Reflecting upon “transformative technology,” I remember the sadness I felt at the Cincinnati Gear Company auction when a group of pristine condition MAAG gear grinders did not draw a single bid, even from scrap dealers present. You could tell from their appearance that these “dinosaurs” had been the pride of that firm right up until the end of operations. They were big, durable and precise machines that no one could afford to operate commercially anymore. Two newer CNC machines could out produce eight or ten of the MAAGs.
Almost every shop that I have worked in had a dinosaur or two stashed away for those “special jobs” that wouldn’t fit anywhere else. Some of the old machines are still highly sought after; gear milling machines dating back from 1910 are fitted with carbide gashing cutters and continue to earn their keep. Herringbone machines, especially in the larger sizes, are still making gears on a production basis.
We once had a line on a 12-foot-capacity herringbone machine at a close out auction. Unfortunately, our designated machine tool buyer picked the wrong moment to visit the rest room and returned to find the winning bidder already torch cutting the 1921 vintage device into handy pieces of scrap.
As the dinosaurs get melted down, future generations will have to content themselves with photos and grainy training movies. One of my favorite places in the Philadelphia area is the Mercer Museum in Doylestown. Henry Mercer collected pre-industrial era tools and opened his museum in 1916 to showcase the creativity and skill of our predecessors. I especially like the early 19th century clock making display (www.mercermusem.org).
I hope to eventually visit the American Precision Museum in Windsor Vermont (www.american precision.org), which celebrates our machine tool industry with interactive displays and miniatures. Any suggestions for other places to see vintage machine tools? Other than your shop or my garage. I’m the world’s worst machinist but I enjoy playing with my 1989 vintage Shoptask lathe/mill, serial number 2.
In the most recent issue of Gear Technology, the Publisher’s Page recounts the inaugural issue’s coverage of “transformative technology,” titanium nitride-coated cutting tools and CBN/Form grinding. While commonplace today, these new developments had an instant impact on the gear trade and set into motion changes that completely changed the way our industry operates.
The increased life of hobs and shaper cutters had a huge impact on the number of tools needed by high-volume users. Tool makers who once could count on shipping pallets of hobs to an automotive transmission plant every week had to cut staff quickly because orders plummeted. Tool shops were downsized, companies reorganized or merged, and experienced tool makers found themselves needing to retrain. No matter how you tried to spin it, increased tool life couldn’t be ignored in the marketplace.
CBN/form grinding, on the other hand, made ground tooth gears affordable in a much wider range of machinery. I was working in a shop with no gear grinding capability at all in May of 1984; no amount of political maneuvering was going to open up our parent corporation’s wallet for gear grinding equipment. We were soon unable to be competitive in special gearboxes for metal processing. A year later I relocated to a family-owned shop in the Philadelphia area where we attempted to revive a long-dormant Sheffield spur gear grinder. It didn’t take long to learn why it was mothballed; wheel prep was a nightmare and part quality wasn’t much better than well-hobbed, through-hardened components.
When the local grapevine started buzzing with news that Philadelphia Gear was getting more parts off a single form grinder than four well maintained MAAG grinders, old hands were skeptical. Those rumors were true and ground gears suddenly started to be designed into general industrial equipment.
Over the next ten years, job shops all over the country added gear grinders to their capabilities. Experienced gear grinders found themselves in high demand — the exact opposite of hob makers. So two “transformative technologies” had far different, “transformative” consequences for gear industry employment.
In my last posting I wrote about some of the projects I have been involved with to squeeze a bigger part in an existing machine. Most of the time things worked out great, but once in a while we still outsmarted ourselves.
We learned, for example, to verify and record the actual openings in our heat treat furnaces after learning that just because a part fit when cold did not mean it would come out when hot. A 72 inch gear is really a 72.44 inch gear at 1,050° F! The 72.25 inch opening was way too small when we needed it; a slow cool later, we were able to retrieve the part and re-heat it in a larger furnace for quenching. So there was no serious damage to anything — except our egos.
High capital costs and tight budgets are great incentives for rebuilding, modifying, and upgrading your existing equipment. Gear Technology readers have seen advertisements from firms that routinely add computer controls to veteran gear hobbers, lathes, and milling machines.
With a bit of outside help you might be surprised at what your maintenance mechanics can accomplish. We bootstrapped ourselves into a wonderful suite of freshly rebuilt carburizing furnaces at less than the cost of one completely new unit. The crew got plenty dirty and we had a false start or two, but the end results transformed the company.
And that transformation was not limited to the physical plant. I’ve heard it said that “experience comes from surviving moments of bad judgment.” Our newly “experienced” furnace rebuilding crew was not afraid of taking on bigger challenges as they came along — challenges that would previously have required expensive outside help.
Sometimes the first step to thinking outside the box is to be brave enough to take the box itself apart and re-imagine how it should go back together.
Blogging about emerging 3-D printing technology reminded me of occasions when it was necessary to “stretch the envelope” to get things done. Those of you in the job shop side of the gear trade will no doubt relate to the need to squeeze just a bit more capacity out your existing machine tools.
It starts off simply enough — someone in sales or estimating doesn’t take the time to verify whether a part will actually fit into a particular machine or furnace. Next thing you know, your maintenance gang is “enlarging” the machine with hand-held grinders.
At one point I joked about never having seen an un-modified Fellows 36″ shaper. Every machine I saw had a spacer in it to allow taller parts. I have also been involved with “stretching” the work envelope of gear grinders and inspection machines. Perhaps the most challenging was converting a 70″ bevel gear planer to a 90″ capacity.
That project took much longer than we planned, but we ended up with a very fresh and accurate machine, although it still had the limitations of 1930’s design. Hopefully it will remain active until the ability to machine big bevels on multi-axis milling machines is fully developed.
The high cost of capital equipment has made the gear trade a haven for people who are willing to modify their environment rather than just surrender to it. Our shops are full of equipment that would be considered obsolete in much of industry yet is perfectly suited to certain tasks that come in. A job shop thrives on capability not capacity so the clever engineer or mechanic who can figure out a way to make a workpiece fit when “the book” says it won’t will always be welcome.
My last post may have been too hard on the emerging 3-D printing technology. We’ve always celebrated inventors in this country and perhaps having thousands of 3-D printers in schools and workshops will cause an increase in the number of patent applications.
A recent news report touted the Chicago area’s strong performance in the patent application “race” and patents are often discussed in the context of technology investment in this country. The U.S. patent system was key to our evolution from a nation of farmers to the industrial powerhouse we are today.
The agricultural environment was also a big source of ideas for inventors. Henry Ford, for example, hated cleaning up after his father’s horses so much he vowed to make horses unnecessary. The patent files are full of different plows, seed planters, fruit pickers, and other concepts for making life on the farm less labor intensive.
I get many inquiries from inventors looking for assistance in gear design for their devices, and I generally enjoy these interactions. Frequently I suggest they look for a copy of Ingenious Mechanisms for Engineers and Designers.
This classic three-volume set is full of mechanical solutions to speed change and motion control problems. Illustrations are in the traditional patent application style that is seldom seen in today’s technical publications.
Many Gear Technology readers operate in “target rich” environments for innovation. I say “target rich” because every day, you walk into an office or shop full of problems to solve. Every problem is an opportunity to innovate, a chance to try something different.
Somebody had to be the first to cut a keyway with a wire electro discharge milling machine. Somebody had to saw cut big gear teeth to reduce hobbing time. 3-D printing is another tool available to solve problems. It will be interesting to see if it becomes a mainstay of product development or just another of those quick-adjust wrenches featured on late-night infomercials.
I have been hearing a lot about 3-D printing and how it will revolutionize manufacturing in the United States. Millions are slated to be spent on an advanced manufacturing center here in Chicago just west of the Loop, and bold predictions are made for the number of jobs it will create.
The technology is certainly intriguing and the entry price point dropping below $5,000 makes it affordable even for (serious) hobbyists. A local company recently built a scale 1920s Miller race car to showcase the capabilities of the various different 3-D printing methods. A good friend builds large-scale models of famous race cars the old fashioned way — from steel, aluminum and fiberglass — so this Miller model really caught my eye.
My model builder thought it was very neat too, but commented that it was “a lot of computer time to make a toy. Probably as many hours as I have in one of my models.” Having observed his projects over the years, I think he has a point. 3-D printing seems to be a new tool that can be used in product development but it doesn’t “do” anything that can’t already be done by conventional means.
The biggest limitations that I see are strength and accuracy. Plastic gears and housings have their applications and 3-D printing may be a way to reduce tooling costs for molds. I can’t see the piece cost being low enough to supplant injection molding.
My other concern is accuracy. Unconventional means have been used to make gears; we have seen wire EDM (electro discharge milling) produce useable gears at one size (say, 3 inch pitch diameter and 6 diametral pitch) and junk at another size (1 inch diameter and 72 diametral pitch). Where will 3-D printing fall in the accuracy range?
Remember when the Segway was touted as the future of personal transportation? Other than a nice way to sightsee tourist areas, it hasn’t lived up to the hype. Before we spend millions of tax dollars and get the public’s hopes up on job creation, perhaps we need a reliable process capability study.
It is only April 2nd, but I can already predict that local TV cameras will have the post office staked out 13 days from now as thousands of people rush to get their income tax forms postmarked ahead of the deadline. I’m no fan of income taxes but have to admit that deadlines are a good thing. Not the fake deadlines we see on reality car repair or real estate remodeling shows, but the real, honest-to-goodness, get-it-done-by-Friday-or-the-ship/plane/rocket-leaves- without-it-and-you-lose-the-account, kind of deadline.
There are a lot of complications and distractions in most organizations that make “expediting” a frustrating occupation. It gets even more difficult in large organizations where there are multiple decision-makers who each have a different notion of what is most important. You can end up spending precious hours arguing what could have been put to more productive use.
That is part of the reason why I enjoy the occasional breakdown/rush/emergency project — especially one that comes down from upper management. And the higher up the chain-of-command, the better. As an apprentice I once got assigned to making sure Mr. Falk’s sail boat rudder got repaired. The battered bronze piece had an official shop routing with specific operators who were to work on it. I got a red coaster wagon, a map of the shop, and a letter authorizing me to interrupt any job on the floor except (for Department of Defense orders). It was a heady couple of days for a green kid; getting screamed at by foremen, laughed at by co-workers, and learning the best ways to get people to see things your way. Needless to say, Mr. Falk’s parts were done ahead of schedule.
Properly managed rush jobs can really pull a team together. Most of us never get the opportunity to take the final shot in the big game, but we can contribute the short-cut that helps make the customer happy. Rush jobs have a way of cutting through the red tape and processing cues in ways that bring satisfaction to the team members. Sometimes they are important lessons that change the way we do our routine business.
So when that phone rings and your salesperson has a big challenge he wants you to take, step up to the line and take your best shot. The thrill of victory lasts a long time.
While driving from Dallas Fort Worth Airport to a new client’s factory, I listened to a very troubling story on PRI’s Marketplace. It seems Silicon Valley is becoming a major market for cosmetic surgeons! This hub of innovation worships youth to the point where “coders” are considered washed up at 35; potential company founders over age 40 are dismissed on the grounds that “If they were going to hit it big, they would have done so by now.” In desperation, people are relying on plastic surgeons to disguise their age.
This attitude is worrisome on many levels. My adult children worked hard to find employment in computer-related fields. The thought of them being obsolete and unemployable in a few years will cost me and my wife plenty of sleep. On a broader basis, how can you build an industry that discards its most valuable assets the moment their skills need updating?
Imagine a gear industry where you got kicked to the curb the moment you finally understood what was going on? A few weeks ago I blogged about Professor Faydor Litvin’s 100th birthday. His work at the University of Illinois/Chicago began at the age of 65! And his is not an isolated case in our industry — most of our superstars continue to “produce” well past normal retirement ages.
One of my favorite things about our industry is the opportunity to learn new things — no matter how long you have been involved. My Texas trip involved meeting some great “young” guys just starting off in this business; the oldest of them would be three years away from Botox in Silicon Valley. Instead, he has the chance to master an exciting branch of mechanical engineering his college curriculum limited to about three classes.
A word of warning to those of you starting out on the gear trail: once you get in, you may be in it for the rest of your life. There are “secrets” that will only reveal themselves to you over time. Even when you think you have those mastered, new insights will come to you. It becomes a life sentence to some of us and we never apply for parole.
PS: We’re set to begin our 4th month on the Gear Technology website. The comment activity has been picking up but we want to remind you that your input is appreciated. Topic suggestions are always welcome.
Thinking back on my experiences on the Helical Gear Rating Committee, I am a bit shocked at what hasn’t happened. As AGMA 218 was being finalized in 1979 there was an extended discussion of where the committee should next put its efforts. The esteemed members were tired from years of negotiating on the landmark document but hardly short of ideas for improvement.
The committee is still hard at work and many of the topics being improved were on the list developed long ago. The standard remains the best place to go for design methodology and is truly useable by the individual engineer or design team without expensive investment in third party software.
Software is helpful in reducing design time and manpower requirements. But as one of our commentators recently pointed out, it is dangerous to put high tech software in the hands of inexperienced engineers. Unless you know what is going on inside that “black box” you can risk your entire project by not verifying the results by other familiar and trusted methods.
This has turned out to be the stumbling block to some of the things on that 1979 “Wish List.” We had every confidence back then that our rating methods would be forever transformed by Finite Element Analysis. FEA was viewed as an inevitable technology that would quickly obsolete our computer aided calculations and replace them with beautiful and easy to understand colored renderings.
Like you, I enjoy seeing those beautiful pictures in technical papers and magazines. I don’t fully trust them yet and don’t see any chance that they will supplant current calculation methods. For now I’ll class FEA of gears with the Jetson’s flying cars: possible for some people in some circumstances but not likely to solve rush hour traffic any time soon.
One of the most important aspects of a gear rating standard is the allowable stress charts. For spur and helical gears we want to calculate durability and strength ratings for a wide variety of materials and heat treatments, so the charts have gotten large and require many footnotes.
AGMA and other standards agencies work very diligently to keep commercialism out of technical matters. All proposed changes are scrutinized by a broadly based committee of engineers from AGMA members before being adopted as part of the standard. Completed standards are then submitted for membership comments and approval. The objective is to deliver a reliable methodology for making gears that will meet industry expectations for performance.
Unfortunately, the allowable stress values cannot be directly derived from the material properties you would test in a metallurgical laboratory. There is no formula for taking tensile, impact, or other physical test results and calculating an allowable contact or bending stress allowable.
The values shown in the charts were negotiated over the years based upon committee member input and their field experiences. The process has been compared to making sausage; you don’t always want to know what goes into the sausage but as long as it tastes good and no one gets sick we come back for more sausage.
This situation frustrates companies that would like to use new materials, but protects the general public from untested products. All AGMA standards include language that permits the use of alternate methods and procedures — provided the design is properly tested. The “standard” methods represent the consensus of the best engineers in the trade and hundreds of years of collected experience.
On the Helical Gear Rating Committee we jokingly refer to the area beyond what the standards endorse as a “Land of Dragons.” Brave engineers can go there if needed. We enjoy hearing the tales of the survivors of those journeys and use them to redefine the borderline to Dragonland when the standards are revised. If you are one of those survivors your input is welcome at the AGMA committee near you.