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Bluetooth and Smartphone Configure Hard-to-Reach Hydraulic Valves

Bluetooth and Smartphone Configure Hard-to-Reach Hydraulic Valves

Remote wireless configuration is ideal for fine-tuning dredge arm control in the field—or, in this case, on the water.

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Configuring an electrohydraulic system in a controlled environment is challenging enough, but fine-tuning equipment performance in the field presents an additional layer of difficulty. Carrying and maintaining up-to-date specialized equipment and cables, protecting the technician and the equipment from hazardous conditions, accessing difficult-to-reach components…all serve to complicate the process, adding time and cost to the operations.

Most often, we think of heavy equipment—agricultural, mining, construction—on site in the middle of nowhere or deep underground. But imagine the challenges of an offshore dredging operation: floating in a sea of corrosive liquid; isolated and basically self-contained; and with the hydraulic systems located in a dark, noisy, hot, cramped engine room far from the equipment it controls.

The Application

Fig. 1
This illustration shows how the dredge arm descends to pull debris from the floor of waterways.

That’s the situation faced every day by the crew of the offshore dredge at Hillsboro Inlet, on the east coast of Florida. Captain Woodworth “Woody” Draughon—who first started with steam-powered bucket dredges in the Panama Canal—and Assistant Captain Scott Evans have been working together running the year-round dredging operation at Hillsboro Inlet for more than 20 years. This operation keeps the pass free of sand, both for boating traffic and drainage, to prevent inland flooding during storms.

Ellicott Dredges, Baltimore, is the largest dredge manufacturer in the U.S. and has been building dredges since 1885. It supplied all the dredges used in the original construction of the Panama Canal. Focused on cutter suction dredges, its largest dredge has an output of 2,000 cubic yards per hour. Working on board the custom 1170-S Ellicott Dredge, the crew stays busy running the dredging operation and maintaining the equipment in a hot, salty, humid environment. The dredge includes two diesel engines—the main Caterpillar C-27 and an auxiliary Caterpillar C-9—that power a 9,000-gpm pump pushing out 400 cubic yards of sand per hour from the dredge down across the bottom of the pass and out onto a nearby beach to replenish the shoreline.

Ellicott has worked closely with its local Sun Hydraulics distributor, Advanced Fluid Systems, for the past 25 years. AFS has assisted in the development of cutter heads, ladder circuits, spuds, and winch controls for dredges of all sizes. The 1170-S dredge at Hillsboro Inlet uses between 25 and 30 Sun cartridge valves and five Sun coils for control of directional and proportional valves.

The Challenge

One of the Sun valves, an electrohydraulic proportional valve, controls the swing winch used to adjust the speed of the dredge arm movement and has to be configured to ensure proper operation. Once on board the dredge, you can see the challenges Draughon faces when configuring that valve.

Fig. 2
Hydraulic winches control positioning of the vessel’s dredge arm, and a hydraulic motor rotates the cutter head that pulls debris from the waterway floor.

With the cutter head at the bow of the dredge, the control room two stories above the deck, and the engine room at the other end of the dredge and down below the deck, the process of fine-tuning the valve includes a lot of back and forth, up and down ladders. The captain has to drag a handheld programmer and cables down into the cramped, dark engine room to the winch control hydraulics, connect physically to the amplifier, step through the settings, then climb back out and up to the control room to operate the controls and view the results of those settings. From start to finish, fine tuning the valve to optimize the winch performance can take hours.

When Sun Hydraulics Corp., Sarasota, Fla., introduced its new Bluetooth Embedded Amplifier configured using its AmpSet Blue smartphone app, John Caldwell of Advanced Fluid Systems saw an opportunity. A sales engineer at AFS for more than 25 years, Caldwell has worked closely with Ellicott on hydraulic and electrical systems. He knows first-hand the challenge of configuring a new amplifier on these dredges and targeted this application as a perfect example of how this new approach to remote, wireless amplifier configuration could save time, money, and effort.

Sun Hydraulics is a major designer and manufacturer of high-performance screw-in hydraulic cartridge valves, manifolds, and integrated packages for worldwide industrial and mobile markets. With an expanding line of electrohydraulic solutions—including the new Bluetooth Embedded Amplifier—Sun works closely with High Country Tek (HCT), a wholly owned subsidiary of Sun, to develop innovative electronic control solutions for hydraulic applications.

The Product

Fig. 3
Hydraulic winches control positioning of the vessel’s dredge arm and a hydraulic motor rotates the cutter head that pulls debris from the waterway floor.

Sun’s new Bluetooth Embedded Amplifier, the industry’s first commercially available Bluetooth-configurable product, provides a compact, factory-integrated coil and connector combination for use with Sun’s proportional solenoid valves. And yes, there’s an app for that. Users configure the embedded amplifier wirelessly using Sun’s AmpSet Blue app on their iOS and Android mobile devices for quick, easy, reliable wireless calibration.

AmpSet Blue allows users to locate and “pair” with the selected amplifier using their smart device and to adjust all parameters of the proportional controller through several simple screens. This eliminates the need to carry a separate programmer or expensive laptop with special cables. With the app, users can name each device and save, store, recall, and share settings for future use. For security, the settings of the device can be password protected to prevent tampering by unauthorized individuals.

The amplifier is CE certified to the latest standards, including the 30-V/m automotive standard (per Directive 2009/19/EC). Because it is fully encapsulated and sealed to IP69K—and offers vibration, shock, and environmental protection—it is intended for installation in harsh environments, including the engine rooms of saltwater dredges.

The Installation

Caldwell contacted Draughon, proposed the installation of the new Bluetooth amplifier, and headed south to Hillsboro Beach. Because it requires no stand-alone programmer or laptop with special cables, all that was required for a successful installation of this new solution was the Bluetooth amplifier and Draughon’s iPhone.

Fig. 4
Even though the dredge’s proportional control valve is buried deep within the bowels of the engine room near the stern of the vessel, Bluetooth communication allows for making adjustments at a considerable distance from the valve.

To install the new amplifier, they disconnected the cable connector, removed the installed coil by removing the nut assembly, slid the new Bluetooth amplifier over the installed solenoid valve, tightened the nut, and reconnected the cable connector. Time to install: less than five minutes.

To configure the amplifier, Draughon opened up the App Store on his phone, searched for “Sun Hydraulics,” located the AmpSet Blue app, and downloaded it to his phone while standing on the deck of the dredge. Time to install: less than five minutes.

Draughon walked through the various settings available on the app, then went to the engine room to confirm connection with the amplifier. Every time you open the AmpSet Blue app, it initiates a Bluetooth scan, looking for any Sun Bluetooth amplifiers that are powered up and within range. When the captain started the app up, it identified the new amplifier. Once he clicked on the detected amplifier, the app paired with the amplifier and the status light blinked blue, indicating that connection was made and configuration could begin.

With smartphone in hand, Draughon climbed back out of the engine room, up onto the deck of the dredge. His assistant Scott Evans climbed into the control room to start up the diesel, and they began the process of dialing in the settings for the dredge arm. Draughon stood on the deck by the bow to observe the behavior of the arm and adjust the settings of the amplifier back in the engine room. Meanwhile, Evans operated the arm.

A big challenge with dialing in the settings for this application lies in the deadband tuning. In the control room, Evans needed to rotate the potentiometer controlling speed almost half a turn before the dredge arm began to move at all. On the deck, in sight of the arm and in communication with Evans, Draughon was able to raise the minimum output. This allowed higher current from the coil at a lower command voltage and caused the boom to move just after they started to turn the potentiometer. Because of the quick configuration and feedback, the crew was able to set the valve more precisely to their liking, more easily, and in less time.

The Result

Having wireless remote control of the Sun Hydraulics’ Bluetooth Embedded Amplifier offers a new level of convenience and safety in configuring hydraulic systems in challenging locations. New users can download the AmpSet Blue app with their iOS or Android smartphone that’s already in their pocket, launch the app, pair with the amplifier, and begin configuration in minutes.

For the crew on board the dredge at the Hillsboro Inlet, who spend a lot of their time maintaining their equipment in a warm, humid, corrosive environment, it’s a major benefit to quickly, precisely dial in the dredge arm speed while spending less time in the engine room and less energy climbing up and down the ladders of the dredge. 

This new Bluetooth amplifier/app combination opens up opportunities across a broad range of applications, both mobile and industrial, where cost, reliability, ease of use, and security are critical. Add to that its noise compliance and robust environmental protection, and you have a solution for many of today’s most challenging electrohydraulic applications.

Chad Lampton is a product engineer at Sun Hydraulics Corp., Sarasota, Fla.

Download this article in .PDF format
This file type includes high resolution graphics and schematics when applicable.
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