Revolutionary Steering Tech Promises Increased Fuel Economy and Equipment Efficiency

Excavator Loader with backhoe standing in sandpitHeavy equipment hydraulic systems are in need of an update

Ever since Joseph Bramah patented the hydraulic press in 1795, little has changed in terms of the fundamentals of hydraulic machinery. The basic premise is simple – hydraulic fluid is pumped through steel tubes or flexible rubber hoses by a motor. This fluid then acts upon a series of valves at the end destination – which in the construction industry may mean a boom arm on an excavator, a front blade on a dozer, or a lifting ram on a dump truck. Hydraulics systems deliver incredible lifting, digging, and pulling forces through a premise known as torque multiplication. By forcing the hydraulic fluid through feed lines of varying sizes, the hydraulic motor is able to exert tremendous forces against the valves and actuators that perform the actual work.

One of the key drawbacks to the current breed of hydraulic systems (as found in contemporary heavy equipment) is the relatively high rate of parasitic loss that occurs among all of the related components. Lots of heat is generated by the pump, responses are generally slow in terms of operator feedback, and it takes a lot of fuel to throttle up the diesel motor to operate a hydraulic pump.

What is on the horizon in terms of new hydraulic steering technology?

Using current technology, an operator who makes steering inputs forces the hydraulic system to shuffle fluid around the circuit, opening and closing valves and causing an increase in fuel consumption and system wear. While this has been the status quo for decades, a new technology may make this type of system obsolete. New technology, designed in part by engineers at the Purdue School of Mechanical Engineering, places individual hydraulic pumps where actuators previously existed. Instead of one larger, centralized pump, the system uses a series of smaller, less invasive pumps to control all of the hydraulic rams on a heavy machine. The net effect of this change is less machine wear, less diesel fuel consumption, and quicker reaction to operator inputs.

One drawback to this system, though, is how the new hydraulic system isolates the operator from the tactile feedback of the heavy machine. It is more difficult to feel and make minor steering corrections and adjustments to digging arms and dozer blades when the actual “kickback” isn’t felt by the operator. While this system will no doubt increase efficiency and save construction crews considerable time and money, it will require machine operators to retrain themselves on operating by touch.

In terms of the actual benefits of this new hydraulic system, preliminary testing demonstrated a 15% reduction in fuel consumption, along with a 23% increase in productivity (as measured by the amount of material moved over a specific timeframe). The fuel consumption alone would make these new hydraulic systems worthwhile, but a 23% increase in productivity would literally make a five day job turn into a four day endeavor. This can save the construction company considerable cost and may allow for a lower bid – all the better to secure more jobs.