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.”
Is certification the answer?
As for certification, the opinions vary. Some say certification is not valuable while others argue that it’s necessary to set some standards for the industry.
McLaren holds that certification is not the way to go. “There are tens of thousands of people holding fluid power ‘certification’ who are unable to promote safety, devise and implement a proactive maintenance system, and worse, cannot troubleshoot hydraulic systems,” he says.
Trinkel, who had several certifications throughout the years, does not see their value any longer, either. “In my opinion, certification is a Mickey Mouse way of giving titles to anyone who can read and answer enough of 40 questions to make a passing grade. It is just a money-maker for the several societies that certify their members as far as I’m concerned,” Trinkel says. “The certifications had absolutely no bearing on what I knew or was capable of doing, they were just pieces of paper for me to look at. Not even one customer asked about my certifications in the years I had them or since.”
Yet others see certification as a way to increase standards in the industry. “Certification is necessary, especially in an environment where many fluid power employees enter industry through non-traditional pathways and where many engineering curriculums do not contain the core fluid power instruction sought by the industry,” Lanke says. “NFPA recently came out in support of the certification programs overseen by the International Fluid Power Society as playing an important role in building a better fluid power workforce.”
Monroe says until more standards are developed at the university level, certification is necessary. “Certification does work because it sets a bar. Fluid power engineers should be certified by testing that is developed by fluid power component or system designers,” Monroe says. “Engineers study for four years to get a degree. If they want to specialize in fluid power, then they should have to pass a rigorous test.”
John R. Groot, who is retired from fluid power distributor Knotts Co., and is also active in the IFPS and the Fluid Power Educational Foundation, and who pioneered IFPS’ pneumatic specialist certification, concurs. “Just like a college degree, a certification program properly designed and executed, provides a level playing field. Certification I believe, does work, but what that means may be complex.”
Universities key to future
Kim Stelson, director of the CCEFP, attended the University of Bath in England to learn more about the field because that university is a world leader in fluid power. At the time, there were no research centers in the U.S. That is different today, as Purdue, Minnesota (where Stelson is co-lab director), Milwaukee School of Engineering, and others are now working with CCEFP to extend research capabilities domestically.
There has been much discussion of whether the industry needs a specialized fluid power degree. Some say it’s necessary; others say it would hinder students’ learning.
Groot thinks fluid power cannot be a standalone subject any more. “At the technician and mechanic level, most large customers are probably happy with the level of education and training, but the lack of an engineering degree in fluid power is a problem.”
McLaren also sees a degree as being absolutely necessary, but stresses that the curriculum be written around safe design practices and devised by the industry, not the universities.
Rather than have a full bachelor’s degree dedicated to fluid power, Stelson would like to create a situation where every undergraduate understands what fluid power is, the basics of it, and why it is used.
“I think an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering is very important for people to have a broad background in fundamentals,” Stelson says. “The problem is, fluid power is almost absent in the curriculum.
“However, not everyone will work with fluid power. Each year, about 20,000 bachelor’s degrees are given in mechanical, aerospace, and agricultural engineering; probably only a few hundred actually go into fluid power.”
At the University of Minnesota, all seniors must take a lab, with one of the choices being fluid power. The fluid power lab accepts 20 students per semester; so that’s only about 20% of the graduating class.
“We need graduate courses that teach certain specialties and this is where the research is and the where the specialty is,” Stelson says. “Purdue had a fluid power option and it’s slowly being developed in other universities.”
Degree or no degree, educators and researchers do see a practical need for more training at the university level. At NFPA’s Educator-Industry Summit in 2007, it was decided that getting more fluid power instruction into the curriculum of mechanical engineering programs was a more pressing need than working towards a bachelor-level degree in fluid power. “The objective should be to make sure that every mechanical engineer graduates with fluid power as one of the essential tools in his/her toolbox,” Lanke says.
Dr. Monika Ivantysynova, MAHA Professor Fluid Power Systems at Purdue University’s School of Mechanical Engineering & Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, is working to develop a specialized fluid power program at Purdue.
“Experience does not have as high a value as in the past,” Ivantysynova says. “In this country, you take good engineers with bachelor’s degrees and companies educate them in fluid power. That used to be okay because systems were designed much more simply, but now it’s not just about products and components; it’s a system level design now. Back then, you put components together to make them work. This has totally changed since we have computers. Now we need to design and develop products and components for systems that run on a computer and models that run on a computer.”
In 2005, she introduced a new course in mechanical engineering — Design and Modeling of Fluid Power Systems. She believes it’s crucial to have elective or standard fluid power in curriculum. “To teach this on a bachelor’s degree course is very hard. I think we need, at a number of universities, special courses in fluid power as Purdue does,” Ivantysynova says. “With this introduction to fluid power, we will hopefully attract more students for this field, then hopefully, they will do a Master’s degree or specialization in the field.”
Silva agrees. “I don’t see that a degree in fluid power is necessary as part of a mechanical engineering course. The tendency seems to be to offer a course as master/doctorate levels in the area of product design, with emphasis on fluid power,” Silva says. “In this case, the engineer’s knowledge will be evaluated much more by the skill he/she demonstrates when faced with challenges in fluid power rather than by a specific degree.”
Ivantysynova concludes, “Our goal is to have degree programs or possibly to specialize on an integrated level or certification. If we could do this, it would be very great for this country. It is really time the U.S. takes over again and tries to catch up so we can be competitive.”
For more information and to read an online exclusive article about the need to attract young students to fluid power, visit forums.hydraulicspneumatics.com. Also, see page 10 in this month’s Industry News department to learn more about the CCEFP’s university test beds. And, don’t miss other online education exclusives from Bosch Rexroth, Festo, AEM, and NFPA in our forums as well.
Your source for fluid power training
To find fluid power training near you, contact your local distributor or visit the following websites for a comprehensive list of associations, businesses, technical schools, and universities holding fluid power training:
Center for Compact & Efficient Fluid Power:
National Fluid Power Association:
NFPA’s Workforce Development Resource Center:
The International Fluid Power Society:
The Fluid Power Distributors Association:
The Fluid Power Educational Foundation:
Milwaukee School of Engineering:
University of Minnesota:
Fluid Power Training Institute:http://www.fpti.org/