Pressure on hydraulics

Sarah Gardner, statistics manager for the British Fluid Power Association, reports that despite consolidation recovery in the hydraulics sector is expected.

Despite the constant threat to hydraulics from other forms of power transmission, there will always be applications where no other solution offers the same power-to-weight ratio as hydraulics.

A case in point is the new Airbus A380, which went into production last year. The aircraft uses a new high-pressure (345 bar) hydraulic system to control the aircraft’s flaps, rudder and other control surfaces. This reduced the overall weight of the 555-passenger aircraft by an amazing 1 tonne and is an excellent example of modern day hydraulics offering the best technical and commercial solution.

The market for hydraulic equipment (excluding aerospace) in the UK was worth around £400 million in 2001, with total sales in excess of £600 million; this excludes the added value of the systems building market, which would take the figures higher and with over 5,500 people employed in the UK, the hydraulics industry is a significant part of the UK engineering sector.

Recent statistics collected by the European Fluid Power Trade Federation, Cetop, indicate that the UK was the fourth largest market in Europe in 2000 for hydraulic products, after Germany, Italy and France.

The hydraulics industry in the UK has seen consolidation and rationalisation of plant and products over the last five or so years and there have been many takeovers and mergers as the larger players have sought to expand their product ranges and offer customers a ‘motion and control solution’, which might incorporate non-hydraulic power transmission options. Smaller companies not offering such a complete package have concentrated on specific product/market areas, or developed the service side of their business.

An increasing worry is the trend to relocate manufacturing companies, particularly larger OEMs, away from the UK to mainland Europe and beyond. For some of the larger multinationals, the business may simply be picked up by a sister company in the new location (for example the Agco factory in Coventry closing with production transferring to France and Brazil), but for others the business is lost forever, and the effect is having a significant impact on the UK hydraulics market.

The weak euro of recent years has contributed to problems for exporters and the increasing availability, low prices and improved quality of hydraulic products coming from China, Taiwan and Eastern European countries has been noticeable.

In the UK, around a third of hydraulic equipment is sold indirectly through distributors, resellers and more recently through catalogues, with the balance being sold directly to OEMs and users (mostly replacement parts). The diversity of end use markets for hydraulic equipment is enormous, with the mobile market being dominated by agricultural and construction equipment; typical industrial end uses are machine tools and process plant with the offshore market also being a significant user. Water hydraulic applications (where a largely aqueous fluid is used instead of the usual oil) have increased in recent years as some companies have identified niche opportunities in markets other than metal production.

At the British Fluid Power Association’s 2002 autumn economic seminar, John Walker of Oxford Economic Forecasting predicted a modest recovery for the UK fluid power industry in 2003 improving into 2004. Key to future growth will be a serious commitment by the government to support manufacturing in the UK by encouraging investment and providing other support schemes.

An important role of the British Fluid Power Association has been to lobby government hard through alliances such as the Engineering and Machinery Alliance to ensure that the future of this important engineering sector is secure.

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