Monday, December 10, 2018

Constraints + Creativity = Innovation

My association sponsors an undergraduate education program we call the Fluid Power Vehicle Challenge. Essentially, it challenges undergraduate engineers to design and build a human-powered vehicle (typically a bicycle, but not always) that uses my industry's technology (i.e., hydraulics) as the method of propulsion.

It's awesome. Responding to the distressing lack of fluid power education in our nation's undergraduate mechanical engineering programs, we now have a way to engage students with a hands-on application of our technology. The students are generally seniors, who claim the vehicle as their capstone design project, earning credit while at the same time interacting with mentors in my association's member companies to make sure their designs are safe and effective. They learn fluid power, and the mentors recruit them into positions in their companies. We're in our third year of sponsoring the program, and we have a record number of 15 universities participating.

One difficulty we've had with the program is that the design challenge itself is hard. Hydraulic systems are typically driven by an electric motor or internal combustion engine (what our engineers call a "prime mover"); and we're telling our students that they can't use either. The vehicles are meant to be human-powered. This means that the students themselves have to take the place of the prime mover. They can only pedal so fast, and that can only produce so much flow to make the hydraulic system work.

We've been wringing our hands for the last three years, trying to figure out what to do about this problem. One of the goals of the program is to get these engineering students excited about fluid power, and if they determine that, because of the limitation that we've put on them, fluid power is just too hard to work with -- then we're actually hurting ourselves by doing it. Some of our industry mentors have suggested that we let the students use a small internal combustion engine (the kind you might find on a lawnmower) in order to let them see and experience the true capabilities of hydraulics. It is, after all, an extremely power dense technology. It's very claim to fame is the ability to provide a ton of power in a very small package.

I've resisted making this change, primarily for safety reasons, but also because the idea of "adding an engine" would require us to redesign the entire program. The whole program culminates in three competitions: a sprint race, an efficiency challenge, and an endurance race. Right now, with human-powered vehicles, these are challenging tests for the vehicles and their riders to perform. Add an engine, and the vehicles essentially become hydraulic go-karts, easily racing around for as long as there is gasoline in their tanks.

But while we've been wringing our hands, something else has been slowly happening. The student teams have been applying their collective intelligence and creativity to the problem. We open-source all the designs pursued each year, so each new team has a growing record of successful and unsuccessful experiments to draw on when putting its ideas together. And slowly, in an iterative fashion, the student teams are figuring out how to make efficient and swift-moving vehicles, even given the limitations that we've placed on them. Just check out this video the vehicle designed and built by last year's team from Murray State University:

Pumping with their arms, steering with their feet, tapping their hydraulic accumulator for bursts of acceleration, the vehicle is a marvel to behold. And this year's Murray State team, we know, is hard at work at making further improvements to this design. Whereas last year's vehicle topped out at 30 miles per hour, the creative and motivated students at that university this year have set their sites on breaking 50.

In many ways, it is a textbook example of innovation -- and how it is design constraints themselves, coupled with creativity, that allows it to flourish.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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