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Fluid Power Vehicle Challenge

Making Fun of Fluid Power

Someone once said the coolest toys are built, not bought. This is the kind of person the fluid power industry wants working in it, and why it has a Fluid Power Vehicle Challenge to draw them. This is Part 1 in a series dedicated to drawing employers’ attention to people in the process of becoming passionate about hydraulics and pneumatics.

Parents and high school counsellors are the worst enemies of the Fluid Power industry, according to Ernie Parker. Such people believe a four-year college degree is the key to career success—hence, the dearth of engineering graduates who can even spell hydraulic or pneumatic.

Businesses that make their money on all things related to those terms look to people like Ernie to help them pump young blood back into their organizations so they can stay competitive in their booming business. As an industry recruiter, Ernie learned to bypass high school counsellors and enter the back doors of their buildings with the help of contacts like shop teachers and automotive instructors. He didn’t enter without toys.

“I would bring vehicles with me and I’d get these kids by letting them drive these things,” he recalls. “That’s how I got them into tech school programs that could introduce them to fluid power.”

The Learning Supply Chain

If toys work on high school kids, why not university students? That’s the thinking behind the National Fluid Power Association’s Fluid Power Vehicle Challenge. This year the competition will be held at the IMI Precision Engineering facility in Littleton, Colo. NFPA has invited teams of engineering students from universities across the country to compete against each other in developing the best vehicle powered by hydraulics or pneumatics. Fifteen universities have registered to compete in this year’s program, which is organized by semester.

In the first semester of the Vehicle Challenge, teams are introduced to judges and mentors from the industry as they learn about fluid power components, circuits, and systems, and their use in controlling force and motion. They also develop supply chain experience by ordering components from the parts suppliers as they begin planning for the Design and Specification Midway Review. This is often an underappreciated aspect of success to a first-time entrant in this competition.

“Supply chain represents a big learning experience for many teams,” says Lynn Beyer, director of workforce development programs for the National Fluid Power Association. “Students are juggling classes, and though they’re trying their hardest, some think they can get their parts in a week. They soon learn it often takes four weeks. The competition’s mentoring program helps the teams avoid such problems with their vehicles. Students check in with their mentors at least four times and the mentors can help them see things they hadn’t been seeing.”

Standard components do offer breathing room, however, if there is a delay in shipping a part.

“When a student orders a pump and it doesn’t arrive on time, it doesn’t stop you from building the vehicle because you’re working off standards,” Parker adds. “You know the dimensions of the plumbing before you get it.”

Fig. 1

Ernie Parker (glasses and light gray shirt) is a well-known and respected recruiter of young talent for the hydraulics and pneumatics industries. Here he is doing what he loves best: introducing high school students to the fun of connecting with fluid power. 

Putting Fluid Power to Work

Aside from his role as an industry educator and recruiter, Parker also served as a technical liaison for participants in the Vehicle Challenge.

During the Midway Review, students present their initial designs and mechanical drawings illustrating the fluid power control circuits to be created for their vehicles.  They also present results from their analysis of fluid flow and expected performance.

“We require them to do stress analysis on the frames, and for this they have access to sophisticated software, in addition to a mentor,” says Parker.  “Most of them also use 3D printing to model their vehicle up front. Finite stress analysis helps them determine if their frame is strong enough.”

Parker believes this goes beyond what most engineering students learn in their normal curricula.

“So many engineers go through school without having to design anything,” he adds. “Their focus is on collecting data and analyzing things.”

But if they were to analyze what they were doing they’d realize that hydraulics may not be the best solution for this type of vehicle. That’s the point of the Challenge. They must try to make it the best. Because these vehicles are lightweight, Challenge competitors soon realize a hydraulic pump typically isn’t made for the low horsepower matched to it. In a previous challenge a vehicle with pneumatics on it did very well. And pneumatics may get more attention in the 2018-2019 competition, as the former Bimba Mfg. Co.now part of IMI Precision Engineering—is the event host.  It won’t be surprising if more students come out of this competition knowing more about the workings of air motors. They will if Kent Sowatzke has anything to say about it. And as vice president of engineering at IMI Bimba and one of the Challenge judges, he already has.

“We’ve been talking to the NFPA about figuring out a way where pneumatics could be added to this event,” he says. “Over the years Bimba has been a gold or platinum sponsor to the robotics competition for the high schoolers and I think half the teams use pneumatics. The vehicle competition is geared more around hydraulics. But from the pneumatics side we’ve looked at talking with NFPA about adding a couple features to the competition—maybe offering bonus points for including pneumatics, like for braking or shifting. It wouldn’t have to be elaborate but could help with those functions. It’s also an opportunity to show the broad perspective of fluid power. It’s not all hydraulics or pneumatics.”

Belief in Design Evolution

Aside from the vehicle weighing less than 210 lb, design parameters are fairly fluid. It can be one, two, three, or four wheels, as long as there’s a fluid link between the operator and the wheel. The pumps used need a minimum of 600 rpm to ensure adequate efficiency.

“There are pumps that work well at low speeds but they’re more expensive, and there’s usually a budget constraint against high-end piston pumps that can cost $3,000,” Parker explains.

Is there a danger of reinventing the wheel every year, so to speak?

“Teams must change their design every year,” he answers. “They can’t use the same frame, although they can use some of the same parts.”

Teams consisting of both juniors and seniors may have an easier time competing from year to year, as juniors who become seniors the following year already know what to expect from the competition. This also makes them effective mentors and supply chain managers.

Those are the kind of problem solvers who will change our world for the better, both its business and its ecology. Parker believes that if those experts had come out of our trade and engineering schools years ago we’d be driving hydraulic cars instead of electric hybrids. It’s much more efficient.

“With hydraulics you can go down to 0 miles per hour before you stop charging,” he explains. “Generators are very inefficient. We’re talking Watts, not kilowatts. You’d go down a 6% grade for 10 mi and get a charge that would last about a quarter mile going up. Electric is better than what we have now, but nothing compared to hydraulics.”

And though a bike may not be a practical application for hydraulics, it may be a good platform on which young engineers can learn problem solving. Last year’s competition produced a three-wheeler equipped with a 2½-gal accumulator, enabling it to lay rubber for more than 3,000 ft.

“Adding an engine might help to make fluid power seem more efficient,” says NFPA’s Lynn Beyer, “but the advisors like the challenge of showing how efficient they can be without an engine.”

Quality design is proven by performance. When the hydraulic vehicle competition was purely a bike competition, the poorly designed ones were hard to pedal. With more industry mentors like Ernie Parker offering these teams of future industry professionals their input, you can bet fluid power as an engineering solution will be a lot easier to peddle.

A Match Made in Hydraulics

Paul Swenson, general branch manager for Certified Power Solutions in Burnsville, Minn., needed a mechanic for his shop—someone who knew his way around hydraulics.

Amr Semmami, a mechanical engineer newly graduated from West Virginia University Institute of Technology, needed a job. All it took to bridge the thousand-mile distance separating these two was a hydraulically-powered bike …

… that, and Ernie Parker.

Ernie, a 50-year veteran of the hydraulics industry, is the matchmaker who introduced them to each other. As an adviser during the NFPA’s Fluid Power Vehicle Challenge held in Ames, Iowa, last year, he got to meet many engineering students as they scrambled to reinvent the bike using the unlikely component of hydraulic power. Amr and his team stood out from the crowd. Although they didn’t win the top prize with their vehicle (dubbed the “Hydroller,” the fusion of “hydraulic” and “roller,”) they were recognized for exhibiting the best teamwork in solving a technical glitch that threatened to keep them from the finish line. Amr, in particular, impressed Parker.

Fig. 3

Paul Swenson, general branch manager for Certified Power Solutions in Burnsville, Minn., with his “find” from the National Fluid Power Association’s Fluid Power Vehicle Challenge: Amr Semmami, mechanical engineer and graduate of West Virginia University Institute of Technology.

“The fact an engineering student like him shows initiative in hydraulics can be enough to get an employer interested,” he says. “Too many engineers graduate without getting their hands on a project. They don’t even know how to use tools.”

The Fluid Power Vehicle Challenge has always required its contestants to engineer a fluid link between the operator and the wheel. When the rider pedals it, a hydraulic pump moves fluid into a hydraulic motor, causing that motor to rotate. That energy is transferred to the back wheel to help propel the bike and its rider forward. Last year that powertrain was opened up to chains and gears, but the fluid link was still key.

Strangely, it could have been the chain that trained the judges’ attention on Amr’s team. It broke.

“We might have won the teamwork award because when the chain connecting the motor to the spinning wheel fell off, the judges appreciated how quickly we got the vehicle up and running again—instead of giving up, like another team did,” Amr says. “Our school was proud of that, too. It took about 7 or 8 minutes, and at that point, we didn’t care about winning. We just wanted to finish the race.”

Fig. 2

Semmami’s team equipped its “Hydroller” with regenerative braking, enabling the bike to stop by capturing the energy stored in a hydraulic accumulator (in the form of pressurized hydraulic fluid). The controlled release of this fluid to the hydraulic motor which spins the back wheel also helps propel the bike without pedaling. (The team, left to right: Semmami, Manuel Serrano Laguna, Geoffroy Gauneau, Matthew Pittman, and Dr. Yogendra Panta [advisor]).

Finish they did, and with Ernie’s recommendation, it helped get Amr the prize of employment in a field he had grown to love.

“Taking the initiative to get into this competition said a lot about Amr’s personality,” Paul Swenson says. “He actually led the team in getting the travel funding.”

That initiative showed in how Amr competed for the job Swenson advertised.

“It’s unusual for a student at West Virginia University Institute of Technology to reach out to a company in Minnesota,” he continues. “He was very anxious to come here and tell us about everything he learned during the competition. It was clear he wanted to get into this industry, and we’re doing everything we can to support his dream.”

As soon as Amr earns his certification in hydraulics at Hennepin Technical College (where Ernie Parker is on the Board of Directors), Swenson plans to move him right into an engineering opening at his company.

“He’s been a great addition,” he adds. “This experience has taught me to think more creatively about hiring.”

The Hydraulics Industry’s gain is the renewable energy industry’s loss. That’s where Amr was heading before taking a detour via the Hydraulic Vehicle Challenge.

“I had an opportunity to get a job in the wind turbine industry in California,” he explains. “I found I could relate more to the hydraulics field. Paul invited me for an in-person interview, and after touring his site, I was attracted by the atmosphere among colleagues. Technicians have a direct line of communication with engineers. Their projects are team efforts.”

Amr was also impressed that Swenson would consider taking a risk on someone who wasn’t hydraulics certified yet. But this young engineer thinks his boss’s resolution to be more creative in hiring talent is a good one.

“This transition turned out to be a lot easier for me than I expected,” he concludes. “I have a degree in mechanical engineering, and that is one of the most versatile disciplines in engineering. It exposes you to electrical engineering and the mechanics of civil engineering, so you become very well rounded.”

The National Fluid Power Association’s 2019 Fluid Power Vehicle Challenge:

Program Sponsors

Bimba Mfg. IMI Precision Engineering— Final Competition Event Host

Eaton Corp. — Parts Supplier

Lube-Tech — Fluid Supplier

Parker Hannifin Corp. — Program Sponsor 

SunSource — Parts Supplier

Source Fluid Power — Parts Supplier

University Teams

California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo

Cleveland State University

Colorado State University

Iowa State University

Kennesaw State University

Montana State University

Murray State University

Purdue Northwest

Purdue University

University of Akron

University of Cincinnati

University of Denver

University of Utah

West Virginia University Institute of Technology

Western Michigan University

Judges and Mentors

Danfoss Power Solutions

FORCE America Inc.

Gates Corp.

HydraForce Inc.

Iowa Fluid Power

Parker Hannifin Corp.

Price Engineering

Trelleborg Sealing Solutions

Woodward Inc.

Click here to read Part 2 of this series.

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