Manufacturers of pneumatics are seeing a growing need for economical systems that are durable, flexible, and fast-acting. That's spurring demand for smaller valves that offer the power and speed of more-traditional components along with the ability to interact electronically with the overall system.

A growing trend is toward smaller valves that offer the same or better flow characteristics than the products they replace. One reason is they are easier to install and take up less space. Another is a growing need to mount valves on moving actuators or end effectors. Pneumatic systems often have a central, stationary bank of control valves connected by tubing to remotemounted cylinders. However, long tubing length slows response, so highspeed operations demand mounting valves near the actuator. For instance, robot manufacturers often mount compact valves right on the robot arm, making mass and size extremely important.

Economics plays a role as well. Systems built of smaller components tend to offer potentially significant cost savings, both in terms of materials and compressed-air consumption. Newer valves also tend to use less energy. The demand to interface valves with electronics is driving the need for low-power solenoids, and low-power valves can take advantage of compact serial-interface modules, smaller power supplies, and the possibility of transmitting power and data over the same cable. Here's a look at some recent valve innovations.