Technology is in the driver's seat today. And a major challenge facing companies in the industry today is a shortage of engineering and machine operator talent, says Robert Humphrey, president of Humphrey Products.
Design News: Fluid power is a relatively mature technology--at least when compared to electronics and electro-mechanical technologies. How has the industry managed to stay current?
Humphrey: Two things: From an engineering standpoint, we are constantly striving to reduce the size of our products while at the same time increase their overall performance and reliability. A valve today needs to fit in roughly half the space it did 20 years ago, while offering the same or greater value to the customer from an operational standpoint. All components are getting smaller, and of course, electronics are having a great influence in today's designs.
From a manufacturing standpoint, you don't see the congested plants of the past with their wall-to-wall inventory. Here at Humphrey, we've implemented new manufacturing practices that enable us to make our products to order and get away from the old "batch"mentality. That has helped to cut our inventory levels in half.
Q: Do you see any great shift away from pneumatic or hydraulic systems to electro-mechanical designs in linear motion systems?
A: When you talk about linear motion systems, there are four issues to address: price, speed, accuracy, and power. All of the technologies you mention have their specific strengths and specific weaknesses. While electro-mechanical systems are getting a lot of press, their biggest disadvantage today is the price. But we can expect to see that come down over time. In fact, they're getting less expensive all the time. I'd say in ten years that a large percentage of the linear motion devices are going to be based on electro-mechanical designs. This business is in a constant state of flux, and these days no one can afford to stay standing still.
Q: What is the major challenge the industry is facing today?
A: Far and away it has to be the availability of qualified people in engineering and on the shop floor. Experienced engineers--we hire mechanical and electrical engineers--are at a premium today, particularly those engineers who have a diversified background. At the entry level, the average mechanical engineering student coming out of school has very little or no background in fluid power. If we want the workforce of the future to have the technical skills that industry will require, companies are going to have to form closer ties with our educational system. Humphrey, for example, is working closely with our local universities to promote engineering and help shape the curriculum so that the engineers of tomorrow are better prepared to enter the workforce.
On the shop floor, it is even more difficult to find individuals who are qualified to operate the highly technical processes we employ. Our educational system has failed us in providing students with even a rudimentary education.
Q: What do customers want in a supplier of linear motion systems?
A: Although customers are always looking for the highest quality product at the lowest price, I think from a very basic standpoint customers are looking for reliability--reliability of design and supply. Designers do not want to put a device or system into a multi-million-dollar piece of assembly equipment, only to have that device fail prematurely and the entire machine go down. To its credit, I think the industry has made tremendous, tremendous strides in boosting the reliability of fluid power systems. Today's systems are designed to last at least as long as the equipment they are going in to. Beyond that, I think customers are looking for vendors that are staying on top of technology and are willing to push the envelope in terms of new products. The vendors that are most successful in doing this have formed very close relationships with their customers.
Q: What are the specific advantages to the customer in partnering with a supplier?
A: The great advantage in a partnership is that the supplier is able to get involved very early in the design process. Often the expertise that the supplier brings to the partnership can provide input that improves upon the original design. When suppliers and customers work closely together, the design cycle is often dramatically reduced, too. And everyone recognizes what a powerful competitive weapon time-to-market is today.