Hydraulics may be an age-old technology, but many new product developments and industry initiatives are helping it keep pace with the demands of today's engineers.
Design News: What major trends do you see in the hydraulics industry today?
LaCombe: In a word—acquisitions. What we see happening is more and more consolidation all the time, and it is a trend that is going to continue. In fact, we just recently announced the acquisition of a cylinder company. The benefit for engineers is lower cost, thanks to greater economies of scale, and the ability to work with one supplier who can offer an entire system.
Another trend is the major improvement in the time between when the order is placed and when it is shipped. In some cases, it used to take several weeks. Now, thanks to the lean enterprise approach we have adopted at Eaton, we can ship standard product far more quickly.
Q: You've spent much of your career in Europe. Are there any major differences in how European and American engineers apply hydraulics technology?
A: What we see today in Europe is that hydraulics technology is much more advanced. The electronic content of hydraulic systems is much higher. For example, the concept of a smart pump is becoming standard in Europe today. I am generalizing here, but I think that North American engineers have been much slower to adapt to new technologies because they focus more on low cost. In Europe, when engineers buy something they are looking for a technical advantage. In contrast, engineers in North America are looking for a cost advantage. Neither approach is superior—it's just a difference in basic design philosophy.
Having said that, we are aware of some very exciting new applications in North America that do involve some of the latest hydraulics technology. So although Europe may lean toward more advanced systems companies here are very interested in pushing the envelope.
Q: What is the impact of electronics on traditional hydraulics?
A: We are seeing more and more electronic components being integrated into the hydraulic package. As opposed to the bang-bang technology of the past, we are now able to boost performance—offer mid-stroke positioning, for example—through the application of electronic controls. The benefits are tremendous. Take a packaging machine, for example. Through the use of electronic controls, we can reduce the time it takes to adjust the machine so that it runs better and more efficiently.
We recognize that electronics are an important part of motion control, and we are looking more and more at how we can apply electric drives in our products. Ultimately, we see ourselves as no longer a supplier of hydraulic technology, but a supplier of motion control products.
Q: Any other areas you are focusing product development efforts on?
A: Leaks and noise are two hot buttons, and developments continue apace to reduce leaks and make hydraulic products much less noisy. It's safe to say that the general goal is leak-free systems that meet low noise level requirements.
Q: What do engineers need to know to apply hydraulics technology successfully?
A: First and foremost they need to understand the requirements of the final customer. So if you're building a molding machine, you need to understand what the guy who is making the parts wants and needs. Design engineers should also understand the final destination of the product—what kind of environment it will operate in and what kind of duty cycles it will see. They should also be open-minded about the technology solution—it's not a one-size-fits-all world out there anymore.
| Jean-Pierre LaCombe
Vice President and General Manager Eaton Industrial Hydraulics Eden Prairie, MN Jean-Pierre LaCombe leads Eaton's worldwide industrial hydraulics division. He assumed this role shortly after Eaton Corp. purchased Aeroquip-Vickers in 1999. Joining the company in 1988, LaCombe has held a number of leadership positions within Eaton, gaining expertise in lean manufacturing, focused factories, and production rationalization. He holds an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from Ecole Nationale d'Ingenieurs-Tarbes and an undergraduate degree in automation/electronics from Institut Nationale Polytechnique. He also holds an MBA and a masters degree in marketing.