Hydraulics engineers expand their horizons

  • 16-Mar-2012 11:38 EDT

Engineers participating in Eaton’s F(x) & IEC 61131-3 Certification course designed to teach skills to create, download, and test hands-on programs with real hardware for designers and creators of electrohydraulic systems.

“One big trend in the industry driving what we do as engineers is marrying hydraulics with the smarts of electronics—using software, electronic hardware, and signal processing to create optimized hydraulics systems,” said Ken Rasmussen, Director of Engineering for Power and Motion Controls at Eaton’s headquarters in Eden Prairie, MN. “Lots of R&D work in the business is now about how to create hybrid systems with software and controls. Because of this, we are seeing more spread in the type of engineers that are hired and retained globally.”

According to Rasmussen, the ideal engineer in the electrohydraulics industry now is a mechatronics engineer, who lives in the middle between the mechanical, electrical, and software world, and is able to handle all three. These are also sometimes called systems engineers or systems architects.

“Not only do you see a change in the type of engineers hired, but also in the demographic of those that are now part of your team,” he said, noting that substantial growth in the hydraulics world is found in Asia-Pacific, but not U.S. or Europe. Hiring and training engineers in India and China are a big part of Rasmussen’s job right now.

“Eaton has more than 150 engineers employed in India and is trying to get the same capability in China. Infrastructure is driving the growth in those countries. Where the company grows, you have to support that market,” he said.

Worldwide, Eaton takes a multi-layered approach to recruiting hydraulics engineers. One approach is its “Engineering Technology Leadership Program,” which recruits new graduate engineers via a corporate partnership with universities. Engineers in the program work for two years, one year each at two different businesses within Eaton before they are placed permanently. The program creates a pool of high-quality and high-caliber engineers available to the company for direct hire as future engineering leaders. Upon graduating from the ETLP, engineers are recruited internally and can consider openings in critical positions. The program has expanded from the U.S. and is now also in Europe and Asia-Pacific.

Not enough schools have a hydraulics focus or curriculum to provide the needed hydraulics engineering graduates, so another approach Eaton uses is hiring mechanical engineers and teaching them the technology.

For recruiting experienced engineers, Eden’s internal recruiting function brings engineers in with a variety of methods. Rasmussen said, “The hydraulic engineering world is not that large. People are connected through social networks like LinkedIn and big [online job] boards, and those channels are used often to bring people in.”

Eden has a full range of training facilities for customers and internal engineers, and also uses centers of excellence (COE). Experts in technologies such as CFD, FEA, magnetic analysis, or electronics and software groups are part of COEs that attract talent up to a critical mass and train each other so the work that goes through them meets the customers’ needs.

Engineers assigned to new projects can consult Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) located worldwide that have deep knowledge and act as mentors, but they can also go beyond SMEs to a “Knowledge Database” to see what’s been done in the past. This expertise resource contains references about technologies that have been developed over the past five years, such as processes, recipes, and design handbooks. As problems are solved, solutions are stored in it so they are searchable and readily available. Recognizing that engineers move from company to company, the database helps Eaton be careful about not losing work done, and it helps new hires come up to speed faster and provides higher quality results.

Many things go into retaining engineers at Eaton, and Rasmussen lists almost every aspect of working as important: the variety of work available, challenging projects, whether everyone the engineer works with has a development plan toward career goals, making sure you have good enough pay and benefits that they’re not the primary issue, and the latest and greatest tools and lab space.

Rasmussen mentions that quality is very important, but they are careful that engineers can work with the right balance between getting the job done on time, on budget, and with a high-quality result. The push to simultaneously meet a timeline and budget can cause conflict, and can hinder or help a person about how they feel about staying with the company.

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