Customer demand for more energy efficient hydraulic components and systems is increasing. According to Jeff Herrin, senior vice president of Research, Development, and Engineering at Danfoss Power Solutions, solutions offering improved efficiency are the most commonly requested and a key area in which the company focuses its research and development efforts.
Power & Motion spoke with Herrin about how he sees this trend continuing to evolve as well as what other market trends are currently influencing the hydraulics industry.
*Editor's Note: Questions and responses edited for clarity.
Power & Motion (P&M): What trends or market factors do you feel had the largest impacts on hydraulic component and system designs in 2023? Please explain what those trends are and how specifically they impacted the design of hydraulics.
Jeff Herrin (JH): Three things stand out as factors impacting hydraulic component and system design: efficiency, electrification, and data. Energy efficiency or, more broadly, power loss optimization, is not just about components. Continuing to improve component efficiency is important, but we’re also focused on systems-level efficiency. In other words, when we put products together, how do we create solutions that are more efficient? At Danfoss, it's been our experience that the bigger efficiency lever is at the systems level because we can optimize machine operation, and therefore power consumption, through software and electronics. While not specific to 2023, the ongoing trend of electronically- and software-controlled machines impacts the specifications of the products we develop. Almost all of our new products are electronically actuated, which makes them future proof from an efficiency perspective.
Electrification is another trend impacting hydraulic component design, both in terms of speed range and noise. Electric motors run at high speeds for maximum efficiency. When those motors are driving hydraulics, the hydraulic components need to operate at higher speeds than ever before. Removing the diesel engine from a machine or running a hybrid machine on the battery exposes the hydraulic noise, making it much more noticeable in the cab. This is increasing the need for low-noise hydraulic components.
The third theme is the increasing demand for data. From a hydraulics standpoint, we’re developing products with more embedded sensing to deliver data for remote analysis and system optimization. That's another trend that started years ago and will continue for years in the future.
P&M: How have you seen hydraulic component and system designs evolve in recent years?
JH: We've been talking about electronic control systems taking the place of mechanical controls for years now. I can remember when electronically actuated hydraulics made up 5 or 7% of the market. Now we’re well above 50% – it’s been a 15-year journey to get there. The use of electronic controls is a long-term trend that will continue. A key reason is that OEMs want to differentiate and customize their solutions, and that is almost always done with software today. Hydraulic components have to be electronically actuated to work with these custom solutions.
P&M: What are some of the key features or performance attributes your company is working to include with its hydraulic components and systems, or for which customers are asking?
JH: Efficiency is, by far, the most common request we get from customers. They need more efficient hydraulic products and solutions, which is a big reason we continue to optimize components and develop new products that reduce power losses. A number of factors are driving this demand, including our customers’ sustainability agendas. Many of those agendas include product circularity, which is another area we’re focused on at Danfoss. We look at the complete lifecycle of the product, beginning with the design through to whether it can be remanufactured or recycled – and if not, how it can be disposed of in the most environmentally responsible manner. To attain true circularity and meet our targets as well as our customers’ targets, we are partnering with customers on the development of new products and solutions, transportation options, and lifecycle optimization.
Power density remains a key attribute of hydraulics. With the rise of electric solutions, we’re continuing to improve our components, aiming for even smaller package sizes and higher pressures.
P&M: How much, if at all, are you seeing electronic alternatives taking the place of hydraulic components or systems? Can you offer some examples, and how you possibly see this trend progressing?
JH: The electrification transformation of mobile machines is coming. It’s already here, to some degree. Electrics have long been important in material handling machines like forklifts. But now, almost every construction OEM has a lineup of battery-powered equipment. From excavators to wheel loaders, we see a number of machines with battery-powered electric architectures. In the past, we might have classified these machines as proofs of concept or reputation machines, where OEMs vied to be the first to introduce electric alternatives to conventional diesel engines. We’re moving beyond that now and starting to see production in significant volumes.
Legislation plays a role in this. Some cities in Europe and Japan, for example, are mandating low- or zero-emission vehicles within city limits. Noise pollution is also an increasing target of legislation. In these cases, electrically powered machinery may be the only viable solution. We're still in the early stages of the transformation, but as buyers become more sensitive to emissions and the precision of controllability, electrification will accelerate.
Today, many electric machines still have hydraulic systems because fluid power dominates in terms of linear actuation. The long-term trend, though, is that electrics will take more share from hydraulics.
P&M: Are you seeing a greater integration of electronics with hydraulics? If so, what are some examples you can share and the benefits of doing so?
JH: Electrohydraulics, or electronics driving hydraulics, is a long-term trend. Most of the hydraulic components we produce today are electrohydraulic – they have to be to customize system performance. Components that are controlled through software and electronics enable machine differentiation. There are very few applications today that aren't electronically controlled.
P&M: Do you foresee any new trends or market factors impacting hydraulic designs in the coming year or years? If so, what are those and what impact will they have?
JH: We don’t anticipate any new trends having a significant impact on the industry next year. The most likely scenario is more of the same: the drive for greater efficiency, more controllability, software- and data-enabled solutions, and lower noise.
P&M: Are there any economic/market factors you are concerned could negatively impact the hydraulics industry in the coming year?
JH: The macroeconomic environment of borrowing costs could impact the industry in 2024. Interest rates are unusually high, which could delay machine purchases due to financing costs. While temporary, this affects not just OEMs, but many others in the supply chain. We’re also seeing single- and multi-family housing construction slow down, as well as significant fluctuation in grain and commodity prices. These have historically been indicators of deferred machine replacements.
P&M: How do you see the hydraulics market in general performing in 2024?
JH: Given the market factors, we are predicting a down cycle in the mobile machinery sector. Elsewhere we see limited growth, but not a massive decline. The good news is, the supply chain disruptions that were prominent during the pandemic are, to a large extent, behind us, and we're getting back to the market fundamentals of borrowing costs and supply and demand. This is the first time in 3 years we can say that.
Hydraulics is a cyclical business. These market swings happen on a regular basis, so we’re prepared for what 2024 may bring. At Danfoss, we’re focusing on what we can control and continuing to drive sustainable innovation that helps our customers differentiate their machines and systems.