Design sets new air preparation benchmark

Mark Fletcher gets the world exclusive on a UK-designed FRL development which will set new benchmarks in the world of pneumatics

One of the most powerful weapons in a designer’s arsenal is the simple, innocuous, three-letter word, “why”. With this word a designer can change the whole course of product development by simply questioning established beliefs and disciplines. Ask yourself these questions: “Why do we do it like this?” or “Why does it have to look like that?” even “Why should I design it this way?” More often than not the answer will be: “Because we have always done it that way?” If you get this answer, by the way, you know you are on to a winner – time to screw up the rule book, throw it away and start again. “Why?” was the question on the lips of the designers at Parker Pneumatic, in Cannock, while collaborating on the design and development of a new filter, lubricator, regulator (FRL) suite. By simply questioning the established norms, and looking at the demands placed on both existing FRLs and their users, engineers at Parker were able to improve greatly over existing designs and create a range of products which offer superior functionality across the board. Most of the improvements have been enabled through rethinking the design of many established components and concepts. With potential applications in automotive, transport, food, packaging, electronics, textiles and machine tools, it was a prerequisite to ask these markets what they wanted. The firm based its initial approach on three basic principles: price; delivery times; and innovative products. A spate of focus group meetings followed in Europe and the US, which invited OEM design engineers from a broad spectrum of industries to comment on existing FRL technology and what they would want from a new range. Four key areas arose: aesthetics, ‘idiot proofing’, ease of installation and maintenance and solid construction. Regarding aesthetics, most agreed that FRLs are “ugly looking things”. The consensus being that if an FRL looked good not only would it merit more attention from maintenance engineers but it would also enhance the aesthetic value of the host machinery. One delegate commented: “In order to get the engineers to fall in love with them [machines], they would have to look good.” On the touchy subject of idiot proofing, an idiot-proof FRL was worth a price premium, because they saw it as saving many times the extra cost of machine downtime. Ease of installation and maintenance provoked a strong reaction, with two comments, in particular, striking home. Firstly, “if maintenance people don’t have the right tool they will use the wrong one so the best thing would be if you had no tools at all”, and “the little spring pops off and ‘boom’ its gone forever”. Finally, with regard to construction, FRLs had a particular need to be solidly built, because their placement can leave them vulnerable to being run into by forklifts or abused by tools. So what did Parker’s engineers come up with? The answer is the Moduflex FRL range which, it has to be said, does offer a new and fresh approach to this particular corner of the pneumatics market. A sector that was worth $232m in 2001 in Europe alone, and, with 65+ companies serving the needs of the customers, product differentiation is a critical factor. The easiest way of describing the design is step-by-step, starting with the filter. Most FRL filters are designed with a body and a bowl, so the first thing the engineers did was ask “why?”. The result was a new filter design in which the body and bowl can be removed as a single part and the whole assembly can be dismantled by ‘clicking’ it apart and then ‘clicking’ it back together. No tools are required and all connection is done via a simple bayonet design. The filter unit comprises integral 3/8 or 1/2 ports (BSPP, BSPT & NPT), a high efficiency 5µm element (with 40µm as an option), a robust but lightweight aluminium body and a complete lack of small parts all in a one-handed-operation, no-tools-required design. Coalescing filters are also available with a standard 0.01µm filter element and optional longer elements for higher flow and extended life. Design philosophies The regulator unit has had the same design philosophies applied to it, offering the same robust aluminium construction as well as multiple pressure ranges (2, 4, 8 and 16 bar), a rolling diaphragm, a balanced valve design and, for the security (and anti-tamper) conscious, a padlock kit is available. One other great design idea is the use of coloured collars instead of coloured caps to indicate a non-standard airflow. Parker identified that coloured caps can get dirty and opted for collars which are highly visible but tricky to cover with oil or grease, ensuring that maintenance engineers know that the regulator is controlling a lower or higher than normal airflow. Regulators can also be easily ganged to provide multiple pressures from a single supply with the collars indicating which is which. As with the two previous units, the lubricators offer the same construction techniques. Most lubricators only offer a small fill hole. So, in combination with the relocation of the air path and a completely removable top cover, Parker’s engineers created a unit that offered 40% more capacity than exiting designs. Filter/regulator units are also available which offer the best features of both. Completing the equipment range is a series of valves which comprise soft-start/quick dump variants, manual dump valve models and a manual ball valve model. All the valves can be mounted left or right, security and tamperproof facilities are available with provision for up to four padlocks, and manifold blocks and diverter blocks are also available. The diverter blocks can be oriented in 90° increments to suit the specific application. With all this clever design work, Parker had to make sure that it didn’t drop the ball at the final hurdle – how to connect them all together. With ease of maintenance and fast replacement featuring high on the focus group’s wish list, the firm had to come up with something special. The result was the Cliplok – now the subject of a world-wide patent. Each Cliplok comprises two parts. A wall mountable half and a removable half. Each half exhibits a plastic clip which, when manoeuvred, either locks the metal portion of the Cliplok in place, securing the units, or allows the whole clip to be removed, allowing removal of the units. In each case the installation routine is the exact opposite of the removal routine and can be performed in seconds. Future developments in the range will include precision regulators, electronic proportional regulators, membrane dryers, transition plates to mix sizes and intelligent FRLs that will directly interface with valves. Admittedly, FRLs are not the most exciting pieces of hardware you will ever come across, but they are just as susceptible (and amenable) to design changes and lateral thinking as any other piece of engineering hardware. This project is a great example of throwing away the proverbial rule book and giving your engineering designers free reign to create a product which performs better than the one it replaces. One of the main factors differentiating companies within this market – and, indeed, any market Eureka covers – is innovation. If you have the guts to go out on a limb and challenge perceived wisdom you will be rewarded – as will your customers. Eureka says: The fluid power market is an established part of Eureka’s coverage. Innovations, when they do come along, can be superb, but when they are also combined with a rethink in design philosophy, as in this case, they provide superb lessons and food for thought for other designers in many other markets.