Fluid power industry, academic leaders pack panel discussion on advances

An afternoon panel at LASIR for the Fluid Power Innovation & Research Conference. (John Russell/Vanderbilt)

If America wants to keep its edge in fluid power, its engineers must find ways to add even more value to manufacturing components, work across disciplines and make everything smaller.

Fortunately, engineering professionals in both research and industry are up to the task, an expert panel addressing the Fluid Power Innovation and Research Conference said Tuesday. About 200 participants from the industry, education and media sectors gathered at Vanderbilt University’s Laboratory for Systems Integrity and Reliability for the panel, a tour led by LASIR Director Doug Adams, and a technical poster presentation.

It’s vital that university leaders break down silos and encourage researchers to work across levels and disciplines, said Vanderbilt Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos.

“I’ve always said there’s nothing interesting about a department, even about a school – they are simply governing and organizing units that are harnessed to solve real, everyday problems,” he said. He added that all his decisions – budgeting, space allocation, marketing – are made with that mission in mind.

Dean of the School of Engineering Philippe Fauchet moderated the panel, which also included Ken Gray, global product manager for large hydraulic excavators for Caterpillar Inc.; Thom Mason, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory; and Mark Johnson, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office.

Fluid power is energy transmitted by pressurized liquid or gas and is used in hydraulics and pneumatics. The conference is presented by the Center for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power, a National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center.

The panel spoke in front of LASIR’s massive Vietnam-era CH-53A Super Stallion, used to test damage-sensing detectors. They discussed the tech transfer process – getting university research to the market. Caterpillar’s Gray said his company has changed its approach somewhat, investing more in research and development up front.

“Every dollar we spend to solve a problem for the customer in the concept phase – it becomes $10 to solve the same problem during development, $100 to solve that problem in pre-production, and $1,000 once that product gets into a customer’s hands,” he said.

Gray concurred with Zeppos, who said it’s important to bring together undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral students from across schools and departments for research.

“That really is how industry works,” Gray said.

Asked to discuss the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s contributions to fluid power, Mason quickly listed a number of advances: modeling and simulation using supercomputers to understand system performance, creating novel new materials to improve strength and lower cost, 3D printing, super hydrophobic coatings, and low-cost carbon fiber.

Johnson said the future of fluid power will include finding ways to make things smaller. He pointed out the same month Tesla announced its $5 billion Gigafactory to produce lithium-ion batteries for cars, Local Motors unveiled an electric car built in 44 hours in a 3D printer.

Dean Philippe Fauchet, left, moderating the panel that included Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos.

The evening ended with a walk through student technical posters, including three from Vanderbilt: Anna Winkleman’s “System Dynamic Model and Design of a Striling Pump,” Joshua J. Cummins’ “A Carbon Nanotube Elastomeric Advanced Strain Energy Accumulator,” and David Comber’s “A Modular, Two-Degree-of-Freedom, MRI-Compatible Pneumatic Stepper Actuator.”

These projects are funded by the CCEFP at Vanderbilt, and they are part of more than 40 fluid power technical presentations and research posters on the conference program.

Eric Barth, associate professor of mechanical engineering, is the co-deputy director of the Center for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power, and host of the Center’s first Fluid Power Innovation and Research Conference. The conference continues through noon Wednesday.

Companies attending the conference include ExxonMobil, Bosch Rexroth, Gates Corporation, Hitachi, Idemitsu America, Lubrizol, Dow Chemical and Parker Hannifin, among others.


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
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