It’s that time of year again! Pandemic fears, supply chain issues, economic growth sprinkled in with some economic uncertainty. Every year, we take an in-depth look at the State of the Gear Industry and every year provides an interesting and colorful array of challenges, surprises and new innovations. Gear Technology spoke with Prasad Kizhakel, Chief Sales Officer at the Klingelnberg Group, Udo Stolz, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Gleason Corporation, and Shane Hollingsworth, Vice President Sales at Kapp Technologies to assess what the next five years in gear manufacturing may look like from the machine tool providers:
What will be the focus in gear manufacturing in the next five years?
Stolz: Quality and cost per piece are going to drive future gear manufacturing strategies.As we see a strong shift towards sustainability including e-mobility and renewable energies like wind power, requirements for high quality, silent gears will increase. Since manufacturing solutions alone will not be able to support meeting all requirements, integrated design, manufacturing and inspection solutions in a closed loop are key to future success. As the boundaries and especially cost per piece for specific manufacturing processes are already set during the design phase, it will be mandatory to provide gear and transmission designers with some substantial manufacturing know-how. Inspection results and advanced waviness solutions will provide feedback to design and manufacturing experts, to understand whether specific gear designs can meet the targeted noise requirements. If that is done in a smart and efficient way, gear manufacturing will step up to a completely new level of accuracy and efficiency. At Gleason, we are convinced that such smart processing is indeed the future of gear manufacturing and that closed-loop — “design-manufacture-inspect” — solutions in combination with highly accurate, productive and reliable machining systems will support this development.
Kizhakel: The elephant in the room is gears for e-mobility. I believe there will be two areas of focus over the next five years. Demand for higher power density and compactness in this sector will challenge technology providers like Klingelnberg to focus on manufacturing solutions that ensure superior NVH characteristics, geometrical accuracy, service life and cost per piece. Another thrust area would be quality assurance solutions that are precise, reliable and highly productive. If I have to pick an area amongst others which would be different in five years, it would be the reliance of gear industry on big data and the use of artificial intelligence to find patterns and solutions by analyzing them.
What emerging technologies will be most important in gear manufacturing moving forward?
Kizhakel: There are gears in many critical fields of application and they demand different end solutions, some of which may have an overlapping thread. For example, the gears in e-mobility, wind power or industrial applications have unique end requirements, however they all would benefit from emerging technologies in the field of cleaner steel, vacuum carburizing or production technologies that combine multiple processes. Another example of exciting emerging technology is digital products and cloud solutions where better hardware, an empowered software eco system and data analytics could provide seamless user experiences. Specifically for transmission gears themselves, we foresee our technologies such as quiet surface shifting, polish grinding, closed-loop manufacturing, hybrid metrology and the recently introduced e-mobility specific noise finder under the name R 300 leading the charge.
Hollingsworth: The adaption of Industry 4.0 and the adoption from the customer base can be provide a significant shift on how we look at manufacturing today as compared to the future.
Stolz: Even though we do not see major shifts in general gear manufacturing technologies, we are driving continuous improvement regarding precision and productivity of all existing processes. Quality, advanced surface roughness requirements and increased productivity will be the focus of gear manufacturers. Especially hard fine finishing technologies including power skiving will play a significant role in achieving ambitious quality goals. There is no “one solution fits all.” Choosing the most efficient manufacturing technology for a specific part, including machine, tooling, and optimum processing will be the key for success in coming years. While manufacturing systems continuously improve, Gleason is indeed making a quantum leap with its new metrology systems, extreme accuracies, in-process inspection, and advanced analytics for up to 100% quality and noise control in daily production life. With digital manufacturing we move one step further, striving to create digital twins representing accurate predictive dynamic models of gearing/drivetrain solutions and the related manufacturing processes, making sure that waste is avoided, taking a direct route to optimum results.
How has the global pandemic altered the way you do business today (and in the future)?
Hollingsworth: From the sales perspective, the use of virtual meetings has become more accepted, and we will see some percentage of in-person visits continue to be virtual. In other ways, it has highlighted the importance of in-person relationships and the value we as individuals recognize. We do anticipate the logistics impacts from the pandemic that customers will review their supply chains as well as inventory planning. As we see the supply chain stretch out again, it will force the industry to look further into the future for required technology.
Stolz: The continuous restrictions have made meetings in person more difficult and have altered the way we communicate. Video conferencing and live video demonstrations have helped a lot. Flexibility and speed in adapting to these changes have also created opportunities: right after the start of the pandemic Gleason began to offer Gear Trainer Webinar series in multiple languages. This free service has reached more than 10,000 participants from over 30 countries. In many cases, the possibility of bringing experts from around the world together without the need of travelling thousands of miles has increased the efficiency of customers as well as of our own work force. At Gleason, we are convinced that we experience a true paradigm change, and our communication behavior will result in a “new normal” after the end of the pandemic. Actually, the pandemic has only sped up the process of digitalization and growth of online communication we have witnessed for the past years before COVID hit the global economies. Webinar streams, online training classes, virtual shows and live remote machine demonstrations have become part of daily business and will complement in-person interactions going forward.
Kizhakel: The global pandemic forced a universal paradigm shift, which quickly and profoundly impacted the way business is done today. This short-term impact will also influence the way we plan to do business in the future too. There are three areas, which stand out, where things would not be the same anymore. First is the Connect & Communication with our customers and suppliers, this important pillar of our business has taken a digital dominance. Second is the Sales & Customer Support channels, where the focus will be entirely on the strength of the last mile. Third is the adherence to hybrid work culture which ensure well-being of our employees. At the end, the global pandemic simply presented itself to be a coincidence that reinforced convictions that we already had and definitely accelerated certain processes that otherwise would have taken longer to implement.
Do you believe the next generation of skilled workers will be properly prepared to handle the challenges ahead in manufacturing?
Kizhakel: I wouldn’t dare to pre-judge the next generation, essentially because every generation so far has proved to be smarter and better equipped to deal with the challenges of their times than the previous ones. That said, we should look at this very valid question from a completely different perspective. Leaving aside the impact of the COVID pandemic, if we look at the World Bank statistics over the last two decades, the percentage contribution of the service sector to the GDP among leading western economies and say, east Asia-Pacific is roughly in the range of 70% and 56.3% respectively. Some of these western economies like Germany, Italy, USA, Sweden, etc. still have an impressive value adding to the manufacturing sector as well. Therefore, I visualize a situation where, in certain influential market regions, we will experience a shortage of manpower for the manufacturing sector, even before we get busy about the skill sets of workers in the next generation. Companies like Klingelnberg, can choose to look at this as either twin challenges or twin opportunities. In fact, we choose the latter.
We will continue to develop our machines and the related ecosystem with high degrees of digital compatibility yet lowest degree of complexity to the user. Across our product lines, intuitive software solutions and adoption of artificial intelligence will provide enhanced support to workers so that the learning curve is shortened. Experiences so far have shown us that our integrated closed-loop solutions for gear manufacturing and “done in one” approach to quality assurance are precisely addressing the needs of the industry. We must continue in this direction to bring more value addition and support to the industry and workers of tomorrow.
Stolz: This question has been regularly discussed for many years. So far, manufacturing companies have been able to find adequate solutions to cope with skilled labor shortages. For gear manufacturing companies it will be very important to educate gear experts in-house and recruit skilled labor on a global level. Gleason offers a variety of training classes and free webinars aimed to help customers to improve their gear technology know-how including gear design, manufacturing, and inspection challenges. At the same time Gleason continues to expand its educational programs internally, offering employee trainee programs starting at high school and college level in many of its global operations.
Hollingsworth: At the moment, there is a clear short fall and not enough reactiveness from “institutions,” The current trajectory would suggest that companies will need to look internally at developing their own programs. The need to hire sooner for succession planning is clear. We are hiring for the future knowing the development time will be extended. We are also looking at opportunities to expand/utilize existing global apprenticeship where we would bring potential new employees for a period time to our facility.
What improvements need to be made to become more sustainable in gear manufacturing?
Stolz: In many parts of the industry, gear manufacturing has already achieved a comparably high level of sustainable processing, but there is room for improvement. Cleaner, more efficient technologies and qualified local support are of essence for the efficient use of limited resources. Gear providers must be able to guide their customers directly towards the most suitable design, manufacturing, and inspection alternative, to achieve the required quality without trial and error, resulting in minimum scrap and optimum efficiency. Qualified local service must support customers to benefit from maximum equipment uptime. As labor force limitations are becoming an issue in many parts of the world, automation will play an even more important role in future installations.
Hollingsworth: Technology is ever evolving and at a much faster pace than we have historically seen, Mechanically, we see machine tools outliving the controls. New developments from controls providers, drives, and software continue to rapidly develop and taking advantage and investing in these new technologies including the perishable items will drive efficiency on a cost per part basis. This could be in labor reduction, cycle time, reducing setup, quality control or a new cutting/grinding tool.
Kizhakel: I believe this is a work in progress and that the industry has been forever striving for improvements in all these fields. Significant gains in efficiency can be gained by combing more and more operations on a single asset thereby eliminating inefficient handling, set up and qualifying operations. We can better exploit the innovations in tool technologies, by building robust and energy efficient machines that accommodate higher cutting/grinding speeds and/or bigger tools. On a strategic level, the point may be examining “cleaner” needs to be defined in terms of reduced carbon footprint in gear manufacturing than the very cleanliness of the gear itself.
One wish that is perhaps beyond our sphere of influence is the need for industry friendly regulatory environment for data acquisition and transfer. This would accelerate the universal adoption of digital technologies that can further drive gains in efficiency and productivity.
Check out Gear Technology’s annual “State of the Gear Industry Survey” to learn more