It’s been a year full of gloom and doom — foreclosures, banking crises, record oil prices, a credit crunch, manufacturing and retail in a slump, and finally, an official recession. But that’s not the news coming out of the fluid power industry. Most industry leaders express caution and concern going into 2009, but the overall outlook and future is bright for this time-tested technology.

Power density equals industry power
Although everyone expects the next two years to produce fairly stagnant growth, the consensus is that fluid power — a mature technology — will continue to meet the needs of many industries because no other technology can pack the same punch when it comes to power density.

Inherently safe systems, such as this compressed airAccording to Eric Lanke, executive director of the National Fluid Power Association, “Fluid power is continuing to decrease in size and weight, and is beginning to migrate from heavy equipment to untethered, human-scale assistive devices. This will drive innovation in robotics, medical devices, and a host of other fields, replacing technologies that can no longer measure up to the strength and precision of fluid power.”

Terry Weeber, vice president for Gates Fluid Power North America, Denver, believes that fluid power technology is foundational to industrial America, but cautions that two of its biggest markets — automotive and residential construction — are reeling and will continue to bring the industry down somewhat. However, he says the diversity of the markets fluid power serves will keep it alive and well.

Dale Horihan, general manager of Continental Hydraulics, Savage, Minn., sums it up with these positive words: “I don’t see fluid power being pushed out of any industry entirely. In fact, there will be exceptions where hydraulics or pneumatics will be the only solution.” Adds Weeber, “The beauty of fluid power is that its applications, and therefore its markets and channels, are incredibly diverse. Much like personal investing, it’s smart to be diversified. The broader your marketing scope, the more stable your performance.”

These markets include infrastructure development, food processing, medical, oil and gas exploration, transportation and railroad safety, and more, explains William Van Arsdale president of Eaton’s Hydraulics Business, Eden Prairie, Minn., and Mark Shellenbarger, vice president of business development for Norgren Global, Littleton, Colo,

“Economic downturn or not, the industry in general will continue to expand,” says Tim Hanson, vice president, Sauer-Danfoss, Ames, Iowa. “There is still no economical replacement for the power density of hydraulics in agricultural, road building, and construction machines. With the additional infrastructures to create and mouths to feed throughout the world, growth will continue over the long term.”

John Treharn, vice president - Hydraulic Group, for Parker Hannifin Corp., Cleveland, agrees. “The power density and flexibility of fluid power have always been its key advantages, but the industry has done little in the past 10-15 years to advance these advantages. As a result, competing technologies have narrowed the gap,” Treharn continues. “I believe that an innovation rebirth will result in a wave of new fluid power products and technologies that will elevate the advantage of power density, improve the efficiency of fluid power solutions, overcome the negative image of not being environmentally friendly, and will enhance the control accuracy and repeatability of fluid control solutions.”

A changing face
The face of the fluid power industry is changing and will continue to change. As the economy softens over the next few years, some companies will grow while others contract. As Horihan says, the industry right now is made up of several large players who provide a large variety of standard type commodities and many smaller niche players who offer more custom products and solutions.

Hanson agrees. “Our industry has strong ‘total hydraulic system’ suppliers and numerous focused and very progressive ‘niche’ suppliers,” I can’t think of another business-to-business industry with more solid companies working to improve their industry than what I see in hydraulics. “

Weeber suggests that three major drivers have delivered us to the current state of fluid power and will continue to herald its future. “Globalization and consolidation — the world gets smaller while fluid power conglomerates grow larger. This ongoing trend applies to both manufacturers and distributors and its commercial impact is enormous.

“Then there is more technically advanced product development. We’re all pretty busy designing in greater performance, digital control, and envirofriendly materials while designing out cost and physical size and/or weight.”

Weeber concludes, “Lastly, our allure as an industry, as a technology, and as a career destination for young, bright, newly minted college minds will continue to be strategically important. Fluid power trade associations and many of their members concentrate heavily in this arena — and rightfully so.”

Research is the way forward

Fluid power technology has undergone evolutionary advances in the past 50 years, most agree, but research for more advanced, green systems and policies will most likely continue to capture the spotlight.

Green technologies, such as those used in windmills, solar power panels, hydraulic hybrid vehicle drives, and more, are a direct response to market needs. Moreover, the industry was prime and ready to respond to this need, and will continue to be so.

As Lanke puts it, the technologies’ limits have not yet been defined. “The fluid power industry is working with applications today that were undreamed of five years ago. Five years from now, we’re going to be working on applications not even conceived of today,” Lanke says. “With the on-going integration of fluid power with computer controls and electronics, with its hybridization with other technologies, and with the ground-breaking research currently going on in the field, fluid power will not just continue as a strong, viable industry; it is a technology poised to reshape our world.”

Van Arsdale reiterates this as he discusses Eaton’s hydraulic hybrid technology (see a news story about this on page 6) and its electrohydraulic controls — which he sees as the wave of the future.

“The electrohydraulic revolution is just getting underway, and it promises to change virtually everything about our industry. Putting the power density and efficiency of hydraulics together with the intelligence and responsiveness of electronics opens a whole new realm of application possibilities,” Van Arsdale says. “That technology is going to change the way people think about and use hydraulics as much as any development that has come along in the last hundred years or so. It’s a real game changer.”

Says Treharn, “Our industry must take advantage of new material and process sciences as well as evolve our own fluid power sciences through simulation and modeling tools. The days of using fluid power to create motion are quickly fading and being replaced by the need to create efficient motion.

“The creat ion of new alternative energy markets, the need to feed and provide drinkable water to a growing population, and the need to move more and more people efficiently will fuel the continued growth for our industry,” says Treharn. “If we can use innovation to accelerate the benefits of our technology, we should be able to recognize unprecedented growth — even in an industry that has historically been associated with severe economic cycles.”

Safety and efficiency go green

Most agree that developing safe, leak-free, efficient systems tie into the idea of the industry going green. For example, Shellenbarger says Norgren has developed several new products and system programs to reduce leakage, particularly in industries that require strong safety controls, such as oil, gas, and rail. For pneumatics, being green means being efficient and safe, he says.

“I think sustainability is going to be defined by whether the products are safe to use, the materials recyclable, and the types of packaging they come in,” Shellenbarger says. “If we can continue to do a better job of creating efficiency and safety, there’s a great future for the pneumatics industry.”

Horihan adds that the development of more environmentally safe and degradable fluids and efficient systems will be critical. “I think what you’re going to see is the actual operating efficiency will increase because of energy consumption and eliminating waste,” he says.

Continued research and testing of fluid power systems andAdds Van Arsdale, “It won’t be long before the new materials, manufacturing, and sealing technologies, and fluids now under development will make leaks a non-issue and reduce the industry’s contribution to the world’s waste disposal stream to a trickle.”

Most companies are advancing their research into safety-related technologies and products, says Weeber. The company (Gates), like most others, is investing into the science of safety and efficiency. “Certainly, green technology and green responsibility have become a virtual given as fluid power companies progress in their corporate lives,” Weeber says. “Regardless of the outcome, investment in pioneering technology like this is an example of the stake responsible fluid power companies must place in reducing energy consumption and overall carbon footprint.”

Sauer-Danfoss’ Hanson adds that the marriage of hydraulics and electronics will further enhance safety. “Such things as safety, noise, comfort and operating precision will be improved with the use of hydraulics combined with electronics, GPS, and improved human interface devices.”

Finally, says Parker’s Treharn, fluid power must overcome the perception of not being green. “I am convinced that our industry can and will overcome this negative image and then be in a position to leverage our power density advantage as also a green enabler,” he says.

Education key to the future
Industry must continue to partner with educational institutions and research associations to advance technology. Fluid power technology will not progress without young engineers being interested in entering the field.

Shellenbarger notes that programs like the FIRST Robotics competition, the CCEFP, Fluid Power Society, NFPA, and others will be critical in shaping the future of the industry. “It is important to get people interested in our industry and think about fluid power as a career,” he says. “This has to come from both industry and academia and research.”

Gates’ Weeber agrees collaboration is necessary. “One could presume that fiscal pressures being placed on manufacturers will constrain R&D dollars, putting even more importance on the role of education. If I’m an educator, I’m looking for credible and forward thinking fluid power industry participants to test my thinking,” Weeber says. “If I’m in the business of fluid power, I’m looking for an education partner to be additive to my own R&D.”

“With the convergence of electronics and fluid power, we need to ensure we expand our focus on multi-disciplinary resources combining mechanical, electrical, and fluid power skill sets,” says Van Arsdale. “We also need to continuously upgrade the skills of our existing engineers and technicians to support the growth and change we can see coming for the industry. Everyone from the technician in the back room at a distributorship to the Ph.D. in the research and development lab needs to constantly improve their skills and knowledge, and it’s up to Eaton and other fluid power employers to work with our colleges and technical schools to make sure that happens.”