Some of the companies we cover are interesting for several reasons - undiscovered uses for their products and a noble operating philosophy among them. Take Clippard Instrument Laboratory, Inc., the Cincinnati manufacturer of miniature (and standard size) pneumatic products with a no-layoff policy (about 235 employees). Yesterday, I visited Clippard where where the average length of employment is 13 years. Soft-spoken and affable executive vice president Robert L. Clippard, son of the founder William L. Clippard Jr. who started the company in 1941, gave me a tour of the company’s main plant.
Many of the machines in the Cincinnati plant are homemade and not surprisingly are pneumatically-powered. Clippard told me the company is thinking about marketing some of them. Indeed, they are as clever as they are practical. Some of the non-homemade CNC machines for metal bending, (brass, stainless and aluminum), cutting, inserting, threading, punching, pressing, shaping, turning, drilling, polishing and grinding are as much as 50-years old. Plenty of those brandish the labels of Hardinge and Cincinnati Milacron (now just Milacron) along with fallen flags and former tool giants like Bridgeport (owned by Hardinge). Logan lathes was another, which still seems to be around — Logan lathes were the standard in my grandfather’s machine shop — and it’s company history is far more interesting than its rudimentary web site. Clippard also had off-shore brands such as Brother Machine Tools. I’m sure I missed a few, too.
Pneumatics is a well-kept secret with an incredible number of uses, including some for the home. Clippard’s big growth market is medical and its mainstay remains the industrial scene, but have you ever thought about using a cylinder to open/close hard-to-reach windows, open/close drapes or lower/raise a high-up hanging plant. For the handy homeowner, pneumatics poses an intriguing solution. And it’s safer and simpler than most. "If a line breaks, something goes pop and sssssst," Clippard observes with a grin. "It’s hard to beat the simplicity of air logic."
Lack of pneumatics/fluid power education in engineering schools, he adds, has impeded market growth. "It’s only taught in 6-7 schools." He counts MIT, Ohio State and the Milwaukee School of Engineering among those offering pneumatics and fluid power courses and says it’s somewhat more prevalent in vocational schools. But that could be changing for the better. Indeed, more than 60 companies and several large universities (Georgia Tech, Illinois, Minnesota, Purdue, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical and Vanderbilt) are supporting the Engineering Research Center for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power which promises to transform how fluid power is researched and taught, according to the Nation Fluid Power Association. Some $21 million is backing the effort.
Think about it. Wherever simple motion is required, there’s probably a pneumatic solution. Some of the more interesting and novel examples we discussed yesterday include:
– A pigeon problem was resolved at Paul Brown Stadium where the Bengals play with a plastic owl, which pneumatically pops out of an PVC pipe.
– Home Depot uses pneumatics to open and close cage doors for its 24-hour propane self-service.
– One Clippard customer is working on a pneumatic mobile beverage cart for passenger airplanes.
– And here’s the most penetrating example Robert Clippard mentioned: when an airport had a starling problem, a cylinder-driven knife located would impale the unsuspecting bird when one of them had the misfortune of landing on a perch where the device was located. When it comes to the bird or the airline passenger, I’ll take the passenger every time.
Want more? Just Google “novel uses for pneumatics.”