Electromechanical actuators gain traction

21st July 2023

Despite electromechanical actuators being highly suitable for applications within the materials handling sector, hydraulic sales to the sector are still rapidly growing, according to market intelligence agency Interact Analysis research analyst Brianna Jackson.

She adds that the sales of hydraulics within the materials handling sector are projected to overtake sales to the agricultural sector by 2026.

As a result, the materials handling sector will become the second-largest sector in the mobile hydraulics market, much of which can be attributed to the rapid growth which is forecast for forklift sales within warehousing applications over the next several years.

“The question then becomes to what extent will electromechanical actuators penetrate the market and replace traditional hydraulic cylinders. In our research, we quantified the rate of total hydraulic replacement of cylinders through an analysis using a ratio of cylinders per pump in the market,” she notes.

To explain in greater detail, Interact Analysis estimates that for the entire market, the number of cylinders per pump sold was 1.68 in 2019. However, the agency expects that ratio to decline to 1.57 by 2026, representing an overall decline of 6.4% over the forecast period.

For the materials handling sector, this decline in the number of cylinders per pump is even steeper at -8.8% over the forecast period.

“This would imply a greater rate of replacement in favour of electromechanical actuators within the materials handling sector.

“This analysis should be taken with a pinch of salt as changes to the number of pumps will also impact on the ratio. We do believe, however, is that it’s directionally insightful and the results mirror what we heard during interviews with hydraulics suppliers and original-equipment manufacturers (OEMs),” says Jackson.

Market Shift

However, as vehicle electrification continues to gain traction in the off-highway vehicle market, mobile hydraulic components and architectures will have to change to support electrified powertrains.

“One of the most obvious changes facing the mobile hydraulics market is the threat of total replacement in favour of electromechanical solutions. Fortunately for hydraulic suppliers, traditional hydraulics offer unmatched power density,” she says.

However, Jackson notes that there are applications with low power demands and flexible duty cycles, which could foster this kind of hydraulic substitution.

Meanwhile, historic data from Interact Analysis suggests that hydraulic cylinders may be replaced by electromechanical actuators within vehicles in the materials handling sector more quickly than previously thought.

For select applications, the power density and cost obstacles for replacing hydraulic cylinders with electromechanical actuators are already relatively easy to overcome, which Jackson says is “particularly true for materials handling vehicles such as forklifts, aerial work platforms and telehandlers”.

Within the materials handling sector, the advantage of replacing hydraulics is multifold: improving vehicle efficiency, preventing fluid leaks and noise reduction.

Further, vehicle OEMs tend to be risk averse in changing the systems which have already been proven for their vehicles, hence, change in vehicle architecture happens slowly.

However, Jackson points out that OEM sentiment may be warming to altering vehicle hydraulic architectures as the rate of electrification picks up.

“Many market leaders in the global mobile hydraulics market do not offer hydraulic cylinders. Resultingly, the hydraulic cylinder market is significantly more fragmented. This leaves a wide-open field for both hydraulic vendors as well as motion control product vendors to fill this space,” she says.

Jackson adds that, thus far, most of the electromechanical actuators that would be suitable for mobile applications are offered by vendors such as Thompson and Ewellix – two vendors that are well established in the motion control market.

There are also smaller startups in the market, such as Sweden-based Cascade Drives, whose technology is already being used in forklifts.

“This is clear evidence that vehicle electrification will offer opportunities for the motion control vendors that were previously reserved for hydraulics suppliers,” she comments.

In anticipation of this trend, many mobile hydraulics vendors are expanding their technological expertise by acquiring and partnering with electromechanical actuator manufacturers.

She concludes that, as electrification in off-highway continues to develop, mobile hydraulic vendors will need to be continuously monitoring these sorts of trends.

“Status-quo bias can be prevalent in mature markets, and it will be important for mobile hydraulic suppliers to recognise that some level of substitution is likely to occur. While this substitution will represent lost business for some, it represents an opportunity for forward-thinking suppliers, and we expect many to jump on the trend.”