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Hydraulics deserves a gold medal

Alan Hitchcox

You may have heard how hydraulics was blamed for a mishap in the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Four pillars were supposed to extend from the floor and converge at a center cauldron. Four Canadian celebrities were then supposed to light each pillar, and the four flames would become one in lighting the Olympic Flame in the cauldron.

However, only three pillars rose, leaving one flame bearer, Catriona Le May Doan, with nothing to light. But she handled the awkward situation well by saluting the crowd. The announcers were talking about the glitch, then offered that a failure in the hydraulic system was the cause. This struck me as odd, because the announcement came only minutes after the malfunction.

It was quite an accomplishment to troubleshoot a system that would have to have all sorts of sensors, interlocks, and switches for safety. Yet, Renee Smith-Valade, a spokesperson for the organizing committee, singled out the hydraulic system as the most likely cause of the problem. She added that a production team would address the issue at a later news conference, which either didn’t happen or was not posted to their website. I guess they considered it old news by the next morning.

Was it really a hydraulic malfunction? Probably not; a loose electrical connection or untripped switch is far more likely — especially considering all the safety features this system would have. But hydraulics is an easy target because very few people understand it. And even if it really was a hydraulics problem, it was most likely caused by contamination, which (as we’ve written many times) is the cause of more than 75% of hydraulic component and system failures. If this was the case, the fault would lie with the hydraulic subcontractor for underestimating the need for filtration in the system.

This got me thinking that hydraulics usually makes the news only when something goes wrong, So it would really be amazing to hear someone give credit to the power and reliability of hydraulics the next time an airplane safely lands or a jaws-of-life tool rescues someone from a serious vehicle crash.

Alan Hitchcox
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