What is pneumatics?

The principles of pneumatics are the same as those for hydraulics, but pneumatics transmits power using a gas instead of a liquid. Compressed air is usually used, but nitrogen or other inert gases can be used for special applications. With pneumatics, air is usually pumped into a receiver using a compressor. The receiver holds a large volume of compressed air to be used by the pneumatic system as needed. Atmospheric air contains airborne dirt, water vapor, and other contaminants, so filters and air dryers are often used in pneumatic systems to keep compressed air clean and dry, which improve reliability and service life of the components and system. Pneumatic systems also use a variety of valves for controlling direction, pressure, and speed of actuators.

Most pneumatic systems operate at pressures of about 100 psi or less. Because of the lower pressure, cylinders and other actuators must be sized larger than their hydraulic counterparts to apply an equivalent force. For example, a hydraulic cylinder with a 2 in. diameter piston (3.14 sq. in. area) and fluid pressure of 1,000 psi can push with 3140 lbs. of force. A pneumatic cylinder using 100 psi air would need a bore of almost 6½ in. (33 sq. in.) to develop the same force.

Even though pneumatic systems usually operate at much lower pressure than hydraulic systems do, pneumatics holds many advantages that make it more suitable for many applications. Because pneumatic pressures are lower, components can be made of thinner and lighter weight materials, such as aluminum and engineered plastics, whereas hydraulic components are generally made of steel and ductile or cast iron. Hydraulic systems are often considered rigid, whereas pneumatic systems usually offer some cushioning, or “give.” Pneumatic systems are generally simpler because air can be exhausted to the atmosphere, whereas hydraulic fluid usually is routed back to a fluid reservoir.

Pneumatics also holds advantages over electromechanical power transmission methods. Electric motors are often limited by heat generation. Heat generation is usually not a concern with pneumatic motors because the stream of compressed air running through them carries heat from them. Furthermore, because pneumatic components require no electricity, they don’t need the bulky, heavy, and expensive explosion-proof enclosures required by electric motors. In fact, even without special enclosures, electric motors are substantially larger and heavier than pneumatic motors of equivalent power rating. Plus, if overloaded, pneumatic motors will simply stall and not use any power. Electric motors, on the other hand, can overheat and burn out if overloaded. Moreover, torque, force, and speed control with pneumatics often requires simple pressure- or flow-control valves, as opposed to more expensive and complex electrical drive controls. And as with hydraulics, pneumatic actuators can instantly reverse direction, whereas electromechanical components often rotate with high momentum, which can delay changes in direction.

Another advantage of pneumatics is that it allows using vacuum for picking up and moving objects. Vacuum can be thought of as negative pressure — by removing air (evacuating) from the volume between two parts, atmospheric pressure outside the volume pushes the parts together. For example, attempting to pick up a single sheet of paper or a raw egg presents a challenge with conventional grippers. But with a vacuum pneumatic system, evacuating a suction cup in contact with a sheet of paper or eggshell will cause atmospheric pressure to push the paper or egg against the cup, allowing it to be lifted.

Pneumatic applications

Factory automation is the largest sector for pneumatics technology, which is widely used for manipulating products in manufacturing, processing, and packaging operations. Pneumatics is also widely used in medical and food processing equipment. Pneumatics is typically thought of as pick-and-place technology, where pneumatic components work in concert to perform the same repetitive operation thousands of times per day. But pneumatics is much more. Because compressed air can have a cushioning effect, it is often called on to provide a gentler touch than what hydraulics or electromechanical drives can usually provide. In many applications, pneumatics is used more for its ability to provide controlled pressing or squeezing as it is for fast and repetitive motion. Moreover, electronic controls can give pneumatic systems positioning accuracy comparable to that of hydraulic and electromechanical technologies.

Pneumatics is also widely used in chemical plants and refineries to actuate large valves. It’s used on mobile equipment for transmitting power where hydraulics or electromechanical drives are less practical or not as convenient and in on-highway trucking for various vehicle functions. And of course, vacuum is used for lifting and moving work pieces and products. In fact, combining multiple vacuum cups into a single assembly allows lifting large and heavy objects. Following are case histories housed on websites of industry publications describing the use of pneumatics in a variety of applications:

Food & Beverage:
Red Arrow Bullet imagePneumatics Ensures Food Processing Reliability
Red Arrow Bullet imagePneumatics Moves Hard-to-handle Foods

Other industries where pneumatics is advantageous:

  • Factory Automation
  • Material Handling 
  • Medical
  • Off- and On-highway Vehicle Systems
  • Packaging

red arrow bulletAdditional Pneumatic Applications

red arrow bulletMore Pneumatic Case Studies

red arrow bulletFundamentals of Pneumatics Online Training

Cost Reduction through Pneumatics Automation
    Through the use of case studies and illustrations, this guide explains how pneumatics automation could
    reduce manufacturing costs with a minimum of investment and complexity.


Fluid Power Components

Fluid power systems consist of multiple components that work together or in sequence to perform some action or work. People well versed in fluid power circuit and system design may purchase individual components and assemble them into a fluid power system themselves. However, many fluid power systems are designed by distributors, consultants, and other fluid power professionals who may provide the system in whole or in part.

 The major components of any fluid power system include:

  • a pumping device — a hydraulic pump or air compressor to provide fluid power to the system
  • fluid conductors — tubing, hoses, fittings, manifolds and other components that distribute pressurized fluid throughout the system
  • valves — devices that control fluid flow, pressure, starting, stopping and direction
  • actuators — cylinders, motors, rotary actuators, grippers, vacuum cups and other components that perform the end function of the fluid power system.
  • support components — filters, heat exchangers, manifolds, hydraulic reservoirs, pneumatic mufflers, and other components that enable the fluid power system to operate more effectively.

Electronic sensors and switches are also incorporated into many of today’s fluid power systems to provide a means for electronic controls to monitor operation of components. Diagnostic instruments are also used for measuring pressure, temperature and flow in assessing the condition of the system and for troubleshooting.

NFPA Fluid Power Product Locator

    where you can find hydraulic and pneumatic components and products available from NFPA member companies.

Additional Education and Training Sessions offered by NFPA and its members can be found at
   Learning Resources.