Unskew the talent system and build a sustainable future

  • 30-Mar-2012 12:45 EDT

William VanArsdale, President, Eaton Hydraulics Group

We live in an age dominated by technology. It’s so ubiquitous we seldom consider the fact that every bit of it is a product of human ingenuity. Someone, somewhere, sometime was sufficiently intrigued by a challenge that he or she applied their intelligence, talent, and training to create a solution.

I am willing to bet the word “technology” immediately conjured up an image of a smart phone, tablet, or laptop in your mind. One of the main reasons why technology has become synonymous with electronics, and particularly computers, is because electronics and computer science have become huge consumer industries that naturally attract both R&D investments and talented people because of the potential for large returns.

As a result, the talent system—which has always served us well—has been skewing away from our industry. We need to change that trend because the future holds many challenges that aren’t going to be solved by computers and electronics without a lot of help from things like diesel-powered off-highway vehicles with robust, efficient hydraulic systems.

Retaining and attracting more talented people intrigued by the challenges those technologies offer is critical to the ongoing sustainability of our businesses, our industries, and our society.

It’s not as if those challenges are not timely and important. We are, after all, talking about the equipment that will build the wind farms, solar arrays, and natural gas power stations to supply tomorrow’s green energy; plant, cultivate, and harvest the crops to feed an ever-growing population from ever-diminishing resources; and repair or replace the global infrastructure that supports the whole human endeavor.

Those are not trivial issues. The question is how, exactly, do we let the people whose intelligence, talent, and training we need to solve them know that those intriguing challenges exist in our industry?

At Eaton we have developed a multifacetted approach that includes participation in organizations such as the Center for Compact & Efficient Fluid Power with its strong educational outreach to precollege and college students. We augment that with internship programs that bring students inside our laboratories, engineering centers, and manufacturing operations every year.

We also partner actively with universities in the development of new hydraulic technologies. For example, much of the research behind our recently introduced LifeSense hydraulic hose condition monitoring system was done at Purdue University. In fact, the patent underlying LifeSense technology was assigned to the Purdue Research Foundation to become part of its endowment.

LifeSense hydraulic hose essentially thinks for itself, detecting potential problems before they occur and sending an alert to operators to replace the hose prior to failure. Since even a small hydraulic leak can pose huge safety hazards and shut down equipment, LifeSense hoses contribute to safer workplaces, less downtime, and fewer environmental spills. The technology also prevents hoses from being replaced too soon, reducing waste and cost.

The graduate and undergraduate students who worked on or observed the LifeSense project now have a much deeper awareness of the level of technology involved in something as seemingly simple as a hydraulic hose. Ultimately, that experience may lead some of them to choose careers in hydraulics or mechanics rather than some other field. It’s a step in the right direction.

Electrohydraulics, the marriage of power-dense hydraulics and intelligent electronics, is another technology with the potential to attract new talent to our industry. One important application is in equipment to implement precision agriculture, a technology that reduces input costs and maximizes yields by applying precisely the right amount of seed, fertilizer, and chemical to the right acres according to a scientifically developed prescription.

If you don’t think precision agriculture is an exciting challenge, then consider these facts:

•    Only 3% of the Earth’s land area is suitable for agriculture, and on a per capita basis we’re going to lose a fifth of that in the next 20 years.

•    The Earth’s population is projected to be 9 billion by 2050. We will have to double food production in the next 40 years just to support projected population growth.

•    Increasing amounts of grain will be diverted to feed livestock and produce renewable fuels, placing even more pressure on farmers to be productive enough to meet the needs of both.

To those who are intrigued by the challenge of feeding the world, our industry offers a broad range of opportunities to contribute solutions. One of Eaton’s Canadian distributors, for example, recently helped a Manitoba farm operator turn a pickup truck chassis into a specialized crop-spraying vehicle able to navigate the heavy clay/gumbo soil in his fields.

One challenge was to get power to the front wheels that are mounted on long drop steering spindles to achieve the necessary crop clearance. Working with the Eaton Application & Commercial Engineering technical support team, the distributor created a hydraulic front wheel assist system powered by an Eaton hydrostatic pump working through an Eaton Posi-Traction flow divider.

The system also uses an Eaton gear pump to operate the spray pump, booms, and other auxiliary equipment. Everything is programmed and controlled with an Eaton EFX 1624 electronic controller. The system works so well that the farm operator uses it on dry fields in preference to larger commercial sprayers.

In another case, an Eaton electrohydraulic solution is at the heart of a sophisticated machine that harvests and cleans up to 3 ton (2.7 t) of potatoes per minute, nearly all of which are bruise-free. Since customers in the potato chip and french fry markets typically pay a premium for unbruised product, the new machine can impact a potato farmer’s profitability significantly.

Eaton supplied everything from the programmable touch-screen display in the cab to the high-performance Eaton DuraForce pumps, motors, and valves that make things happen deep in the heart of the machine. It’s all tied together with Eaton EFX controllers that communicate with device-mounted electronics via a single CAN bus cable.

And then there is this. Today it’s possible to connect a GPS receiver to an onboard computer and use the outputs to control electrohydraulic steering and implement systems to create a completely autonomous vehicle. To a farmer this means virtually no wasted land, seed, fertilizer, or fuel because the vehicle can traverse an entire field on a programmed path with almost no overlap between passes.

While a self-monitoring hydraulic hose, a sprayer able to navigate clay/gumbo mud, a bruise-free potato harvester, or even an autonomous tractor may not be as glamorous as the latest electronic wonder, each of them is an example of our industry bringing us a step closer to a sustainable future. They are solutions to challenges that intrigued someone who then applied intelligence, talent, and training to create a solution.

Sustainability is ultimately a question of balance between systemic inputs and outputs. Today the talent system is skewed in favor of consumer-driven electronic/computer technology, but it has not always been that way nor need it continue to be that way.

Our challenge is to retain and attract people who can integrate consumer, and even military, technologies into our products and services to create sustainable growth for our industry. It is up to us to make the case that the challenges offered by off-highway vehicles and hydraulics are every bit as intriguing as those offered by computers and electronics.

William VanArsdale, President, Eaton Hydraulics Group, wrote this article for SAE Off-Highway Engineering.

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