Engineering over a lifetime

Falls resident honored for fluid power work at MSOE

July 30, 2012

From inside the walls of a Milwaukee classroom to the sand dunes of Afghanistan, Menomonee Falls resident Tom Wanke's engineering expertise spans continents.

Wanke has dedicated his career to the Milwaukee School of Engineering's Fluid Power Institute. Fluid power technology is the unseen force that causes cars to brake, iPods to play and airplanes to fly. It is rarely seen or understood, but it is everywhere.

"Our technology is inside the machine, and people don't see it. People use it every day and don't even realize it," Wanke said.

Building a career to last a lifetime

Staying with one company for a decade is a rarity nowadays. For Wanke, spending nearly four decades at MSOE simply made sense.

Out of the 38 years Wanke has been with MSOE, 32 of those were spent working as the Director of the Fluid Power Institute. He also serves as an adjunct professor in MSOE's mechanical engineering department. In celebration of the institute's 50th anniversary, MSOE created the first ever Fluid Power Achievement Award, which was given to Wanke during a celebration a few weeks ago.

Through his time at MSOE, Wanke has taken part in revolutionizing the way construction equipment is run by conducting research and testing for companies such as Caterpillar and John Deere.

The Fluid Power Institute recently wrapped up a five-year contract with the U.S. Marine Corp. The institute worked to improve the reliability of the hydraulic system on combat and support vehicles used by soldiers overseas.

"There were a lot of trips to Washington," Wanke said. "It was pretty awesome."

MSOE is a private institution and much of the research done must be kept confidential. However, Wanke did say as part of the Marine Corps contract they developed methodologies of keeping the fluids in the vehicles clean and looked at different system components to make them more reliable.

Currently, the institute is working with Caterpillar, a manufacturer of mining and construction equipment. Though Wanke could not discuss details of the research, he did say the technology will be used on machines in the future.

Fatherly advice sparks career path

Wanke's first taste of fluid power was during his high school years where he worked with his dad at a construction equipment dealership. At that time, fluid power was just starting to be used.

"My father told me he thought it would be a good area to get into because his view point was that technology would revolutionize construction equipment and he was right," Wanke said. "Low and behold, right in my backyard was MSOE and they had the only program in fluid technology."

After graduating from Menomonee Falls North High School in 1972, Wanke attended MSOE and never left.

"I like working with students and the industry and teaching classes and I get all three," he said.

In 1980, Wanke became director of the fluid technology department and has seen first hand the evolution of fluid power.

"The evolvement has been putting electronic control of the fluid power by way of computers and other embedded software, which makes the systems more productive and more efficient and more reliable," he said.

Decades of accomplishments

In its 50-year history, the Fluid Power Institute has grown in its research capabilities. Wanke had a hand in much of that growth.

In 1989, the institute built and patented the first electrohydraulic mecatronics motion control laboratory at the university that is used in MSOE's mechanical engineering department for teaching fluid power and automatic control systems.

With technology that is ever-changing, Wanke said the engineering field in general is in need of young and creative minds.

"Any products we have - cars, planes, ships, iPods, iPads - all devices we have are designed by engineers and if we don't have engineers, who is going to design the devices of the future?" he said.

For information on MSOE or the Fluid Power Institute, visit

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