Special IMTS show feature sponsored by Eaton
The fluid power industry has a perception problem, and if we don’t start addressing it soon, the problem may well turn into the kind of positive feedback loop we all try to avoid building into our systems. In a nutshell, the action today among young engineers is heavily focused on electronics, and those same young engineers tend to see fluid power as a dirty, archaic, boring technology with no room for innovation or people who like to think outside the box.
Those of us in the industry know those perceptions are wrong, 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 universities today don’t even offer courses in fluid power, let alone degrees.
Promising students aren’t offered nearly enough scholarships, fellowships, or internships to study fluid power related technologies. And to the extent those students choose to pursue careers in electronics where those incentives are available, the fluid power industry is increasingly starved for new talent to drive the innovation we need to create the future we’re all working toward. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that none of these things are inevitable. We, as an industry, can address and change all of them for the better, and it is very much in our own best interest to do so. In fact, we don’t really have a choice, because as Donna Pollander, Executive Director of the International Fluid Power Society (IFPS) said recently, “electronics has become the preeminent control medium for fluid power.”
The irony of the situation in which we find ourselves is that fluid power and electronics are complementary technologies. Fluid power supplies the “muscle” and electronics provide the “brains” of modern systems in both mobile and industrial applications. And “intelligent” systems are the future for many applications. The fact is that we need each other, and we need to find new ways to get that message out.
The IFPS has launched an initiative to create an Electronics (Electronic Controls) Certification program. The IFPS, Donna Pollander says, is “working with a cross-industry advisory committee in developing an electronics certification program to verify the higher competency skills associated with the successful application of these controls.”
She describes the project this way: “Our plan is to first develop a specialist certification, Certified Fluid Power Electronics Specialist (CFPES), immediately followed by Industrial Technician (CFPIET) and Mobile Technician (CFPMET) certifications. Our industry needs and has requested a certification to verify the higher competency skills associated with the successful application of these electronic controls.”
Eaton is a major sponsor of this initiative – the company has contributed funding to support the program– and will be an active participant in the development process. We are confident that it will make a significant difference over the long run by providing both incentives and rewards to talented individuals who choose careers in fluid power control systems. That’s one form of positive feedback that will help increase the number of qualified people available to the industry.
Another is the ongoing training program Eaton has developed in association with Alexandria Technical College (Alex-Tech) in Alexandria, Minnesota. Here we are taking the approach of improving the skills of individuals who already are pursuing careers in fluid power by training them to use the advanced electronic tools that exist today. Program graduates receive CONTROL F(x)™ Certification from Eaton’s Training Services Department.
Eaton’s Product Manager for Electronics, A.J. Smith, says that Alex-Tech’s association with Eaton and IFPS will lead to fellowships for the college’s students, and fuel the growth of their program. “It’s a win-win situation with academia and industry working together to address the industry’s needs while improving the skills and earning potential of the students.
“This really is a cooperative effort,” Smith adds. “We currently have six training sessions planned for 2008 at various Eaton facilities. Three of them will be led by Alex-Tech instructors, and three by Eaton trainers.”
In a recent session, students from Eaton distributors in the U.S. and Canada spent a week in Eden Prairie earning their CONTROL F(x) certifications. Eaton’s CONTROL F(x) is a standardized approach to control software development based on the IEC 61131-3 programming standard – the first global standard for industrial control.
From near to far in the front row –Terry Gomez – Sales for Eaton (Canada), Lee Jepsen – Sales for Eaton (Canada), Devin Klotz – HyPower Systems (Canada), Pat Kinnison – Hydraquip (Oklahoma), Curtis Steele – HyPower Systems (Canada)
A.J. Smith describes the importance of CONTROL F(x) this way: “IEC 61131-3 defines common data structures and programming methodologies so multiple engineers and programmers with different skill sets can collaborate efficiently to develop application programs. The resulting applications are completely scalable and can be maintained an/or modified by anyone trained in the standard.”
In practical terms, Smith says, that means previously-developed logic based on the standard can be re-used to create new systems quickly. Re-use of previously tested and implemented control logic not only increases the efficiency of development, but also the reliability of the end application.
“IEC 61131-3 is supported by the ‘PLC Open’ standards user group,” Smith added. “The programming languages and conventions are all specified and standardized, which means anyone familiar with the standard can program any standard-compliant devices. So, anyone with a CONTROL F(x) certification can apply their knowledge to any manufacturer’s equipment using the standard.
“Of course, not everyone builds standard-compliant equipment,” Smith says. “But Eaton is committed to open architecture and standards-based systems, so students with a CONTROL F(x) certification will have a long-term advantage in the job market compared to those trained only in proprietary approaches.”
Students of the Eaton/Alex-Tech Certification Training program tend to agree on the program’s value. Garett Aubin of HyPower Systems in Winnipeg, Manitoba, attended the recent Alex-Tech class.
“The training was a great experience, I think that the F(x) Controller is going to be one of Eaton’s most powerful products, and good for Eaton to realize that distributor training is key to its success,” he says.
Brad Garrison of Spencer Fluid Power in Portland, Oregon, echoes Aubin: “Great class! It was really packed full with nonstop training – long days – but I left feeling excited about the product and looking to find applications to use it.”
In the long-term, industry-wide efforts like the IFPS Electronics (Electronic Controls) Certification initiative will help overcome today’s misperceptions of fluid power careers among the next generation of engineers, and lead a growing number of them into the industry. While that is happening, hands-on training modeled on the cooperative effort between Eaton and Alex-Tech will help fill the immediate need for fluid power professionals with the electronic and programming skills necessary to move the whole industry into a new era of “smart” systems with electronic intelligence harnessed to hydraulic muscle.
Both efforts will generate the kind of positive feedback essential to the development of engineers and technicians able to think outside the box. And those people will take up the challenge of moving the whole industry into the future we are all working toward.