The evolution of industrial gears
Mechanical gearing technology has been a mainstay of industry for over a century and has matured to the point where no major breakthroughs are expected. However, changes are occurring in the way this technology is meeting new demands for automation, reliability and safety.
The most interesting and profound changes are taking place at the large industrial scale in mining and mineral processing plants. The humble gearbox, primarily designed to convert electric motor power into torque, is becoming part of a much more complex and demanding automated and autonomous system. The mining sites of today are largely automated, with the human interface occurring through digitised, remote controls, often located far away from the mining and material handling processes actually taking place. It is fascinating to observe the operation of control centres in metropolitan Perth, where the operators have at their fingertips all the iron ore mining processes from the point of extraction, through preparation, blending, transfer to the sea port and ship loading, all happening in the Pilbara some 1500 km away.
Such a high degree of process integration puts new demands on the mechanical gearing technology. Reliability, availability, predictability of wear behaviour and serviceability are becoming the major drivers in this equipment’s development. In the recent past, power electronics have become dominant in the way electrical power is delivered and modulated as an input into the gearbox and even large power inputs over 1 MW are commonly controlled that way. Also it is now generally accepted for modern gearboxes to process electric motor power with minimum mechanical losses, by utilising gear optimisation micro-geometries, advanced gear machining techniques as well as sophisticated bearing arrangements and lubrication. We accept these technological advancements, and others, as commonplace, and essential in delivering modern power drive solutions.
At the same time the gearboxes interface with digitised controls through an ever more sophisticated array of sensors and self-diagnostic devices. What we are observing is in fact the quiet blending of the borders between mechanical, electrical and information technologies.
With the human interface moving away from processing plants and into remote control centres, there is an increasing emphasis on preventive maintenance, accurate forecasting of drive availability, reliability and serviceability. To this point we see gearing suppliers moving support facilities close to the major industrial hubs to ensure the necessary degree, sophistication and effectiveness of aftermarket support. The future will see further blending of gearing technology with process management technologies, and these changes will influence future gearing product developments as well as relationships between power drives system providers and the site operators.
Considering the developments of the past two decades, and the recalibration of industry expectations occurring in the present, it is somewhat inevitable to see future gear developments moving towards standardisation and energy efficiency. Both trends are already signalled by the industry’s increasing focus on serviceability and cost-effectiveness of the production and delivery cycle.
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