Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. was a powerhouse in the fluid power industry, with one of the largest research facilities in the world at MIT. When that facility closed its doors in 1969, however, the world stage changed, and soon, new research centers were established in Germany and Bath, England. As technology changed and became more complex, it was easy for these new centers to become world leaders. And as computers and integrated systems took greater hold, countries like China and Japan jumped into the fray.

Today, educators, researchers, and business leaders say it is critical for engineers using fluid power to have easy access to training and development. Although fluid power education has been somewhat disjointed in the U.S., these many pieces and parts are coming together to create a more knowledgeable workforce, and hopefully, a growing one.

A plethora of options

Engineers can obtain education about fluid power in several ways — industry-led courses, certification programs run through the International Fluid Power Society (IFPS), and online training courses and self-study guides from organizations like the National Fluid Power Association (NFPA). Technical and specialized schools offer introductory and advanced in-person and online courses, and undergraduate and graduate classes are available at universities countrywide.

Most everyone agrees that to obtain proper understanding of fluid power, training must be done in two ways — with classroom training in theory and by putting those theories into practice with hands-on training.

Jonny Carlos da Silva, associate professor and coordinator of mechanical engineering graduate course at the mechanical engineering department at UFSC-Federal University of Santa Catarina, Brazil, says this most eloquently: “Considering fluid power as a broad field, the best way to learn it can be seen as a combination between a solid theoretical background with a good degree of technical experience in some fluid power application, be it maintenance, design, dynamic modeling or other area — automotive, industrial, agriculture.”

Pat Monroe, hydraulic system specialist with CFP Ltd., Dartmouth, N.S., agrees. He runs a private registered trade school that trains in hydraulic system operation, maintenance, and troubleshooting. “A combination of theory and hands-on is the only way to see what the system is doing. I think training has to stress the basics and the details.”

Monroe stresses the importance of fluid power specifics at the college level. “Engineers should be educated at the university level with heavy industry involvement. This is where research needs to take place,” Monroe says. “The engineers we graduate are the ones making the decisions on the power transmission solutions of the future. If we do not have engineers that are fully aware of the technology, then its application in industry will suffer.”

Eric Lanke, executive director of the NFPA, says this is something his organization and other industry leaders are working to address.

“Like many professional disciplines, a life-long approach to education will best serve the needs of the fluid power industry. Fundamentals should be taught in science and engineering courses at the middle school, high school, and undergraduate levels, and should include hands-on applications whenever possible,” Lanke says. “The specifics of fluid power products are best communicated by the employers manufacturing or distributing those products. And since the state of the technology is always advancing, continuing education opportunities should be offered by educational institutions, fluid power associations, publishers, and others with the appropriate expertise in fluid power.”

A team approach

This team approach is best exemplified in the Engineering Research Center for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power (CCEFP), which has brought industry and universities together to both advance fluid power technology and improve the state of fluid power education at multiple levels — graduate, undergraduate, high school, and middle school.

“NFPA has also launched the NFPA Education and Technology Foundation to help build and sustain a reliable funding mechanism for its fluid power research, education, and recruitment programs,” Lanke continued. “Close alignment between industry and educational institutions is essential for the success of all these programs.”

Business-led courses are offered through manufacturers and distributors to educate their customers on the proper use of their products. Applied Industrial Technologies, Cleveland, offers several training opportunities, says Tom Nash, hydraulic product manager. “Our external customers can attend five fluid power courses on basic and advanced pneumatics and hydraulics, and hydraulic troubleshooting. These are fee based. Internally, we have fluid power specialists that work hands-on for more of a one-onone training,” Nash says. “We have also developed an internal resource that is available for all associates. This is an interactive web based training with full cutaway type animations.”

Others, like Bosch Rexroth, Eaton, Parker Hannifin, and more, provide a variety of training materials on general fluid power and specifically, their products and uses. Materials from these can be found at the NFPA’s Workforce Development Resource Center website.

Some disagree, however, saying that the options available are not adequate to have properly trained, dedicated fluid power engineers and maintenance persons. “They should have the capabilities to apply the equipment and give knowledgeable feedback to the manufacturers about shortcomings of their product — plus, be capable of asking for new innovations,” says Edgar W. (Bud) Trinkel Jr., consultant, author, and founder of Hydra-Pneu Consulting.

Rory S. McLaren, a teacher, author, inventor, and director of the Fluid Power Training Institute who conducts hands-on hydraulics training, agrees. “There is no end to available options. The problem is, of the untold number of options available, how many are worthwhile?”

McLaren believes fluid power education should be three-fold — through universities, technical schools, and businesses. “Universities should teach engineers. Engineers must make safety the nucleus of their respective designs. Technical schools and colleges should teach practical hydraulics and diagnostics. However, the industry should dictate its needs to the schools. Currently, the schools move forward without industry guidelines. There should be a uniform standard of hydraulic education across the country. Finally, machinery and equipment manufacturers must also ‘raise the bar’ when it comes to hydraulics education. I think that they are most qualified to teach their unique hydraulic systems. However, their instructors must also be properly certified.”

Nash says that his experience mirrors how many fluid power users learned the technology. He worked for a regional fluid power distributor who trained him on the theory of fluid power. He also attended manufacturer schools because they had a hands-on element with each school.

“I did not feel I truly knew fluid power until I was employed with a small OEM actually designing and building specialty equipment that primarily used hydraulics,” Nash says. “I have rarely met anyone who had fluid power as a college course and can see a big difference in those with theory training and those with real world application experience. If you don’t include industry in training, the technologies being taught will get outdated.”