Industrial Utility Efficiency

SMC Innovates Pneumatic Solutions for Sustainable Automation

Located in Noblesville, Indiana, SMC Corporation of America’s campus encompasses 2.6 million square feet of manufacturing and warehouse space.

Manufacturers looking to optimize their compressed air systems to further protect the environment and improve profitability are increasingly turning to solutions in the form of pneumatics. And thanks to industry leaders like SMC Corporation of America, they’re having success.

SMC delivers not only solutions but innovation and expertise in pneumatic systems in order to ensure automated production equipment uses less compressed air and delivers peak performance in the process.


Exponential Growth in North America

Headquartered in Noblesville, Indiana, SMC Corporation of America ( has grown exponentially since the company began operations in the United States in 1977. Today, the Noblesville campus occupies 345 acres and encompasses 2.6 million square feet of manufacturing and warehouse space. 

Manufacturing areas at the campus feature a host of technological advancements, including an assortment of CNC machines and multiple cleanrooms engineered to manufacture pneumatic assemblies for use in high-tech industries. Recent investments, meanwhile, include the addition of a one-million-square-foot distribution facility to the campus. The state-of-the-art distribution center features an AutoStore™ storage and retrieval system. The new system manages 128,000 bins with a full grid storage capacity of 161,000 bins and is supported by 64 robots, 12 picking ports, five receiving ports, four automated carton erectors, and 8,842 feet of new conveyor lines. 

SMC Corporation of America’s state-of-the-art distribution center features a technically advanced storage and retrieval system. 

The new warehouse facility, like a number of other company initiatives, is designed to enhance customer service, said Andy Thedjoprasetyono, New Product Marketing Manager of SMC Corporation of America. 

“The facility contributes to our goal of growth in North America and the improvement of ensuring on-time deliveries for our customers and partners,” Thedjoprasetyono said. In all, SMC Corporation of America employs 1,500 people in North America.

Taking a cue from its parent company in Japan, the Noblesville operation is also committed to sustainability in every aspect of business, said Tak Takahashi, Special Projects Manager, SMC Corporation of America. 

Takahashi points to the company’s ongoing initiatives to manufacture automated control equipment products that deliver improved energy conservation performance with reduced size and weight. Takahashi said the initiative contributes to SMC Corporation’s global sustainability goals, as well as those of its customers. 

“We’re deliberately using the least amount of material in our products for the function, while also ensuring the same products deliver quality performance,” Takahashi said. “Lower weight also contributes to the efficiency of the automated production equipment where it’s used.”


Multiple Factors Fuel Interest in Pneumatics

Efficiencies in the form of less compressed air use, coupled with optimal performance, is the goal, said Jon Jensen, Energy Conservation Manager, SMC Corporation of America. 

Jensen, who chaired a session on “Improving Industrial Energy and Water Conservation” at the Best Practices EXPO 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia, in October, said there are multiple reasons behind the growing interest in innovative pneumatic methodologies and technologies as a way to reduce compressed air consumption and improve efficiencies in automated production equipment.

“Some of it goes back to the corporate pronouncements where companies have said things like, `We’ll reduce our CO2 footprint by 2030,’ ” Jensen said. “Consumer goods companies and especially food producers want to be seen as green. Plus, there’s the economic benefit since the cost of air per item produced can be lowered.”  

The level of sophistication in compressed air best practices and production equipment optimization is also increasing, Jensen said. To that end, he said many companies have compressed air systems in place that are highly capable of efficiently delivering a supply of compressed air. In many cases, he said the focus is now on the demand side of the compressed air equation. 

“Some are far enough down the road where they have Variable Speed Drive (VSD) air compressors and a flexible system with a main control that handles their air compressors,” he said regarding a common configuration for an efficient compressed air system. “The next target is reducing demand for air with each machine on the factory floor. ”

SMC develops eco-friendly pneumatic technologies designed to reduce air consumption in a variety of applications. 


Pneumatic Strategies and Methods Abound

From adjustments in pressure delivered at each machine to more efficiently designed production equipment with advanced pneumatics at the outset, the possibilities for reductions in compressed air use and energy savings throughout a manufacturing plant are as diverse as they are plentiful.

“Sometimes, it’s  simply getting the right pressure in the right place,” Jensen said, as an example of a strategy that involves the right mix of expertise and innovation. Another is the use of technology to reduce the pressure on the non-working side of a cylinder. “A linear actuator or cylinder doesn’t often need the same force in both directions. Adjusting the pressure from the working stroke to the non-working stroke is a technology that’s very easy to employ.” 

The application of two-pressure pneumatic circuits is an example of how companies can take things even further to achieve efficiencies and energy savings, Jensen said. 

“We’re moving toward not only adjusting the return stroke pressure, but we’re in the development of ways to recirculate the working stroke high pressure and recirculating it to retract the cylinder with no additional air. We’re building those into the actuator so it’s easier to employ,” he said.

Air-saving cylinders developed by SMC supply the non-working side of the cylinders with air exhausted from the working side of the units to achieve energy savings. 

Jensen cited pneumatic cylinder bore sizes as another innovative approach to reducing air consumption. Often, it’s as easy as “rightsizing,” he said.

“Traditionally, there are standard bore sizes, and a designer might say, ‘If I need a certain force, I might go to the next size actuator because it makes me more comfortable,’ ” Jensen said. However, he said, going to larger bore sizes that require more air isn’t always necessary. “If the 40-millimeter bore is too small and the 50-milimeter bore is too large, we make a 45-millimeter bore. If you’re designing a machine, why not have exactly the right size?”

In addition to a plethora of techniques with actuators and cylinders are numerous innovations involving pneumatic valves to reduce energy consumption. One example, he said, are valve configurations that reduce or eliminate compressed air use when a machine is idle.

“Can machine pressure be removed when the machine is idle? That has been key,” he said regarding valving technology that can be designed into production equipment to accomplish it. “Or maybe it’s not feasible to zero pressure when the machine is idle. But if we can go from 80 psi to 30 psi or 20 psi when the machine is idle, then that reduces usage right there.”


The Advent of the “Four-Bar Factory” 

Whether the technology is engineered into automated production equipment or retrofitted to existing machines, the use of advanced pneumatics generates incremental savings that add up  – especially given the general rule of thumb that 1% of required brake horsepower (bhp) is conserved for every two psi of pressure reduced. 

And while Jensen is quick to point out the general energy savings rule is contingent upon a number of factors associated with the supply side of compressed air in addition to the demand side of things, SMC Corporation of America is seeing companies achieve significant results. 

Jensen says some companies in Europe have succeeded in operating “Four-Bar Factories,” which means overall plant pressure required for normal operation is four bars (approximately 60 psi) versus pressures that can range anywhere from 90-125 psi. 

“The amount of savings, of course, depends on how compressed air is produced. But in many cases, dropping pressure by 15 psi generally results in around seven to eight percent less power being needed in the air compressor room,” he says. Another caveat, he says, is the production machinery itself.

“Those looking into a Four-Bar Factory initiative understand it’s going to require machine rework,” Jensen says. “You’re not likely to be able to simply turn down the regulator at the machine level without affecting performance. But we’ve had success with it.”


Collaboration and Measurement Key

Jensen said implementation of pneumatic systems on the scale of a Four-Bar Factory, as well as any other results-driven initiative, requires collaboration among all involved – including compressed air users and machine designers/builders in addition to the suppliers of pneumatic systems.

“It requires a lot of three-way and four-way meetings to get all stakeholders on board and engaged with the process, “Jensen says, adding that someone in the C-suite typically serves as the driving force behind the process.

“A corporate energy manager tasked with reducing energy realizes that one of the targets for that is compressed air,”  Jensen says as an example. “Then, the energy folks get to the operations people involved, and they look at specific targets. They then bring in the OEM to make sure changes don’t affect performance. It really becomes a collaborative process.”

Improvements also hinge on the monitoring and measurement of compressed air use. Jensen noted the company’s Air Management System as an example. The technology monitors and measures pressure, airflow, and temperature to provide efficient process control and reduce demand on air compressors. The data it provides can also be used to improve production machine uptime. 

“Reducing flow requires the production of less air,” Jensen said, adding that airflow monitoring also contributes to predictive maintenance. “Most pneumatic failures can be predicted by a leak. If average flow is going up by 10 or 20 percent, you know something has happened.”

Monitoring also prevents the potential for air compressors striving to meet artificial demand, he said.

“Raising pressure, of course, adds to flow. But if we haven’t raised the pressure to produce any more product, it’s compensating for something in the machine. Pressure and flow need to be monitored, and by doing so you can prevent unplanned downtime. We’re definitely starting to see interest in data that will let you know what’s happening at each machine.”


A Combination for Success

Combining a host of innovative technologies with thought-leadership in the application of pneumatic systems has clearly led to success for SMC Corporation of America. With a laser focus on sustainably meeting the increased need for automation – and doing so with pneumatic systems that enhance production with optimal use of compressed air – there is little doubt the company will prosper in the years and decades ahead. 


All photos courtesy of SMC Corporation of America.

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