A foreword from NFPA CEO, Eric Lanke - "I had the great pleasure of seeing Linda Western again at the recent NSF site visit of the Center for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power in Minneapolis. For those not aware, Linda served as NFPA’s Executive Director from 2000 to 2007, and has been working (in retirement) with the CCEFP since that time. As we got to talking, I realized that the story of what the CCEFP has accomplished for the fluid power industry, especially given the state of the industry’s research and education base prior to its launch, is compelling and, unfortunately, not frequently told. Knowing that Linda was uniquely positioned to tell this story, I asked if she would be willing to share her perspectives, and the following article is the result. It helps us all understand what a remarkable achievement the CCEFP is, and should provide you with a sense of optimism for what the industry can accomplish in the future. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.”
By Linda Western
NFPA Executive Director, 2000-2007
The Engineering Research Center for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power (CCEFP) is now beginning its seventh year. The first six have gone by with lightning speed. Understandably, in looking at the Center, we tend to focus on the present and the future. What happened in year six? What’s on deck for year seven and beyond? Is the Center succeeding? How and why?
But in assessing the Center and its impact, there’s room for a look at the past, too—remembering the state of fluid power research and education a decade or more ago, reminding ourselves of why the fluid power industry and academia chose to work together to transform fluid power teaching and research. We also learn why the National Science Foundation’s Engineering Research Center program was selected as the venue for this effort, and whether measurements of the Center’s work show positive results over time.
We could begin at any number of points over the past 60 years. For decades, the industry has voiced concern about scant research in fluid power and the near absence of content relevant to hydraulics and pneumatics in the curricula of schools of engineering nationwide. But let’s begin our “then and now” comparison with in a manageable way with the National Fluid Power Association’s first Educators’ Summit, held in 2001. According to an article in the September/October 2001 issue of NFPA’s Reporter, the Summit was designed to:
- Create a community of interest in fluid power,
- Provide a forum where industry leaders and educators with research interests in and teaching responsibilities for fluid power and motion control technology could learn from one another, and
- Launch discussions about the future of fluid power—its technology and the interest this industry holds for students.
These are admirable goals, to be sure, and remarkably aligned with the current goals of both the CCEFP and NFPA. But what happened in the course of pursuing them? Where were we in 2001 compared to where we are now? Has the Center made inroads? Has it made differences? Some highlights of the remarkable journey envisioned by industry and academia, and enabled by the Center’s NSF grant, provide insights.
2001: Held in Cleveland just five weeks after 9/11, the NFPA’s first Educators’ Summit was attended by 24 university faculty, four of them from Europe, and 19 representatives of industry. All faculty shared their research interests. Additionally, the Europeans outlined ways in which industry and academia worked together in their respective countries to attain mutually advantageous outcomes. Before the Summit adjourned, a task force was formed to plan the next summit and to begin exploring how NFPA, its members, and universities could partner, too, perhaps even in applying for federal grants to bolster fluid power research and related educational initiatives. This was a bold initiative, particularly since there were few precedents for such collaboration in the U.S.
2002: Task force members knew from the start that the fluid power industry needed outside funding in order to reach new research and education goals. After considering alternatives, the task force recommended applying to the National Science Foundation for an Engineering Research Center (ERC) grant, a grant designed to facilitate the cooperative efforts of industry and academia. An initial proposal was prepared by a faculty/industry/NFPA team.
2003: Proposal review for a grant on this scale takes time. We didn’t learn until early 2003 that NSF had rejected the proposal—but not without encouraging words. The task force along with members of the NFPA’s Board, Education Committee, and staff decided to try again the next time NSF sent out a call for ERC proposals. Meanwhile, NFPA created a back-up plan—the CNR.
2004: NFPA established the Cooperative Network for Research in Motion Control through Fluid Power (CNR) in order to increase interest in fluid power within leading schools of engineering. Seventeen companies pledged $600,000 to fund selected research projects over two years. That research began in 2004 involving five researchers and their students. Meanwhile, a second team of researchers, with NFPA’s support, filed for the next round of NSF/ERC funding. Given the competitive nature of this grant, everyone agreed that it was a long shot.
2005: And indeed it was. In response to its call for ERC proposals, NSF received 109 applications from the country’s leading schools of engineering, all proposing innovative approaches to tackling a host of cutting-edge topics (not many were focused on an existing technology like fluid power). In February, we learned that the CCEFP was one of 29 proposals to make NSF’s first cut—jubilation! But that was just the beginning. More writing, more outreach to industry, and further submissions followed. These efforts paid off. In September NSF announced that the CCEFP proposal had just eight other competitors for five available grants. The rest of that year was devoted to more writing, more planning (including work with a team of lawyers to plan for the inevitable IP issues), and more efforts to strengthen the drumbeat of industry support. That support swelled and ultimately proved to be pivotal. Following a December meeting with NSF, its review panel wrote: “The strongest element of the (CCEFP) proposal is the unprecedented level of industrial support extended to it by the North American Fluid Power Industry.”
2006: It was a long winter of waiting, but spring brought wonderful news. NSF announced that the CCEFP was one of five centers to receive a multi-million dollar grant, and the CCEFP was launched in June. This was the first grant on a multi-million dollar scale to be awarded to the fluid power industry—a bases-loaded home run.
In retrospect, the application stages may have been the easy part. There were no precedents in the fluid power industry for cooperative research efforts on this scale—seven universities working together, with more than 50 industry supporters, in efforts that were understandably closely supervised by NSF. The learning curve was high, but successes came steadily and they multiplied. As the saying goes, “one thing led to another”—in this case, most often good things.
For example, in the Center’s sixth year, 48 faculty and research staff at the University of Minnesota, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Purdue, Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt, MSOE, and North Carolina A & T are actively engaged in CCEFP work. So are 81 of their graduate and 63 of their undergraduate students—all of them learning about fluid power in classrooms and labs. The total numbers since the CCEFP was launched in June 2006 are even more impressive:
Students earning Bachelor degrees: 104
Students earning Master’s degrees: 80
Students earning PhD degrees: 28
Students working summers on fluid power research in CCEFP labs: 107
Pre-college teachers working on fluid power projects in CCEFP labs: 36
Papers relevant to CCEFP research written by CCEFP faculty in refereed academic journals: 78
Presentations relevant to CCEFP research presented by Center faculty at academic conferences: 248
IP tallies: 48 invention disclosures, 24 patent applications filed, with 2 patents and 2 licenses awarded
These data are significant in their own right, but we can grasp their true significance only when we look back at where the fluid power world had been before the Center came on line. Has the CCEFP made a difference? Where are we now compared to our status in October 2001? The numbers offer telling comparisons.
- Eleven years ago there were few US-based researchers focusing on fluid power. Now there are 48 working across the Center’s seven-university network alone, ten of them new hires under the terms of the grant. Two more will be added.
- Though there is scant hard data, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence indicating that not many students graduating from mechanical engineering programs knew much about fluid power years back. (Note that no students attended the first Summit.) In contrast, in each of the Center’s six years, more than 100 students from universities within and outside the CCEFP network have been engaged in fluid power research. Even given year-to-year overlaps, these numbers add up!
- Post-graduation reports are encouraging, too. In a Center-led survey of its students, conducted during the winter of 2012, we learned that 61% of the 101 respondents are still engaged in fluid power–as graduate students, new faculty, industry hires, and hires of fluid power customers.
- In other measures of impact, research continues on 21 projects (remember, there were only five under the CNR) and four test beds, with work often conducted by inter-university teams. Though not reflected in this total, other projects have been successfully completed, several leading to affiliated research and/or serving as critical background for new research.
- Over the last six years, the Center has received $21.9 million from NSF, $4.5 million from its seven partner universities, and $4.6 million from industry. Associated research projects account for another $9 million. (Compare this with the $600,000 in industry support for fluid power research that we started with!)
- The “multiplier effect” applies in many ways. Hundreds (if not more) of engineering professors and students around the world are learning of the Center’s research efforts at academic conferences and journals through the presentations and writings of CCEFP researchers and students.
- The Center’s activities impact additional audiences. Here are just a few examples: sixteen new university-level courses based on CCEFP research have been added since 2006; more than 2,500 (pre-college students as well as engineers) have participated in Center-led workshops, short courses and webinars; the Center’s web site enables visitors to download a growing number of fluid power-relevant resources; fourteen trade press and association publications have carried news of the Center-research to varied audiences.
A hands-on look at the free-piston engine compressor— CCEFP research and knowledge transfer in action.
The message in all this is clear: fluid power is on a roll. While in no way solely responsible for this outcome, the CCEFP certainly has helped. The words of Steve Demster, chair of NFPA’s Board in 2004-2005, (NFPA Reporter, May, 2006) are prescient: “In every industry there are major events that change the destiny of that industry. Often these ‘inflection points’ happen without us even being aware of them until they are virtually a fait accompli. The achievement of an NSF-funded Engineering Research Center for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power will be one of those major events.”
Steve was right! The CCEFP is transforming the fluid power industry’s research and education agendas, with more to come. We know the Center’s roots are deep. We have every reason to believe that its future is bright.