FPIRC Panel Discusses Innovation and Workforce Development in the Fluid Power Industry

Eric Lanke NFPA CEO


by Eric Lanke

One of the best parts of the recent Fluid Power Innovation and Research Conference (FPIRC) was a panel discussion on innovation and workforce development in the fluid power industry. The panelists were some heavy hitters. From right to left in the photo accompanying this post they are:

  • Mark Johnson, Director, Advanced Manufacturing Office, U.S. Department of Energy
  • Thom Mason, Director, Oak Ridge National Laboratory
  • Ken Gray, Global Product Manager, Large Hydraulic Excavators, Caterpillar
  • Nicholas Zeppos, Chancellor, Vanderbilt University

The person introducing them is Eric Barth, a Deputy Director of the Center for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power (CCEFP) and a professor at Vanderbilt, who hosted the panel discussion in their expansive Laboratory for Systems Integrity and Reliability.

As you can see from the camera angle, I was one of about 200 people in attendance at this event, where I heard some interesting things.

Ken Gray talked about how the United States is currently the leader in fluid power, but how we are at risk of losing that position to China. They are aggressively building the infrastructure they need to begin producing high-value hydraulics, and when they do, the United States is going to be in trouble. His advice was for our industry to continue expanding our partnerships with academia and government. Investments in pre-competitive research and development are important because, in Ken’s words, making good ideas work is a better path than subsidizing technologies that are already in the marketplace. And universities are an ideal place to advance these ideas because they have resources to leverage that industry typically can’t. Competition in any industry prevents the sharing of expertise and resources that are often needed to solve fundamental problems.

Mark Johnson agreed. In fact, he said that the best part of supporting research in universities isn’t the flow of new technologies, but the flow of graduating engineers with heightened expertise in your area of focus. Technology transfer happens, in essence, not when industry licenses patents, but when they hire graduates and put them to work solving their next set of problems.

Technology transfer happens, in essence, not when industry licenses patents, but when they hire graduates and put them to work solving their next set of problems.

It was a good reminder of NFPA’s focus on Workforce Connections—connecting our members to the talent they need to grow their businesses and advance fluid power technology. There were plenty of those students—soon to be fluid power graduates—in the audience at the panel discussion and in attendance at FPIRC. It, and the CCEFP in general, are one of the best places there is for our industry to make those workforce connections.

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