How does a family business survive in these fiercely competitive times? By emphasizing quality and customer service, Clippard says.
The company name says "Laboratory." Why? You're a manufacturer. My dad started the company back in the vacuum-tube days to build electronic laboratory equipment. He had been working at Crosley Corp. building electronic instruments. The company went on to mass produce electronic coils, and that's where the pneumatics came from, in the form of production methods. You couldn't have any electrical interference when testing the coils, so he came up with the idea of using pneumatic cylinders to hold the coils during testing and avoid the interference problem. He couldn't buy small-bore cylinders so he built them himself. Gradually, the electronics business went off shore and the cylinders and associated pneumatic products became the main part of the business.
When did you come into the business? I started in high school sweeping floors, loading trucks, and working in the shop. After I got my mechanical engineering degree from Ohio State, I came here full time.
What's kept you here? I like making things. With pneumatics, there's a great mix of control and power. You can move things, generate forces, sequence events, perform logic functions, and make things happen automatically. I'm big on dreaming up ideas with pen and paper. Mostly, I like the hands-on part of the business, getting deep into the products, and contributing to the design process. Sometimes, you design by turning the crank in the machine shop—just trying things out—and I enjoy operating machinery.
Are you a tinkerer at home? Oh yes! I have a workshop at home with a lot of metal-working tools and a built-in home compressor. I actually get lots of ideas for the company there as well as the opportunity to check them out.
Do you design things for yourself? You bet I do. I designed a dumb waiter for the house that uses a nine-foot-stroke air cylinder. We have a sliding-glass door that operates on a cylinder. Air cylinders even open and close our draperies. We have some hanging plants at home that I can lower with a toggle valve I installed so we can water them. I designed a similar system for the office.
What are the trends in pneumatics? There are several. There is the narrowing of performance windows, a move toward lower power, higher output requirements, and smaller size. On that last point, I often wonder why some huge machines need such tiny valves. Customers are demanding consistency from their pneumatic products. They need performance to be the same throughout the entire life of the product. There is also an interweaving of electronics and pneumatics.
What are the next breakthroughs? I think there could be some smaller-size valves working at lower power levels. It's also possible that others will see the value of pneumatics in home-automation devices. If a home market emerges, someone will address it. Actually, we would be in a great position to help make it happen.
Bill Clippard is president of Clippard Instrument Laboratory in Cincinnati, OH. He is a graduate of Ohio State University with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering.