Fluid Power Trends
Interdisciplinary collaboration leads to new innovation in hydraulics and automation.
When I was first approached to write this article, my mind was a whirl of state space equations and complicated closed loop hydraulic applications – I mean, whose wouldn’t be? After much thought (and some sound advice), I decided to describe a growing industry trend that starts with a human resource factor.
In earlier days, the hiring trend in the hydraulics industry was to pull from a talent pool that comprised people with primarily mechanical backgrounds. The overall shift away from this kind of hiring – to instead draw people from a broad, diverse and multidisciplinary background – has led to many advancements in the industry. These advances can be seen in both the product development being done by manufactures, as well as the overall system design development by integrators.
My own path through the hydraulic industry is an example of someone entering the hydraulics industry from a nontraditional background. I got my start in the Electrical Engineering Technology – Control System program at Humber College in Ontario. After starting with Motion Industries (Canada) Inc. as an electrical specialist, I worked closely with both Motion’s shop services and their tech team to provide programming and system design support on capital project-based work. Lots of automated hydraulic, lubrication and pneumatic systems, with the odd purist VFD/servo application of course. I ended up going back to school for a degree in electrical engineering and now manage Motion’s Calgary Service Center, as well as their team of system designers.
As a result of this journey, I have realized several things. First and foremost, I love this industry. It has been my distinct pleasure to work with some of the best and brightest out there, and I am eternally grateful for that opportunity.
Second, there’s a lot of overlap in electrical/mechanical world; I mean, we all follow the same laws of physics, right? Some of the best programmers I’ve met came from a mechanical or even chemical background and had a strong aptitude for the work. I think the same is true from the automation to hydraulic world. The crossover in theory is very easy to adapt and is, in fact, quite intuitive.
Third, the hydraulics industry is ever-evolving. As things like integrated amplifiers, modular controls, better PID and tuning algorithms and the overall electrification of the hydraulic world continues to advance, so do the possibilities for system design. Those who adapt and embrace these changes (OEM machine builders, systems integrators, product designers) are going to be the ones driving this industry into the future. They will also be the benefactors of being on the leading edge of technological advances.
As far as industry trends go in the hydraulic world, this electrification/automation of things is by far the most prevalent and one that is still developing. Every day, it seems a new product is being offered and always with an integrated electrical control, amplifier or other embedded device. Things like combining electrical servo motors with a fixed displacement pump would have been an odd sight a decade ago. As would including a particle counter as a permanent installation to improve a customer’s preventative maintenance.
Advances in building inexpensive, reliable, integrated circuits with massive processing abilities is finally spilling out of the “Tech Sector” into the “Industrial Sector” at an exponential rate. This has allowed manufacturers to provide relatively lower-cost, advanced product offerings.
As hydraulic products continue to advance and change, so do the companies that make, distribute and use them. Long past is the vision of a “hydraulic guy” being someone in oily coveralls with a wrench. The industry as a whole is evolving and is starting to on-board people from broad and diverse backgrounds. Manufacturers like Eaton continue to make strategic acquisitions and build up synergies internally within its own electrical divisions. Breaking down these historical demarcation points is enabling them to provide better, more advanced and well-supported innovations. The human factor coupled with ever-advancing technology will continue to impact this industry.
Further movements like the IEC 61131-3 and programming software like CODESYS have empowered hydraulic manufactures to easily supply control package platforms for their new products. This provides the end user with a high-quality and industry-tested control system that has the benefit of a standard programming language. It also enables the manufacturer to preload these controllers with custom function blocks geared to help the end user easily integrate their entire product lines into a system.
I could give further examples, but in my opinion, this evolution has helped to break down barriers and bring together two genres of experts. This combination allows for stronger product development and system integration.
The trend across industries is moving away from compartmentalizing specialties and towards a multidisciplinary model, allowing for much more cross-pollination. Working for a number of companies throughout one’s career, combined with the increased connection of people through social media, is allowing the formation of some interesting companies, unique products and innovative projects.
As a final note, I thought I would include an example of a recent project whose success was driven by my company’s multidisciplinary team of system designers. The application was to drive a screw conveyor for a product loadout being added within an existing facility. The addition of the system to this existing infrastructure made for some extremely tight space constraints. We were asked to consult on an alternative drive to the traditional motor/gearbox. We designed, manufactured, installed and commissioned the entire system consisting of the main drive, the control of the loadout knife gates and slew ring drives.
Simplified, the heart of the system is a high-torque, low-speed Hydre-MAC radial piston motor that is driven from an Eaton HPV280 closed loop variable displacement piston pump. Everything was built and commissioned in-house, including the control panel/system (CSA’d at our Calgary location). The success of this project was undoubtedly a result of the diverse background and training of our system design team, as well as that of the manufacturer who developed and built the components used.
Since entering this industry well over a decade ago, I had no idea what was in store. Looking back, I wouldn’t trade it for anything and feel honoured to still be a part of it. As I look to what the future holds, I’m excited for the innovations that are still to be seen. These innovations will, without a doubt, be the result of the hard work and forward thinking of the brilliant men and women currently working in the industry, and who are quite possibly from those alternative talent pools still waiting to be tapped.
Ian Miller, E.I.T. is Branch Manager of Motion Canada’s Calgary Service Center and Alberta-based Tech Group with more than a decade of hydraulic and electrical experience