We all can recognize the rising problems in the industry. Fewer and fewer students are reaching toward engineering as a career option. Regulations are pulling companies in all different directions while they put projects on hold to address the growing environmental concerns. And, while new standards are being met, innovative solutions to other concerns have taken a back seat.
At the recent National Fluid Power Association's (NFPA) Economic Outlook Conference, Wheeling, IL, the greatest concern on everyone's mind was the decreasing interest and progress of the engineering community, and more specifically, the fluid power industry. However, one speaker in particular grabbed the audience's attention and captivated not only fluid power fanatics, but engineers from other industries as well.
Sohan Uppal is a recent retiree of Eaton Corp.'s Fluid Power Group. Formerly the vice president of technology, he now spends his free time — no, not golfing — researching how to integrate fluid power with other technologies to create functionality that people haven't even thought of. What makes Sohan unique is his willingness to support technologies outside of his field. Though he worked with fluid power for 37 years, he realizes the benefits of other technologies such as mechanical and electric. Instead of focusing on how fluid power can achieve advanced functionality, Uppal mixes and matches the best from each technology to supply the best solution possible.
The whole reason we invest time into furthering technology is to advance society. If you do not utilize the best resources available, you cannot produce the best product. Each technology has its own benefits that, when put together, could create the greatest result.
Electric technology give machines the "smartness" or its brain. Mechanical technology allows for consistent efficiency that is not dependent on fluctuating circumstances (e.g. fluid pressure, leaks, etc.) Hydraulics has a high power density to contribute, and when the three technologies are integrated, you can achieve an advanced, functioning solution. But, before major advancements can be made, there are basic problems that need to be solved.
Right now fluid power is perceived by many people outside the industry as a dirty industry, a stagnant industry, an industry with little forward movement. It has a lot to do with basic problems such as external leakage, noise vibration harshness (NVH) and system efficiency.
In order to solve an industry problem, the industry has to work together.
The fluid power industry must solve the basic problems in order for people to have a better perception of the industry as a whole. Once the basic problems are solved, the larger issues can be addressed more attentively. Consider if you make a change in fluid power, such as creating an immensely efficient machine, but the hydraulic system is very noisy. The innovation is going to seem insignificant since the entire system is still too loud. The larger changes cannot be seen nor appreciated until the smaller issues are fixed.
The small issues, in Uppal's opinion, should be attacked on all sides by everyone in the industry instead of competing with one another. The point is not to get rid of competition. Not only is that unrealistic, but it is impossible in our society.
"We live in a competitive society," says Uppal. "I cannot tell every company to work together. People will laugh at it. If you look at a basic, common problem that does not compromise any company's personal integrity and identity, I'm for it."
The larger issues can be tackled by each competing company, but the small issues need to be resolved quickly and efficiently, and the best way to do that is to work together to create the best possible solution for the industry, not just a solution for one company or brand. In order to solve an industry problem, the industry has to work together.
To give the hydraulics market an opportunity to expand into areas such as collecting and storing renewable energy sources, converting energy into a usable form and hybridization, Uppal says three actions need to take place. First, the basic hydraulic issues must be resolved. Second, technologies must be integrated to achieve an advanced functionality. And lastly, there needs to be a quantum leap into core technology. That includes dramatically increasing power density and utilizing alternate fluids.
"In order for the three actions to be possible, the industry must attract top talent, think outside of the box; encourage a revolutionary mind-set; create a sense of urgency; take more risk; embrace a long term perspective; and partner with academia, organizations and government agencies," he says.
"People have to start with a vision to be able to do something that really brings excitement. People who see the change will think, 'I never thought that could happen.'
"To attract the top talent, the industry has to do two things. They have to do something that brings the excitement and the enthusiasm to students, and the educators in the university and schools have to publicize the positives to communicate 'this is an old technology, but it has potential.' There are jobs and there is a lot of potential in this industry to create change."
When students are picking universities and planning their career path, the first thing they ask is, "Will I have a job when I graduate?" Unfortunately, there is very little academic support for the fluid power industry. Today, many universities don't even teach fluid power.
"What you don't hear about, you don't know about. I think the universities also need to recognize the value of this technology, and they should be trying to teach the basics of hydraulics and fluid power so people develop their trust in the technology," Uppal says. Without academic interest and support, people won't know what kind of job opportunities are available in the field.
Secondly, students look into whether or not there are internship programs and funding for research assistantships. "When I look into fluid power, the amount of research grants and scholarships are fractions in comparison to what you see in other fields." The fluid power industry is a $30 billion industry, but receives only $5 million of funding. That is barely a drop in the bucket by comparison to the potential the industry has. "People who don't have money for college, or people who look for grants or research assistantships, will see that there is nothing there to support them.
"There is no draw into the field in the first place. This is where the industry can help a lot with some sort of program, whether it is an internship, a co-op, scholarships, or a research assistantship. The industry has to wake up and say, 'How can we attract the top talent?'"
Newcomers in universities need to be supported by the industry with programs and scholarships. Agencies have to feel a sense of excitement towards the industry in order to provide the funding. Whether it's the NFPA, the ERC (Engineering Resource Center), they have to play a very active role in challenging the industry, university and government agencies to create that sense of urgency.
"The time is now, the urgency is today!"
"There are a couple of fundamental problems. It takes too long to develop a new product. Engineers should also take the challenge to do things faster. If I am the owner [of a hydraulic component manufacturing company], I would probably be concerned that hydraulic products take too long. If you look at the electronics industry, people like it because it is a fast producer and innovator. It has a new product every six months. With all of the programs available for the fluid power industry, it is our mind-set that slows us down. The customer is concerned about the time it takes to deliver a new product, the reliability of the product and the functionality of the product. The engineers have to wake up, now. The time is now, the urgency is today.
"They need to bring this challenge to the leaders and bring the urgency to the present. Leadership has to be thinking about how they can be looking at the bigger picture and longer perspective."
This is just another example of how the industry needs to be working with others like academia and government agencies in order to create the best environment for innovation and change. "The way I look into the large companies, their strength is the financial support. But large companies are like large ships, they are hard to turn."
Uppal encourages large companies to look into creating a small part that can act like a small company and is much more responsive. "Large companies with lots of resources and financial strength are tied up in day to day activities," so many that it takes a long time to make a change. "Small companies have little financial strength, and they spend their time trying to collect funds instead of working on the solutions. Large companies are so Wall Street-focused they can't do anything quickly; it takes them too long to develop a product, and then they can't look toward a longer perspective.
Taking the reins
"This is where I believe leadership plays a big role," explains Uppal. "I think we need to have some kind of free time for people that are evolutionary. The creative people are all busy, but the supervisor is always asking, "What did you get done today?" Instead of asking about day to day, month to month, quarter by quarter measurements, creative people should be valued for their accomplishments in a long term perspective."
We need to make sure that when we are looking into new ideas for products, we utilize a long term perspective and give the creators time to flex their muscles and develop something really outstanding to give the industry new life. Allowing for this creative relaxation will encourage engineers to think outside of the box.
"The first thing to consider is, Do we have the tools? Yes. Beyond those tools, we need to have a bar raised enough so that people think outside of the box. For example, if you tell me, 'I want you to develop a car where I get 200 mpg,' think of how my brain will start thinking.
I am a believer that the human mind can be steered any way you want it. If you set the goal high, you will be thinking high. If you have to jump 5 ft., you would use a different strategy than if you had to jump 20 ft. To jump 20 ft. you'll need a long pole to accomplish that distance. You would never think of a pole if you only had to jump 5 ft. The pole is sitting there — you have the tools available — but you will never use a pole unless your goal is raised high enough to think outside of the box, beyond the normal plane of thinking."
The fluid power industry must promote the idea of how much this technology can bring to the table when it's integrated with the other technologies. This is a core technology that can make a major change in the functionality of many products and applications.
It seems to be a vicious cycle that has been created: There is little enthusiasm or knowledge about the industry, but in order to create more excitement, there needs to be an innovative creation. In order for innovation to take place you need to have enthusiastic new minds to think outside of the box, but there isn't enough funding for students and young engineers to research new technologies. The innovative minds that are available to make a significant development are tied up either collecting funding or meeting day to day expectations.
The urgency for change must be realized by everyone involved in the industry, and someone has to bite the bullet and step in and start making some waves. The ERC (Engineering Research Center) is currently working with the NFPA for internship programs to promote a better future for the fluid power industry. But the future of development and engineering cannot rely solely on what is currently being done. An energy has been lost from the industry that must be rejuvenated to bring passion and intrigue back. The next generation of engineers is craving excitement and change, and it's up to each individual to contribute.