Orlando, FL The fluid power industry has argued for years that technical education programs have given hydraulics and pneumatics short shrift.
This year, the industry jumped on a chance to catch the attention of young people by supplying components in the robotic competition of FIRST, the foundation started by New Hampshire medical inventor Dean Kamen to get high school students interested in science and technology.
"In the past, we had never pushed fluid power," says Robert Hammond, director of the nationwide robotics contest, in which corporate sponsors work with high school teams to design robots that compete in matches revolving around sports themes. "But this year, we received strong support from companies, the Fluid Power Distributors Association, and the National Fluid Power Association."
Bimba Manufacturing Co., for example, donated 1,500 cylinders, plus accessories and tutorial materials. Other prominent manufacturers, such as Parker Hannifin, Festo, and SMC, chipped in with compressors, regulators, valves, controllers, and switches that teams used on their robots. "We participated because of the excitement generated by this program," notes Randy Dunlap, vice president of sales and marketing for Bimba.
The Fluid Power Educational Foundation also provided a free download of a pneumatics curriculum designed for high school students.
When it was all over, about 80% of the teams competing nationwide incorporated pneumatic components into their robot designs, says Hammond. For example, several teams used air cylinders to activate robotic arms for picking up balls of various sizes and dropping them into a raised goal.
From its start in 1992, the U.S. FIRST robot contest has grown to nearly 520 high school teams. Corporate sponsors typically contribute about $20,000 and many hours of engineering time to guide students in an intense six-week development effort. After regional matches, successful teams go on to the nationals in early April at Disney World's EPCOT Center.
"Every company that gets involved comes away with a tremendous feeling of making a real difference in these kids' lives," says Kamen. "All of a sudden, kids are thinking that engineering is cool."