System integrators are playing an increasingly important role in engineering fluid-power systems for next-generation manufacturing and automation equipment. We recently gained some perspective on the trend from Tom Price of Price Engineering.

What are some factors affecting the fluid-power industry?

First, there’s an automation and manufacturing renaissance taking root in the U. S. It’s only recently we’ve woken up and realized America can’t be a world leader just servicing goods made elsewhere. We need to actually make things in this country. Fluid-power technology can play a significant role.

Second, there’s been widespread integration of high-tech components into hydraulics and pneumatics. A lot of the electronics we now use has migrated from such industries as automotive and truck — things like hardened PLCs, remote I/O, and joysticks linked via CAN networks with robust connectors.

As a result, we now have products such as highly efficient servomotor-driven pumps for machine tools and injection-molding equipment, and “smart” mobile hydraulics that help cut fuel consumption and emissions. Now blend that with other technologies like GPS, cloud and Web-based services, and telematics. This all leads to many more-advanced automation opportunities.

Next-generation technology will help tell users when a pump, hose, or machine is ready to fail. However, as equipment gets more complex and capable, managing that complexity through easy-to-use human interfaces with the machine will be very important.

Are today’s engineers up to the task?

Yes. That being said, the way systems are engineered is changing. Traditionally, major manufacturers were vertically integrated, with in-house engineering experts in areas like hydraulics. But challenging economics have taken a toll. We’ve had a couple recessions and consolidation in many industries, creating bigger, public companies keenly focused on the bottom line. When times are tough, they downsize and lose experienced and talented people. And when times improve, they tend not to bring them back.

So here we are teetering on the brink of a rebirth of American manufacturing, and OEMs no longer have the skill sets necessary to create the next generation of automation in plants or on products. This is where today’s high-tech integrators are stepping up.

What’s the role of the integrator?

Many integrators have strong legacies in fluid power. They’re often privately held with long resumes of automation expertise. Over the years they have acquired a lot of knowledge — often the hard way — and are resilient and they stick around. Price Engineering, for example, has been in business for 60 years. We have skills that can be difficult to find in today’s OEMs.

These types of companies are also willing to innovate. They’re generally small-to-midsize regional companies that got better by partnering with smaller and experimental OEMs, or they recognized opportunities that differentiated themselves from the pack. They’re dedicated, hardworking, and a bit crazy. Being privately held affords them the opportunity to do things public companies would never consider.

They’ve developed a strong set of competencies, niches, and differentiators with core teams of engineers and software designers. Around the country, you can find highly skilled integrators with expertise in virtually any kind of market.

What challenges do integrators face?

As industry and technology evolve, there are numerous challenges. First, in the fluid-power industry we’ve had some bad habits. For instance, we would give away the engineering to sell products. We have to make sure we sell our value.

To fill the ranks of our engineering teams, we have to recruit from new sources, create training programs within our organizations, and develop educational partnerships. We need to get more involved in programs like FIRST, where future engineers are learning about fluid power and automation.

We also face some significant technology challenges. The traditional methods of engineering are changing. We need to acquire skills in areas like CFD, mathematical modeling, and simulation, and embrace concurrent engineering to complete projects faster.

Finally, projects are getting larger and more complex, involving multiple engineering disciplines. That demands better project management skills and perhaps new tools, processes, people, and strategies in how we become professional engineering-services entities.

Across the country, companies are emerging that have mastered the integration of fluid power with other technologies for advanced power transmission and motion control. OEMs are just beginning to realize the value integrators provide.