Progress is the name of the game today in the hydraulics industry, where new technologies, new design strategies, and new types of partnerships with customers are fueling change.
Design News: You've been in the mobile hydraulics industry for a little longer than three decades. Just exactly what is mobile hydraulics?
Gilchrist: We classify mobile hydraulics as anything that is used on non-stationary equipment, including construction equipment, on-highway trucks, refuse or dump trucks, agricultural equipment, and materials handling equipment such as lift trucks.
Q: What changes have you seen over the years in the technology, and how has the industry managed to stay current?
A: When I first started working in the area of mobile hydraulics, the products were pretty basic. You had pumps, valves, and cylinders, and the concerns were that you delivered the product to the customer on time. One of the biggest changes has been the increase in pressure in the 1960s, many of these systems were operating at 2,000 psi. Today, the majority of systems operate in the range of 3,250 to 3,500 psi. That's because equipment has become smaller, and you need higher pressures to do the same or more amount of work.
To a great extent, the advent of electronics has helped the industry stay current. Much of the equipment today features electronic controls and feedback mechanisms. Some of these controls are fairly sophisticated. For example, we have control systems that are not only used for positioning, but for managing maintenance data.
Do you foresee any great shift to electro-mechanical or electronic systems in the near future?
A: I don't think that is probably going to happen in my lifetime, and that's because I think all of the vendors have done a good job recognizing what is needed to stay competitive. In fact, we are taking advantage of new controls and sensor technologies to develop extremely competitive technologies to- day. Another point to keep in mind is that hydraulics supply an impressive amount of power without drawing off of a huge alternator, which is particularly important in mobile applications. Design engineers don't have to worry about where they are going to hang several large motors on their equipment, which is typically scarce on real estate.
In addition, there is an incredible experience base in dealing with hydraulics that has been built up during the years. Most equipment operators are fairly mechanically inclined, and so they can generally troubleshoot minor problems. But it's another story when it comes to electronic systems.
What steps has the industry taken to change the perception that hydraulics are noisy and leaky?
A: For a long time the industry did not have a good reputation. Through the help and insistence of customers, we invested the time and effort to improve the quality of our equipment. Regarding noise, for example, our company and others have developed technologies such as split-gear and close-tolerance gear pumps, which have a substantially lower noise-output level than existing gear pumps. One obvious goal is to meet OSHA requirements, but a noise does not have to be loud to be offensive or irritating to the equipment user. As a consequence, we have also developed strategies for modifying the tones these systems emit.
With regard to leakage, it is not unrealistic today for a customer to expect a hydraulics system to not leak. We are constantly testing seals and improving manufacturing techniques. One big help in this area has been the advent of close-tolerance machine tools.
Q: Is this industry experiencing a shift toward systems design versus component design?
A: Absolutely. In the past, equipment manufacturers were likely to have in-house hydraulic engineers who would simply send in their specs. They would tell us that they wanted a pump to deliver X numbers of gallons at some level of rpms, a valve to deliver X amount of flow, and a cylinder to provide X amount of force. But with all of the streamlining today, this engineering resource no longer exists in our customer base particularly in the small- to medium-size manufacturing companies.
Involved in the hydraulics industry for more than 30 years, John Gilchrist joined Commercial Intertech in 1968, serving in the positions of assistant manager and manager of the company's former facility in Butler, IN. He became general manager of the Gear Pump Division in 1983 and served in that role until he was appointed group vice president, Hydraulic Systems, in 1992.