The focus on software may dominate efforts in hardware, but there are still many challenges for those who design with tangible components. As microcontroller capabilities soar, engineers are altering architectures to deploy powerful microcontrollers efficiently while adding sensors to give them more real-world information.
Managers generally agree that for most hydraulic applications, today’s microcontrollers have more computing power than is required.
“With most applications today the hardware is chosen based around the number of outputs that are needed to drive the solenoids/functions on the machine,” said Terry Hershberger, Director of Sales for Mobile Applications at Bosch Rexroth. “This is the primary restricting factor. Adding new features from the software functionality viewpoint is normally not restricted since there is, in most cases, a flash memory capacity that well exceeds the needs.”
Many system architects feel it’s more efficient to employ inexpensive 8- or 16-bit controllers on remote equipment rather than to use more powerful, and more costly, 32-bit chips in a centralized control module.
“We are seeing more systems go toward a distributed architecture,” said Kirk Lola, Marketing Manager at Parker Hannifin Electronic Controls Division. “This is especially true for hydraulics as traditional hydraulic components like pumps and valves take on intelligence. This allows the machine builder to optimize hydraulic performance, ensuring that hydraulic power is supplied only when needed. That reduces fuel consumption and emissions.”
This approach boosts performance while decreasing the cost of a central controller. However, some developers note that leaving a little extra headroom in the centralized controller can make it simpler for hydraulic experts to write software themselves, which can save time, which can be as important as saving a few cents on a component.
“The increased capacity provides greater flexibility and no longer requires strict efficient coding, so the dependencies on trained software engineers developing the application software has been somewhat removed,” said Alex Edwards, Software Engineering Manager at Eaton.
Hardware engineers must also figure out how to deploy sensors that collect the most information at the lowest cost. Designers often find that when they add the sensors that collect this data, one sensor can provide input for several different actions.
“Once you pay for a sensor, you can get more functions without adding any recurring costs,” said Douglas Koehler, Steering, Braking, and Implements Section Manager at Caterpillar. “For example, you can do rack protection when you’re not slamming into stops, and you can do kinematic leveling so you’re not accelerating and decelerating during a move that should be constant.”