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A strong cup of coffee is sometimes needed when you are a hydraulics designer or engineer, whether it's to get you fired up for the day, to fuel a late night before a deadline or just as a break from a particularly difficult problem. Probably the last thing on your mind is how hydraulics is at play making that coffee, but without clever hydraulic design those coffee machines at your favourite cafe would not function properly – much like many people don't function properly before their first caffeine hit!
To make the perfect coffee the water must be at 93°c, at a pressure of 9 bar, which is very achievable in the water boiler, but this must be maintained all the way to the brewing head, something that requires clever thermodynamic design. Maintaining the thermal mass requires a large and insulating metal casing in the brewing head, as if the water cools down it will not brew properly, and water that is too hot makes the coffee taste bitter. Bearing in mind that the same machine also needs to be able to heat water to boiling point to create the 100°c steam, that is used to froth the milk and it starts to get tricky. Twin boilers are one way of achieving water heated to two different temperatures, the other being a heat exchanger that creates the two temperatures in the same machine.
When the 93°c water reaches the brewing head it must be passed through the puck of coffee grounds in the filter holder, but even here there is hydraulic engineering involved. To make the perfect coffee the water must be first fed through at 3 bar to soak and pre-infuse the ground beans, but only for a few seconds. Then the 9 bar pressured water can be flowed through the beans at a controlled rate. Many commercial coffee machines automate this controlled pressure flow so anyone can use them, using a rotary pump or a reciprocating solenoid valve to achieve the perfect flow for each coffee type, whether it's a single or double shot. Older machines, and those beloved by coffee purists are manual, meaning that the operator needs to know exactly how much to move a lever in order to get the water through at the right rate for each type of coffee.
Next time you stop for a coffee, pay attention to how the machine works and you'll appreciate that hot cup of coffee even more.
When you work with hydraulics every day it is easy to take the technology for granted, especially when you know how it works and for what purposes. However, most hydraulic engineers focus on a specific application of the mechanisms and may not realise that there are other uses for the technology that we use every day. For example, petrol pumps use hydraulics to draw the fuel up from the reservoir and deliver it into your vehicle. When you draw up to the pump you make use of hydraulics to stop the car; most vehicle braking systems use hydraulic action to exert force on the brake discs. Hydraulics then allow you to fill the car up, and drive away, using your brakes several times on the journey home.
If you go to any large shopping centre or office there are lifts, which can make use of hydraulics to raise and lower the elevator car. Some older lifts still use a pulley system, but many newer systems use hydraulics. The sandwiches you have for lunch also rely on hydraulics to exist; the mechanisms in large bakeries use this technology to move conveyor belts and other large scale mixing machines to keep the dough moving along the production line. If you sit at an office chair while eating lunch you are also making use of hydraulics, as the mechanism that allows you to lower and raise the seat is usually a hydraulic one.
Visiting the dentist also involves hydraulics at least once, more if you drive there and fill the car up on the way! Dentist chairs use hydraulic pumps to lower and raise the body of the chair as well as to adjust the angle of the foot rest and head rest. Hospital beds and barbers chairs work on the same principle. Vehicle mechanics use hydraulic lifts to raise vehicles up for inspection and repair work in much the same way.
Hydraulics also make an appearance in entertainment; theatre stages that can be raised and lowered use hydraulic systems to make this happen, and similarly, theme parks rides use them to create and control motion. On arriving home from a day out at the theatre or a theme park you may drive your car into a garage with a hydraulically operated opening mechanism, or through a gate that employs the same technology to open and close at the touch of a button. Once in the house you may have to load the dishwasher and set it to run; even here there are hydraulics at work to improve water pressure for better cleaning. Hydraulics are found in many aspects of everyday life that it is possible to make use of six or seven different applications in a single day.
The development of modern hydraulics arguably echoes the development of modern industry. During the industrial revolution, factories worked largely on brawn with images from the period showing steam-belching machines operated by hard-working labourers. Today, the focus of industry is on working smarter rather than just applying muscle power. Part of the reason for this is that the nature of the products being made has changed. Factories today manufacture technologies that previous generations could barely have imagined. Margins are as thin as silicon wafers and any error can have significant financial consequences. Similar comments apply to other hydraulics strongholds such as construction.
While hydraulics on its own may lack the precision needed for a modern industrial environment, when it is coupled with advanced electronics, industry can have the best of both worlds. One of the reasons why hydraulics has been appreciated for centuries is because its lifting power is smooth. When partnered with digital electronic sensors capable of undertaking thousands of measurements a second, hydraulic systems can be refined to a very high degree of precision. Another reason for the longevity of hydraulics is the fact that the essentially simple mechanics behind the technology makes for a high degree of reliability. Given that reducing variability in manufacturing (and other areas) has been a major preoccupation for industry since the invention of Six Sigma in the mid 1980s any technology noted for its consistency already has a strong point in its favour.
These new enhanced hydraulic systems are moving into unexpected places. The same technology that powers heavy-lifting equipment and automotive systems may soon be finding its way into the human body. Researchers at the University of Minnesota are working on a project to create orthotics using hydraulics. As the body ages (or as the results of sporting activity or accidents), joints are often the places where the effects of wear and tear begins to show first. The idea of using hydraulics to replace knee and ankle joints has obvious benefits given the loads carried by them even during day-to-day activity. As the technology develops, it may well become small enough for tiny joints such as knuckles, worn out by excessive keyboard use. They estimate that the technology will be a reality in anything between 10 and 20 years from now.
Subsea hydraulics is a very niche area in the world of hydraulics engineering. It’s an area that is mostly focused in the oil and gas industry (90%), 9% in military and 1% in other. It encompasses seafloor systems, surface control equipment and the control of oil wells amongst other tasks such as cable maintenance and seabed exploration.
The Role of the Subsea Hydraulics Engineer
Subsea hydraulics engineers have some seriously interesting challenges to solve. Not only are they faced with the day to day hydraulic challenges that most of us deal with, but they also have to handle the sea, its power and pressure. The pressure found on the seafloor is extreme. What’s even more extreme is the pressure found inside the wellbores for underwater energy extraction.
One of the biggest challenges for these engineers is the development of Blowout Preventers (BOPs) that are used to contain oil. It’s what prevents oil from emerging into the ocean and creating a giant spill that results in a wildlife emergency. This can prove to be very costly for oil companies.
BOPs have to be designed, tested and operated in addition to having procedures written and processes established. Subsea hydraulic engineers also handle other equipment such as the subsea robots that are also known as Remote Operated Vehicles (ROVs). ROVs need to be winched into and out of the water using hydraulic power at the winch. In fact, you may find some of our hydraulic power units in use at winches.
Developing a deep water oil field requires an astonishing amount of equipment. Although there are some electric systems used, the controls are typically managed with hydraulics. The field could be giant and cover miles from one side to the other.
Oil Fields can be miles across...
...and involve large amounts of subsea equipment. The job of the subsea hydraulics engineer is to ensure that all equipment is working the way it should be. There are calculations to do, designs to create in addition to plenty of operating procedure and process writing and revising. There’s also a requirement to develop a schematic of how each piece of equipment sourced from different vendors is going to operate and interface on the sea floor. This takes a lot of PowerPoint and Excel use to map this out for the other employees and management!
The Subsea Hydraulics Engineer Prevents Disasters
A major part of the role is to do the small day to day things that go a long way in preventing anything exciting from happening. We don’t want to have to get involved in issues such as needing to perform an oil spill recovery. In this industry, even the smallest mistakes can cause disasters that poison marine wildlife, sink expensive equipment or even kill people. It’s something that we take very seriously.
Some hydraulic engineers in other companies do tasks such as design remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and launch and rescue systems (LARS) for use by the oil and gas industry, movie makers, the navy, explorers, scientists and even treasure hunters.
Hydraproducts has customers in a broad range of industries, including in the subsea fields. We supply hydraulic power units from micro size to bespoke size to suit whatever is required in all industries, including marine related.
Subsea hydraulic components have long been used for marine and deep sea applications. Even in the 1970’s large machines had started to use the first hydraulic components to help with underwater activities for industries such as oil and gas.
Tasks such as trenching, digging, drilling and other heavy machinery activities could be carried out at depths of up to 200 meters below the surface of the water. Hydraulic valves, machines and cylinders were used to drive manipulator arms, drilling tools and track drives.
In these early days it was relatively rare to see these types of machines in operation, so the components were usually costly. However, this evolved over the following years and deep sea hydraulics became an area that was marginally less costly to operate in.
In this century, focus is on deep sea hydraulics and its ability to assist with the sourcing and extraction of fossil fuels and minerals. Greater depths can be reached through the use of ROVs – remote operated vehicles / subsea crawlers. Depths of up to 6000m can now be reached and materials can be harvested using this new generation of subsea machinery.
It’s no longer necessary to position the harvesting and processing equipment on either a ship or a platform. It has to go down onto the seabed to carry out the necessary activities. Hydraulic machinery is ideal for operations such as this due to their power, precision and flexibility.
The type of applications that you’ll see subsea hydraulics used for include the handling of heavy loads and installation of heavy machinery. Tools used to build marine based structures on the seabed such as hydraulic hammers that drive piles are just one of the applications that are used. Others include civil engineering structures such as harbours, marinas and bridges that need to have foundations or objects anchored into the seabed.
ROVs also make it possible to carry out seabed test drillings for oil and gas industry operatives. They can also install heavy equipment that can protect pipelines and cables used for transporting oil and gas, from dangers such as shipwrecks, earthquakes and naturally strong sea currents. They can bury the pipelines into the ocean floor to keep them secure and safe from risks. The ROVs are highly sophisticated in their manoeuvrability and handling.
Another way that subsea hydraulics are used in marine related industries is for deep sea mining of the sea floor. A lot of deposits of high grade rare earth minerals including gold, silver and copper have recently been discovered in the Pacific Ocean. Subsea hydraulics make it possible to harvest them. For example heavy duty ROVs can be operated hydraulically in order to establish the construction required to harvest these minerals.
When it comes to subsea machinery, hydraulics can help with the launch and recovery of highly valuable and expensive subsea equipment in addition to the control of machines such as the ROVs.
There are many challenges and engineering obstacles that need to be overcome in order for hydraulic components to work in the deep sea. Not only must the materials be able to resist the high pressure of being underwater, and so very deep underwater, it’s essential that they can handle the pressure and the salt present in the water. One of seawater’s unfavourable powers is its ability to rapidly corrode materials. Therefore, protection against this corrosion is essential. This might be addressed by engineers with special coatings or by using materials that are corrosion resistant.
To prevent a short circuit, all hydraulic valves that are solenoid operated also have to be protected against contact with water. It’s not easy to hoist a machine up if it needs to be fixed. It’s important to provide subsea machinery with a lifespan that is both lengthy and maintenance free.
If you’re looking for reliable and durable subsea hydraulic power units, contact us today.
Like health, the usefulness of hydraulics sometimes only becomes apparent in its absence. Pictures of agricultural workers of centuries past may look attractive on greetings cards, but in reality, it was gruelling and sometimes dangerous work. The adoption of hydraulic technology not only made agriculture physically less demanding on the workers, but also more efficient and with the growth in world population over the 20th century, the point is becoming increasingly important. While it may be too much to expect farmers to be expert engineers as well, it is useful to have at least a foundation in how hydraulic technology benefits agriculture.
Hydraulic technology was initially adopted, quite literally, to replace horses. Great, heavy horses gave way to tractors, which depended on hydraulics both internally (for braking and steering) and externally (for lifting or digging). In many cases some degree of human intervention was still required and in some cases this could be quite significant. Not only did earlier tractors need their actions (such as lifting or ploughing) to be carefully controlled by humans, but even then there was a relatively high degree of imprecision in the process, which meant either a certain level of wastage had to be accepted or humans had to undertake what was essentially clean-up work after the tractor had finished the bulk of it. As the technology developed, however, hydraulics was combined with advanced electronics, to fine-tune pressure and flow way beyond the skill of any human operator. This has resulted in such exciting developments as precision planters, which can not only deliver seed in the optimum way over a changing field, but also deliver fertilizer at the same time. This gives the seed a much better chance of growing to maturity, leading to better yields and reduced costs, which can be passed on to the consumer.
Earlier hydraulic technology had fixed pressure and flow. Depending on the situation it was sometimes possible to change the settings, but this required human intervention. Modern tractors have a vastly greater hydraulic capacity than their predecessors with significantly more remote valves. At the same time, the traditional PTO shaft (complete with chains and drive shaft) has largely given way to hydraulic pipes and hoses which are driven directly by the hydraulic motor, making for simpler operation, meaning high reliability. As mentioned, the use of electronic controls allows for great precision, reducing wastage and therefore costs. In short, the combination of hydraulics and electronics has allowed agriculture to move on from a human worker making their best judgement about what is required to a machine using vast amounts of data from sensors to decide what is required and adjusting itself accordingly.
The coupling of the power of hydraulics with the precision of electronics opens up all kinds of exciting possibilities. At a very basic level, it can simply be used to increase the efficiency with which the tractor operates, thereby reducing the amount of fuel used. At a more complex level, it could be used to increase the range and scope of the tasks tractors can perform, thereby enabling micro-agriculture, a means of farming in which sensors throughout a field provide information on the precise conditions in each part of the field, so that farmers can optimize their processes with the highest possible degree of precision.
Top of the range flight simulators not only provide the pilot in training with realistic controls and visual displays, but with the physical experience of flying an aeroplane as well. Pilots need to adjust to the feelings of descent, turbulence and ascent in order to respond to this feedback in a real life situation and until recently, all professional flight simulators used electrohydraulic actuators to achieve the movements that mimic those flying conditions. In the past two years, the development of all-electric actuators has driven the hydraulic systems out of the market for flight simulation, as the cost of maintenance and replacement was becoming too high when alternative technologies could be cheaper.
Of course, many flight simulators that were built before the general shift in technology still use hydraulics to create the motion, as the systems can handle a range of payloads without adaptations being made to valves. This is not the case with electric actuators, so engineers had to address this problem before hydraulic technology could be replaced efficiently in flight simulators. In solving the payload problems associated with using electric actuators, the engineers developed a system that drew less power than the original electrohydraulic one, while being quieter and more efficient; a bad day for hydraulics, perhaps, but a good day for the progression of technology and the environment.
Earthquake simulators, also known as shaking tables, are another type of simulator that uses hydraulic actuators to mimic the motions of an earthquake. Most of these are in universities and research laboratories and are used to test the seismic performance of buildings and other structures that will be built in earthquake prone areas. There is one at the Natural History Museum in London, should any readers wish to test their mettle when faced with a recreation of the 6.8 strength quake in Kobe, Japan, in 1995. These pieces of equipment use hydraulics to move the surface back and forth violently, and need to be accurate enough in their movements, that through a combination of back and forth or side to side movements at different speeds, the table can be calibrated to accurately reproduce the effects of any magnitude of earthquake.
As shaking tables are found at visitor attractions as well as in test laboratories, they need to be able to handle a large amount of weight, far more than the average flight simulator. For this reason, hydraulics are uniquely suited to the purpose, and fully electric actuators would be susceptible to breaking under the strain of a whole class of children on a school visit, or a prototype building material or method for quake-prone areas.
Another area where hydraulic power still reigns supreme is the bucking bronco bar challenge game, although actually it is the professional level models that still use hydraulics, the cheaper alternatives for a bit of fun are starting to make use of electric actuators, as they are cheaper to buy and maintain.
Rodeo cowboys use the bucking bulls as a training method in preparation for big events as it is much safer than riding the real thing, and this feat of endurance is what has made the challenge so appealing to the public, hence the proliferation of these items in bars and theme parks around the country. Some of the rodeo training bulls found in leisure attractions may use hydraulics still, and they are the power source of choice for the professional market, as electric actuators do not have quite the same force as a hydraulic one, and a faithful representation of the power of a real bull is very important for a rodeo cowboy in training. There is still plenty of room for hydraulics in simulators, even if the fully electric technology is finally catching up.
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