I thought I’d seen everything


Alan Hitchcox
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Some people have told me I’m the most passionate person about fluid power that they know. They might mean I’m a real nerd, but I take it as a compliment. However, these people don’t realize how many other people out there share my passion, and many to an even greater degree. They may share my passion, but are much more knowledgeable than I’ll ever be.

This came to light a couple weeks ago at the Fluid Power Conference & Expo, which was held at the University of Minnesota’s Continuing Education Campus in St. Paul. This event brought about 180 people together to learn and share their knowledge of fluid power. One of these people, Ernie Parker, an instructor at Hennepin Technical College, was someone I had heard of for many years but never actually met.
Prior to meeting Ernie at the conference, we exchanged several emails and talked on the phone many times. While discussing the subject matter he would be presenting, Ernie casually mentioned visual aids he could bring along, but visual aids was certainly an understatement.

When I inquired about Ernie’s “visual aids,” he began describing a hydraulic go cart, motorcycle, and three-wheeler he and his students had built. He also told me about window blinds that raise, lower and pivot using pneumatics. But the oddest contraption he described was a hydraulic picnic table.

Of course, I asked him what a hydraulic picnic table is, what it does, and why anyone would want one. He said the hydraulic picnic table is simply a picnic table  that can be driven around. An operator sits at one end of the table to control speed, steering, and braking. A charcoal grill attached at the end of the table contains the vehicle’s hydraulic power unit (HPU), consisting of a gasoline engine, hydraulic pump, and other necessities. There’s also a spot in the center of the table for an umbrella. So if the sun shifts on a hot day, you can just drive the picnic table to a shadier spot.

But why a picnic table? Ernie admitted that it’s a rather silly concept, but it does a great job of illustrating some of the many benefits of hydraulics. The HPU fits entirely inside the charcoal grill, although most of the space is consumed by the gasoline engine. It also demonstrates the multifunctionality of hydraulics — propulsion, steering and braking — and how hydraulics can transmit power without using unsightly chain, belt, gear, or shaft drives. Try to do the same thing electrically, and the generator would require a charcoal grill at least twice the size, and each wheel drive would require a sizeable electric motor and large gearbox for speed reduction. You’d hardly recognize the picnic table through all the componentry,

To the delight of everyone, Ernie brought his hydraulic picnic table, go cart, and other  machines to the conference. Anyone who wanted to drive them was able to. It was a fun time, and you can check videos about this and other goings on by clicking here.

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