The Fluid Power Industry Wants to Up Its Manufacturing Game

There is a new intent on studying manufacturing technologies that could drive precision mechanical product making in small lots for the fluid power industry.

“The big change that is going on with fluid power research is adding a focus on manufacturability,” Kim Stelson, executive director of the Center for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power (CCEFP), told Design News in a recent interview. “The original CCEFP strategy had three thrusts: efficiency, compactness, and effectiveness. Now, we’ve added manufacturability as a key focus, which is greatly increasing our appeal to fluid power equipment companies.”

Stelson said equipment makers are dealing with supply-chain-related issues with providing high-quality products quickly in small lots and that can be easily customized. “None of this really involves innovation in the design of the fluid power components, but everybody in this business makes things, and the new manufacturing direction can make an impact on every company,” he said. The CCEFP is part of the federal National Science Foundation and has an integrated working relationship with the National Fluid Power Association (NFPA).

Stelson said the focus on manufacturing is on precision and small lots. Mass production can achieve precision, but with small product volumes it is difficult to attain at a reasonable cost. The challenge is bringing the kind of precision and economies of scale that are found in the automotive industry to smaller production quantities common with fluid power products. Achieving this could substantially benefit suppliers.

“Another aspect is whether we can improve, through manufacturing techniques, [product] performance using new materials, coatings, surface texturing, and so on. Those are some of the areas we are beginning to address,” Stelson added.

The CCEFP also recently obtained grant from the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Consortia (AMTech), which is the advanced manufacturing technology program of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), to complete a manufacturing roadmap for the fluid power industry. A kickoff event occurred at Georgia Tech in August, and the group is now formulating a plan with a road-mapping facilitator. Working groups have been created to address specific problems and concentrate on prioritized areas, with the goal of convening in February 2016 to establish the future direction.

Earlier this summer, the NFPA updated its technology roadmap this year with a focus on manufacturing, following up on the original roadmap it developed in 2009, and it is working with the CCEFP on its road-mapping project. A summary of all documents and projects related to the updated NFPA fluid power technology roadmap is available here.

NIST’s AMTech program incentivizes the formation of industry-led consortiums, providing resources to them for basic and applied research on long-term, pre-competitive, and enabling technology development for US manufacturing. The objective of AMTech is to establish and strengthen technology consortiums while identifying and prioritizing research projects addressing long-term US industrial needs.

The National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) is also another huge effort moving forward in this area. The federally initiated system aims to establish a networked research infrastructure where US industry and academia collaborate to solve manufacturing challenges. The NNMI consists of research institutes, each of which has a unique focus, but their common goal is to develop, commercialize, and deploy new new advanced manufacturing capabilities and processes.

The innovation hubs, according to the NNMI website, will:

• Develop advanced manufacturing technologies that will "lift all ships," creating, showcasing, and deploying new capabilities that can increase commercial productivity.

• Help businesses that otherwise couldn’t invest in advanced manufacturing research, by bringing together the best talents and capabilities from the public and private sector into a proving ground for cutting-edge technology.

• Build a pipeline of talent that can support advanced manufacturing.

Stelson said there’s still a lot of confusion around the centers and how they work, along with how universities can participate. It’s not likely there will be a fluid power innovation institute, but there might be one with which the fluid power group can join forces, especially if it is funded by the Department of Energy.

If there is a focus on energy efficiency and the group can join forces with HVAC research, which has a similar set of manufacturing challenges, there might be a basis for cooperation, since building a compressor is similar to building a pump, and an air compressor for pneumatics is almost no different than a compressor in an air conditioner.

Research into precision manufacturing has broad potential to affect efficiency and also impact cost, which could help enable replacement of older inefficient equipment. It also seems that this focus could offer performance benefits from using new materials and surface technologies that could spill over into many industries other than fluid power.

Al Presher is a veteran contributing writer for Design News, covering automation and control, motion control, power transmission, robotics, and fluid power.

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