System Comparison, A pneumatic system

Figure 1.3 shows the components of a pneumatic system. The basic actuator is again a cylinder, with maximum force on the shaft being determined by air pressure and piston cross sectional area. Operating pressures in pneumatic systems are generally much lower than those in a hydraulic systems; 10 bar being typical which will lift 10 kg cm -2 of piston area, so a 16 cm diameter piston is required to lift the 2000 kg load specified in the previous section. Pneumatic systems therefore require larger actuators than hydraulic systems for the same load.

The valve delivering air to the cylinder operates in a similar way to its hydraulic equivalent. One notable difference arises out of the simple fact that air is free; return air is simply vented to atmosphere.

Air is drawn from the atmosphere via an air filter and raised to required pressure by an air compressor (usually driven by an AC motor). The air temperature is raised considerably by this compressor. Air also contains a significant amount of water vapour. Before the air can be used it must be cooled, and this results in the formation of condensation So, the air compressor must be followed by a cooler and air treatment unit.

Compressibility of a gas makes it necessary to store a volume of pressurised gas in a reservoir, to be drawn on by the load. Without this reservoir, a slow exponential rise of pressure results in a similar slow cylinder movement when the valve is first opened. The air treatment unit is thus followed by an air reservoir.


Hydraulic systems require a pressure regulator to spill excess fluid back to the tank, but pressure control in a hydraulic system is much simpler. A pressure switch, fitted to the air reservoir, starts the compressor motor when pressure falls and stops it again when pressure reaches the required level.

The general impression is again one of complexity, but units in the broken-lined box are again common to one plant or even a whole site. Many factories produce compressed air at one central station and distribute an air ring main to all places on the site in a similar way to other services such as electricity, water or gas.

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