded by the threats of Asia-Pacific competition, a shift to overseas manufacturing, and the high Sterling exchange rate.

Table III Current fieldbus technology used on pneumatic value terminals

2004 UK fieldbusshipments(per cent)
Profibus 50
DeviceNet 20
ASi 10
Interbus-S 10
Others including CANopen, CCLink       10

Source: Festo

“The current manufacturing recovery is faltering at best”, notes Gary Wyles, Managing Director of Festo GB. “For long term survival, British companies must develop unique competitive advantages. Good use of automation, access to specialist knowledge, and continuous development of skills have a critical role to play in delivering the lean and flexible processes that will drive businesses forward”.

“ Investments in automated lines are often critical to manufacturers' business development or survival, and forward thinking organisations are starting to involve pneumatic vendors in `Early Equipment Management' projects to reduce suppliers, rationalise stock inventory, and concentrate their spend to drive down total cost of ownership”, says Festo food and packaging specialist, Steve Land.

Pneumatic technology trends

In terms of technology, Festo notes the overriding design trend for virtually all pneumatic components to offer increased features/functionality combined with cost reduction.

In pneumatic cylinders or actuators, costs have been steadily reduced by improvements in materials – such as a shift from steel barrels and die-cast end caps to extruded aluminium – and the introduction of advanced moulded polymer materials for the internal piston and bearings. The next steps for these components will be continued integration of electronic sensors for improved diagnostics, and/or faster cycle times – possibly using low cost sensor arrays or more exotic laser or ultrasonic sensors.

In the other major pneumatic component category of valves, solenoid valves represent the 3/4 majority of the market and the last big advance was the introduction of valve terminals a decade ago. We are now seeing generations two and three on the market, with the latest versions offering features such as improved modularity and better connectivity – including of course fieldbus communications. A major technological drive in this area has been to decrease the overall size of the valve modules to reduce machine/ automation footprints, and modular valve widths of around 10 mm are now commonplace.

Today, traditional direct-acting solenoid coils are approaching their miniaturisation limit. The likely evolution is towards piezo or other solid-state actuation devices, which will support the introduction of valve modules as narrow as, say, 6 mm. Although piezo-actuated valves have been available for some time now, as yet they have not been seen as a mass commercial solution and some optimisation for reliable volume manufacturing remains to be done. These next generation valve pilot actuators will expand out from their specialist niches in sectors such as medical devices in the next year or two.

Underpinning all these trends is the general move by pneumatic manufacturers to design products for low cost, small batch production – to keep up with the continual pressure for lower costs (many component prices have remained virtually static for several years). It is now typical that component families are made from a modular kit of parts, with as much commonality as possible. This not only reduces costs but also helps the manufacturing lines to be automated in such a way so as to support very small batch production sizes.

Festo also notes a growing convergence between conventional pneumatic automation and other movement control technologies such as servo pneumatics and closed-loop servo electric motor systems. The boundary between pneumatic and electric technologies is becoming blurred with common controllers and mechanical interfaces opening the way to hybrid systems utilising “the best of both worlds”.

Supply chain trends

In the general pneumatic business arena, a key advance of recent years is the integration of sophisticated computer-aided engineering (CAE) software selection and configuration programs to allow automation systems to be designed quickly, and right-first- time.

This helps to reduce the component and operating costs by simplifying the selection of optimally sized parts. But it is also part of a bigger shift in the market: to meet the rising demand from OEMs and users for not just components, but guaranteed- performance sub-system solutions from their automation suppliers – thus reducing demands on their in-house engineering resources. For example, Festo GB commonly provides kits of parts, assembled panels, or complete electro-pneumatic-mechanical handling and positioning subsystems to OEM customers. This tranche of its business has doubled in the last 5 years, and continues to grow year on year.

Perhaps the most significant impact of the CAE packages though, is the way they integrate with automation suppliers' manufacturing systems. For example, Festo has invested in a SAP- based global IT system to the extent that, internationally, the output from online CAE tools and purchasing systems can feed directly into the manufacturing process. This reduces costs and improves efficiency, but also makes it possible to put the automated flexibility of the manufacturing lines to the service of individual customers.

It is a commonplace today for users to specify exactly the component they want, including aspects such as application-specific cylinder lengths, piston rod changes, guidance options and sub-assembly requirements, and have it made as part of the standard production process. In combination with services that then allow such components to be assembled into modules or complete systems to a user's specification, and called off using a single part number, this new wave of supply optimisation is a key differentiator in the pneumatics marketplace.

The scale of progress in this sector can be illustrated by a simple example: request a non-standard component such as a custom-length cylinder, piston rod and thread on day 1, and it can be made and delivered anywhere in the UK by day 2; it is this level of automated control of the manufacturing and supply chain that creates a real commercial advantage for the machine builder or user.

“Pneumatic automation vendors are evolving in two major areas: on one hand there is a stream of new products with more features at lower prices. On the other is a trend to create design, engineering, supply chain and operation services that allow these products to be configured, delivered and operated precisely how clients require them”, adds Eliza Rawlings.

For further information, please contact: Nicola Meadway, Festo Ltd, Technology House, 1 Fleetwood Park, Barley Way, Fleet, Hampshire GU51 2QX. Tel: 01252 775000; Fax: 01252 775001; E-mail:; Web site:

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