In his recent “state of the union” presentation on fluid-power research, the director of the Center for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power (CCEFP), Professor Kim A. Stelson of the Univ. of Minnesota, posed that exact question regarding the future of the industry. And in answer, he hedged his bet a bit by stating, “I’m really not sure at this point, but let me sketch what I think is the worst case and best case scenario.”
“The worst case would begin by industry cutting back on R&D investment due to short-term financial pressures,” said Stelson. “As we know, there are a lot of these pressures out there in the real world. And as a consequence of the lack of R&D funding, both in industry and precompetitive research funding in universities, there will be in the future fewer innovations, fewer new products, fewer markets to expand into, causing the industry to contract.
“Then fluid power could become commoditized. So if your pump is no different than anybody else’s pump, people are going to buy the one that costs less and typically comes from a low-cost-producing market. When you become commoditized, and you have that kind of price competition, then at that phase you can’t afford R&D. And the other thing is that if your industry becomes commoditized, it’s not a very fun place to work and it’s hard to attract new talent to the industry.”
Stelson also countered with a more-upbeat alternative.
“The best case scenario is that in spite of these short-term competitive pressures, industry resists the call to cut funding for R&D, and invests R&D dollars wisely so they create better products that increase the market share,” he said. And because of the advantages these products bring, companies’ profits increase, which improves the competitiveness of the industry in their existing markets, he added.
One example he noted is CCEFP’s new program centered on fluid power for off-highway vehicles. It looks to reduce energy consumption by 30%, thanks to hybrid architectures, more-efficient components, tighter integration of fluid-power systems with combustion engines, and a high degree of automation. Ultimately, it would substantially cut operating costs and improve safety and productivity.
Investments in fluid power R&D would also allow expansion into new markets, he continued. A good example of this is human-scale fluid-power research. Human-assist devices can enhance workers’ capabilities, provide therapy and restore mobility to the injured or elderly, said Stelson. And all of these applications can benefit by taking advantage of the high power density that fluid-power systems offer.
“Human-scale fluid power has a large potential to grow and add business to this market. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if in a decade or two if it is actually larger than existing markets,” stressed Stelson.
Investing in R&D will also let manufacturers simply make better products at lower costs. Thus, the Center is encouraging research in emerging areas like additive manufacturing, advanced materials and coatings, alternative processing methods and advanced sensing and controls.
“Lastly, with all this innovation, the process of doing research trains new people, creates an exciting place to work, and is a place that has a future,” he said.
“So which of these two scenarios are we going to have? The answer is I don’t know,” said Stelson. “But the real answer is that the future of fluid power is up to us. We have to decide which of these two paths we want to take.”