One of the more serious legacies of the recent economic downturn is the loss of engineering talent and experience that the downsized industry has endured. The experience can't be replaced, but the talent can if the industry does what is necessary to attract the best and brightest to our ranks.
The hard truth is that the fluid power industry has a perception problem. Today’s young engineers tend to see fluid power as an unexciting, archaic technology with little room for innovation or people who like to think outside the box.
The perception is wrong, of course, but that does not change the way all too many of today’s most promising young engineers see us. To make things even worse, many of the best universities do not even offer courses in fluid power, let alone degrees.
To its credit, the hydraulics industry has been addressing this issue, even during its recent hard times. Organizations such as the Center for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power (CCEFP), in which Eaton is a participant, are helping the industry attract and train the talented engineers that will be needed as we continue to emerge from the recession.
As an example, hydraulic hose failures have been an unpleasant reality, literally, since the invention of high-pressure hose. The standard solution has been to replace hose on some kind of arbitrary schedule that takes into consideration time, pressure, temperature, the number of flex cycles, and other factors to approximate expected hose life.
Millions of feet of perfectly good hose are discarded every year based on these approximations simply because there has been no practical alternative. The fact is that the industry has found discarding good hose to be less expensive than the productivity, environmental, and safety consequences of a failure.
Eaton initiated a research project to address this issue. We did not, however, do the research in-house. Instead, we chose to partner with Purdue University, an active member of the CCEFP.
Our engineers worked with Purdue researchers associated with the Agricultural Engineering Department and the Purdue Research Foundation and also provided access to Eaton's engineering staff and testing facilities in Maumee, OH. The goal was to identify measurable structural phenomena associated with hose deterioration and to develop technology to monitor them accurately.
The result was a patentable technology that enables the true condition of the hose to be monitored in real time to provide the operator with a reliable notification of imminent failure. The patent was assigned to the Purdue Research Foundation. Eaton has an exclusive right to the technology that is now commercially available as Eaton LifeSense hose.
Developing the technology behind LifeSense hose required original research and innovative problem solving. The student engineers involved learned first-hand that even something as ordinary as hydraulic hose can present them with intellectual challenges and the opportunity to make breakthrough discoveries.
The Purdue Research Foundation now owns a valuable piece of intellectual property that will benefit the University community for many years into the future.
Eaton has exclusive rights to a technology that can change the way hydraulic hose is used and maintained across a broad range of applications, creating a new value proposition in the market.
And finally, the global community of hydraulic users who are throwing away perfectly good hose assemblies today can now get full value from their hose investment while significantly reducing the likelihood of hose failure.
Efforts such as the LifeSense hose project are one way for the hydraulic industry to overcome the negative perceptions that have kept more of the best and brightest from choosing our business as a career. We, as an industry, will need to initiate many more efforts of this kind if we are to fill the talent and experience void caused by our recent economic difficulties.
There is no time like the present to get started.
Jeffrey Finch, Senior Vice President & General Manager, Eaton Corp., wrote this article for SAE Off-Highway Engineering.