Understanding Your Pneumatic System Components 

Industry relies heavily upon pneumatic systems to power tools, automated equipment and machines throughout the plant, so having a basic understanding of the components and working principle can go a long way toward maintaining efficient operation of these advantageous systems. 

JHFOSTER pneumatic system connected by pipes

What is a Pneumatic System? 

Simply put, pneumatic systems provide an uncomplicated, economical and reliable way to make things move. Using compressed air, pneumatic systems move cylinders, motors or other parts on all types of automated machinery, including: 

  • Fabrication equipment 
  • Packing machinery 
  • Paint spraying equipment 
  • Filling equipment 
  • Material handling machines 
  • Presses 
  • Air-powered tools 
  • Many other applications in a wide range of industries. 

Pneumatic systems use compressed, pressurized air to create a force that, in turn, moves a load. Depending on the equipment and applications to which pneumatics are being applied, typical motions might include pushing, pulling, lifting or holding. While the operating principle of a pneumatic system is simple, the consistency and quality of the supplied air are often crucial to the performance of the equipment and machines being powered by the pneumatic system. For this reason, it’s important that the system is designed properly with all the essential components. 

7 Components of Pneumatic Systems 

To transmit and control energy to industrial equipment, pneumatic systems rely on seven basic components, including: 

  1. Air Filter: As air is drawn into the air compressor unit during intake, so too are various contaminants, such as dust, dirt, soot and pollen. These impurities need to be filtered from the air before it enters the compressor and pneumatic system to prevent damage to the system. 
  2. Air Compressor: The air compressor is vital to the pneumatic system as it is the device that compresses air. It does so by drawing air into a chamber and compressing it into a much smaller space, which is what provides the pressure that achieves the force used to create motion.
  3. Air Treatment Equipment: Because the act of compressing the air makes it too warm for use and saturated with moisture (the key to high-performing pneumatic systems is cool, clean, dry air!), the air must be cooled by an aftercooler as it leaves the compressor. Often there is an air dryer involved, as well, which will remove any moisture from the compressed air and filtration before and after the dryer to remove fine particulates, liquids and compressor oil introduced during the compression process. 
  4. Air Storage Tank: The air storage tank is used to store the produced, cooled and dried air that leaves the air compressor. Air storage tanks ensure a steady supply of compressed air and help to offset fluctuations in demand. 
  5. Point-Of-Use FRL (filter, regulator, lubricator) Unit: While the filters, air regulators and lubricator can be separate components, they are often considered one unit in a pneumatic system. The FRL serves several functions. First, it removes any remaining moisture or contaminants from the air at the point of use. The regulator component of the FRL regulates the pressure so that it does not exceed dangerous limits and helps to reduce inefficiencies caused by overly high pressure. And finally, the last stage of the FRL provides light lubrication to the air increasing actuator lifespan in some high cycle rate applications. 
  6. Control Valve: Control valves are necessary in a pneumatic system as they control the direction and amount of air entering the actuators. 
  7. Actuators: Actuators are the devices within the system that convert the energy of the pressurized air into mechanical movement. Linear actuators will provide straight-line or linear motion, while rotary actuators provide rotary or circular motion. If the air compressor is the heart of the pneumatic system, actuators serve as the muscles. 

These components all work together as follows: Before air is drawn into the compressor, it passes through the air filter where contaminants are removed. The air is then sent into the compressor where it is pressurized. The still-warm compressed air enters the aftercooler then air treatment equipment where it is cooled cleaned and dried. The treated compressed air is then stored in the air storage tank until it is needed. Once in demand, the compressed air enters the FRL unit, which filters the air, regulates the pressure and, in some applications, lubricates the air. From here, the control valves send compressed air to the equipment that is demanding it including actuators converting the pressurized air into motion that drives the pneumatic-powered equipment. 

The Advantages of Pneumatic Systems 

There’s a reason that pneumatic systems are widely used throughout industry – they provide significant advantages. First and foremost, they are durable and reliable and the components cannot be damaged easily. In addition, compressed air can be distributed to the end point destination through a network of pipes and tubing producing high actuator forces and speeds.  Further, once used, compressed air can be released into the atmosphere without treatment. 

The design of pneumatic systems is also simple and suitable for use in automated equipment and machinery. Because they are durable, pneumatic systems are also ideal candidates for use in the dirty, hot and corrosive environments found in many industrial facilities. And they are safe to use in areas or environments that may be at risk for fire or explosion. Similarly, they are environmentally friendly as they do not produce pollutants or require the use of hydraulic fluids, which need proper disposal and clean up. This also makes them suitable for use in applications and industries that require high levels of cleanliness. Pneumatic systems are flexible enough to use for a variety of applications throughout the facility as the pressure and volume of air can be easily adjusted. 

But perhaps the most compelling advantage is the cost-effectiveness of pneumatic systems. Not only is the intake air available for free, but the components are not expensive, making the overall cost of the system low and, because the components are reliable and durable, the cost of maintenance is usually very low, as well. 

For information on designing an advantageous, low-cost, highly efficient pneumatic system for your industrial application, please contact JHFOSTER