How a Fluid Power Powerhouse Could Embrace the Gigabit Revolution
“We’re in the business of helping people.”
For Seth Bray, COO of Penn-Air Hydraulics Corp. (operating under the name Penn-Air, Konstance, Pneu-Force), this statement reflects both an internal focus for employees and an external service approach to customers.
Today, Penn-Air is a powerhouse of the fluid power industry. This York-based fluid power distributor serves a diverse community of customers throughout the mid-Atlantic region by providing hydraulic, pneumatic, and electro-mechanical products and solutions.
Innovation and a focus on technology have been strengths this company has leveraged from its creation by founders Jim and Mary Conrad in 1968. Today, the Conrads’ daughters are leading Penn-Air into the next phase of the company’s evolution in the fluid power industry—a phase of infrastructure growth fueled by the Pennsylvania Gigabit Revolution (GIG REV).
Chief Operating Officer Seth Bray recently sat down with us to share his thoughts on Penn-Air’s future as well as the future for Pennsylvania through access to gigabit Internet.
Redefining Services for Fluid Power
“We typically find ourselves helping people in manufacturing,” Bray says about Penn-Air’s mission. “We’re a fluid power distributor that also does industrial automation. But when we grow up, we won’t be just another fluid power distributor. We’re going to continue to evolve.”
That growing up, he explains, dovetails with a move from the company’s present Industrial Highway facilities to a new location at 580 Davies Drive in York by the end of 2016.
Bray says the relocation was out of necessity: the company is literally outgrowing its space and outgrowing what it can do within the space.
But the company’s decision to leverage technology, Bray says, has been a key bellwether in charting a strategic vision for the future.
“Historically, we’ve invested little in technology. That’s what our industry suggests we should be doing. We provide industrial components, but it’s becoming much more than that. We’re going to become a technology company that’s working in manufacturing.”
He points to the Internet of Things (IoT) as an example. The IoT is a system of interrelated computing devices and people with unique identifiers and an ability to transmit data over a network without requiring human-to-human and human-to-computer interaction.
“Manufacturing is getting to the point where in order for us to compete globally, we need to start investing in technology heavily. Today, we’re getting our team ready for custom applications. That market is limitless to us, and better jobs can be created as a result of it. For example, rather than having someone perform a task that a device can do, we can train people to monitor [the devices] connected to the Internet of Things,” he explains.
“We’ve been a successful company to date, but we believe we have some incredible opportunities ahead. However, we’re not going to get there by doing the same things we’re doing now. What can we do that’s going to have a long-term payoff for our associates in this company? That’s why we made the up-front investment in technology. Sure, we’re going to make mistakes along the way, but we’d rather be on that forefront [of technology].”
Although he couldn’t provide specific details, Bray says that Penn-Air is making an investment in exploring artificial intelligence and machine learning.
The Taxing Challenges of Talent and Network Connectivity
Two of the largest challenges Penn-Air faces, he says, are talent and reliable network connectivity.
“It’s hard to recruit the talent we need in the Central Pennsylvania and northern Maryland area,” Bray says. “We’re in a manufacturing space, and that’s the environment we work within. But the idea of new technologies and the Gigabit Revolution opens up something we’re in need of now. If we can figure out how to take advantage of the opportunities that technology provides us, we’re going to attract the base of talent we want to attract.”
Coupled with that talent attraction is the dependability of a reliable network connection to the Internet. “Today, our challenges are in our network…we lose connection many times. We do a high volume of transactions here, and there could be hours that we lose orders coming in. As we start building a team where our focus is technology, having faster speeds and higher capabilities will be important as our team members discover how we can take advantage of it. But we need the Internet capacity to do it. We need it to be part of our community partners and channels, as it will open up so much for us.”
Bray clarifies with an example: performing service work and diagnostics involves time spent sending engineers to do on-site troubleshooting. With a gigabit Internet connection and a smartboard, for example, a Penn-Air representative could monitor performance of and diagnose problems with a piece of machinery remotely—all through an Internet connection.
Data: There’s More Than Meets the Eye
“I think most people in business understand that data is one of the most important tools we have, but it’s the quality and speed of data that matters as well,” Bray says.
Enter GIG REV and the build-out of United Fiber & Data’s 400-mile rural fiber pathway between Manhattan and the largest Internet switch in the country—Ashburn, Virginia.
“This is the opportunity for a community; having that gigabit network allows us to open up so many doors in terms of what we can do,” he says.
“If downtime, machine breakdowns, and monitoring inventory are creating pains for customers, this will be an opportunity to leverage technology and gain an advantage over our competitors. In fact, this type of connection is something that major manufacturers will require from their suppliers, so this gigabit network gives us and our community a huge step up.”
Pride for Pennsylvania
The forward thinking that personifies Penn-Air’s approach to its future isn’t limited to this company alone. Entrepreneurs and people managing businesses through GIG REV’s community focus area have reported similar sentiments about using gigabit Internet capabilities for business and economic growth and development.
Bray acknowledges that access to gigabit Internet will give York and Pennsylvania something to take pride in. “As a community, this could help pull us together by providing quality jobs, attracting businesses, and just preparing our community for the future.”
He admits that access is certainly a roadblock communities face, but it’s an issue no one should take lightly. “Imagine fifteen or twenty years from now; we don’t have it, but other communities do. Where will we be? We could be passed by. If we want to have a prosperous community, we need to take [Internet access] seriously. This is our opportunity to use this access to our advantage.”
Looking at Pennsylvania, Bray says that gigabit Internet access will impact the way we think about manufacturing in the Commonwealth. “We have major customers who want specific things, and they’re pushing those things down through their supply chain. We’ll have the ability to surpass expectations,” he adds.
“We’re in the most densely populated region of the country, and our infrastructure in Pennsylvania is in place. Whether it’s roads or access to major financial centers, there’s so much in this region that’s unique and affordable, which makes this area attractive. Technology could be the tipping point to open up many more doors.”