Crisis, what crisis? – Bullish times for fluid power

Published:  29 June, 2012

Despite the bearish market climate that remains an ongoing challenge for many technology and service sectors, the fluid power industry is one sector that is firmly bucking the trend, writes Ian Morris, Director of the British Fluid Power Association.

When it comes to economic performance the casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that many industrial equipment producers are currently in the doldrums. However, in the case of the fluid power industry, this is certainly far from the case. Survey data from the British Fluid Power Association (BFPA) suggests that 2011 was a very good year for both hydraulics and pneumatics in the UK, despite the turmoil in the EU economy. Demand for pneumatics in 2011 increased significantly for the second consecutive year, with pneumatics equipment and service providers reporting good performance in high technology engineering industries such as medical and analytics. Traditional markets also continued to depend on the reliability and cost-effective use of pneumatic air technology in industrial and process automation applications such as packaging and product handling. Moreover, demand for pneumatics in transport applications such as on commercial vehicles and rail was also strong.
In terms of specific success stories from world of pneumatic equipment supply, ASCO Numatics reports that FY2011 was a good year of growth for the company in the UK. In particular, it cites the most lucrative markets for its products as analytical/medical and packaging. ASCO Numatics considers that its market growth was largely due to the state-of-the-art diagnostic features of its Fieldbus valve islands, as well as its tailor-made solutions and assemblies, energy efficient products and its proportional technology range. Similarly, pneumatics solutions provider, Norgren, reports that it enjoyed a very successful 2011, despite challenging economic conditions. Norgren believes some of the key factors that provided a resilient platform for growth included the company’s core strategy of working closely with customers to gain a deep understanding of their engineering needs, together with the provision of innovative solutions.  
As for the hydraulics sector, this continued to offer a highly cost-effective motion control solution to OEMs and end users looking for large power transfer in machinery, as was evident by the large growth seen in the UK hydraulic market in 2011. The demand for hydraulic parts and systems for use in mobile applications such as construction and agricultural equipment was up by around 30 per cent compared with 2010, which in itself resulted in a good year for hydraulics after the recession of 2009. Industrial uses of hydraulic technology also increased by a similar level, with offshore, renewables and civil engineering projects linked to the 2012 London Olympics all boosting growth in 2011.
With specific reference to some of the key equipment and service providers in the hydraulics marketplace, Bosch Rexroth reports that 2011 saw the company enjoy record business volumes in the UK; business volumes that exceeded the previous record year in 2008. Bosch Rexroth reports that all of its business segments contributed significantly to this success; these being industrial applications, mobile applications and renewable energies. Of special interest to the company were new projects within the renewable wind energy sector, which the company believes promises to be a major growth sector for Bosch Rexroth UK in the future.
With regard to UK manufacturing in a more general sense, Bosch Rexroth observes that UK manufacturing helped the industry’s business volumes by exploiting favourable global conditions; especially in terms of exports to the ‘BRIC’ countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China). Bosch Rexroth considers that the mobile construction sector led the way in terms of growth, with a strong recovery in excess of the pre-crisis volumes, following the economic depths of 2009. The company added that many other sectors also performed well for fluid power in 2011. For example, the offshore marine sector was especially buoyant, as well as the automotive sector, which began to re-invest in 2011 following the economic crisis.
2011 was also a strong and progressive year for Parker Hannifin, a company whose solutions span both the hydraulics and pneumatics marketplaces. The company reports that it saw its reputation for quality of product and service underpin solid levels of business growth for its established products. By working closely and continuing to strengthen relationships with its distribution partners, Parker Hannifin supported end customers not only with timely supply of products, but also with technical knowhow to help them cost-effectively solve application challenges, improve the reliability and efficiency of their systems and increase productivity.
Eaton’s Hydraulics Group also reports that it had a very successful year in 2011; globally and in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA). The company added that most of its end-markets were strong, with some customers reporting record levels of production. Eaton reflects that Europe is not only one of the largest regions for hydraulics with a volume of USD 10.6B, Europe is also the cradle of hydraulic technology, leading the way with cutting-edge technological developments and influencing global decision making.
Helipebs Controls comments that, although there were elements of its customer base that were “somewhat patchy” (citing as an example that some tool making customers were working at 100 per cent capacity while others were simply waiting for their next order), generally, the company has had a successful year and is ahead of its forecasts. While the company operates in all industries, except ‘mobile’ (agriculture and construction) its core sectors of oil and gas (topside and subsea), pharmaceutical and fatigue testing have been particularly buoyant. Helipebs Controls has also enjoyed its best ever year for export orders, which has grown consistently over the past few years. Much of this growth has been in the company’s core markets, helped along by aluminium smelting. Helipebs adds that for too many years customers have “made do” in servicing equipment, but makes the point that there comes a time when they have to buy new equipment. Helipebs saw this tide turning during 2011 as companies came through the recession of 2009 and 2010 and increased their capital expenditure.
BFPA’s surveys suggest that hydraulic and pneumatic firms remain positive about the year ahead and are well-placed to take advantage of any new opportunities offered by emerging markets in UK manufacturing and abroad. Also, most firms in the fluid power sector now offer customers motion control solutions encompassing hydraulics and pneumatics as well as other related electric and electronic control technologies. Indeed, to reinforce the general milieu of optimism felt within the fluid power industry, many of our commentators report that they are committed to a highly proactive product development roadmap for the coming year and beyond.

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