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Valve range allows users to build their own islands

01 March, 2001

After five years of development, Parker Pneumatic is about to unveil a new generation of miniature, pneumatic valves that could shake up the global market.

The valves of the brainchild of of a French pneumatics veteran, Daniel Bouteille, who has spent the past 42 years working in the pneumatics industry and is credited with being the father of technologies including pneumatic push-in connections and pneumatic sequencers. Bouteille`s long career has included spells in the UK (with Maxam) as well as with Crouzet, Legris and Telemecanique.

But for the past five years he has been acting as a consultant to Parker Pneumatic, masterminding the development of the new miniaturised pneumatic valve system for the global market. Bouteille has made a point of visiting potential customers and users around the world to discover exactly what they were looking for in a valve system. In the course of his travels, he dropped in on more than 300 customer sites to discuss his ideas and to gather feedback.

The culmination of all of this activity will be unveiled at the Hanover Fair next month, when Parker`s Moduflex system makes its global debut. The company hopes that the system - which has required a massive investment in research, development and production facilities - will revolutionise the design of electropneumatic control and automation systems.

Perhaps the most notable difference between the Parker system and those of its global rivals is that it has been designed to allow users to assemble their own valve islands, rather than relying on pre-assembled islands delivered from the factory. Bouteille argues that ready-made standard islands inevitably involve compromises. They are not designed to meet the needs of individual machines, each of which has particular requirements, both in terms of its controls and of its pneumatics.

And because customers cannot disassemble the ready-made islands, they have to return them to the manufacturer if changes in layout are needed.

"We are reversing the trend," says Bouteille. "Customers can now make islands themselves."

From the outset of the project, Bouteille insisted that it must be "open" so that potential customers were aware of Parker`s plans.The open approach meant that Parker`s rivals also knew what the company was planning, but Bouteille is not bothered by this. "We don`t think that our competitors will copy us," he declares. "We are on a totally different track." Some aspects of the technology are protected by patents, he adds.

Although other pneumatics suppliers have marketed do-it-yourself valve islands before, they have tended to be smaller, regional players. "This is a global product to react against other global products," Bouteille says, pointing out that only a handful of other players operate on a worldwide basis. Most pneumatics suppliers focus on their local markets.

Another distinguishing feature of the Moduflex system (shown in cutaway below) is its extensive use of plastics. This results in valves that, according to Bouteille, are about half the weight of rival metal-based products. This, in turn, could open up new markets and applications.

He cites the example of a robotics manufacturer which found that the valves are light and robust enough to be installed next to a gripper on the end of an arm that moves up and down at high speeds. Using a valve in this way reduces the need for pneumatic tubing and allows control signals to be taken close to the cylinders where they are being applied. And, as Bouteille points out, "electrical connections are much faster than pneumatics".

He concedes that there is still some resistance to the use of plastics in pneumatic equipment. "We have to fight this continuously," Bouteille reports, insisting nevertheless that the use of plastics "provides freedom in creating shapes" and presents "no technical problems".

Another selling point for the new range is that different sized valves can be mixed in one island, allowing small and large pneumatic cylinders to be controlled from the same island. The valves do not have to be used is islands - they can also operate as standalone devices.

A further attraction, according to Bouteille, is the way that the manual over-rides and LED indicators line up with the corresponding cylinder outputs. "In conventional valves, you don`t know which output the LED refers to," he points out.

The attraction of this new format emerged from Bouteille`s extensive consultation exercise with potential customers. "We discovered this sales argument by visiting experts and listening to their reactions," he reports. But one unavoidable result of the new architecture is that the Parker islands are wider than those of their competitors. Bouteille contends that is a problem in "just 1-2% of machines".

Although Parker has adopted some international standards for the new range - including DIN-rail mounting and the use of M8 connectors - most of the components are non-standard. "We try to stick to standards, but it is not always possible," Bouteille says. Compromise is the inevitable result of "the constant battle between ISO standardisation and miniaturisation", he adds. If you are going to keep your components as small as possible, you have to sacrifice standardisation. He points out that Festo and SMC have also abandoned ISO standards for their miniature ranges.

The Moduflex family is still evolving.The catalogue of components already runs to around 80 pages "and we add to it every day," Bouteille emphasises. "The range will never be finished.".

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