In the last semester of my senior year of mechanical engineering, I recall having a discussion with my study group friends about the purpose of our four years of college work. A couple of my friends felt that it was important that we learned about calculus and fluid dynamics, heat transfer and mechanical design because these would be the essential tools of our engineering work going forward. I disagreed, which created a vibrant discussion. I felt that while these were subjects of interest for us, the primary goal of our engineering education was to teach us how to think and to give us the fundamental tools to be able to problem solve — regardless of the technical issue that would present itself to us. I argued that the technical nature of what we learned could change and can be relearned later in life, but the thought process was the most important thing and that was engrained in us.
That was 33 years ago. Looking back at my work career, I realize more than ever that my views as that time were correct. For the first 10 years after graduating, I worked in exterior-painted plastic automotive parts like bumper facias and body side moldings. After moving companies, I then began to work for a precision plastic injection molding company that produced a myriad of automotive plastic parts, including gears. The tolerances involved in this world were so different than my previous work.
I knew quite a bit about injection molding plastic parts but was basically ignorant on the subject of gearing. Our second-year mechanical design college course had maybe two lectures devoted to gearing, and it only followed Shigley’s Mechanical Engineering textbook, which basically focused on gear ratios in planetary systems, free body diagrams of gear meshes, and a bit of cookbook-type gear rating without truly understanding the subject of rating; hardly enough information to build a career on. While our company was focused on manufacturing plastic gears to customer drawings, it sure would have helped to understand gears at a higher level than what I knew going in.
I began searching out information. To help me with my work I created Excel spreadsheets to automate the calculation methods that I learned. The general manager of our company saw the interest that I took — all on my own time at home — and encouraged it. While he was also not familiar with gear design, he said that anyone who truly understands this subject matter has a life-long skill set that allows him to “write his own ticket.” I didn’t take those words too seriously at the time as I did not fully understand what he meant by that. I was 32 and the vision of my career path did not have any of that as a long-term goal.
Eventually I discovered that my questions went beyond most books and published material. One of my customers suggested that I contact Irving Laskin, who at that time was a very well-known consultant in the field of plastic gear design. Upon contacting Irving, he realized the interest I showed in the subject and we struck up a friendship which formed into a mentor / protégé sort of relationship.
Irving fueled my interest with his vast knowledge. He often explained things beyond my understanding, so it led to endless questions on my part (typical engineer)! Irving was happy to explain things to me in great detail because, as he stated, he “did not want to take his knowledge to the grave without passing it on.” He wanted me to learn and helped push me in subject areas well beyond those needed to manufacture plastic gears.
Irving also encouraged me to supplement my further learning by joining AGMA technical committees. I currently contribute to seven committees including — Plastics; Powder Metal; Gear Accuracy; Helical Gear Rating; Worm Gearing; Fine Pitch; and Nomenclature. What I realized through the AGMA experience is that we all have different experiences, and sharing those experiences with others creates a learning environment for everyone. You don’t need to be an “expert” to have experience, and it doesn’t always need to be good experience to be a useful learning tool.
After about eight years of working in the field and with Irving’s influence, I started my own gear consulting company and have never looked back. We developed some very interesting plastic and powder metal gearing methods together — up until his passing in 2009 at age 85. I am now in my 18th year in gear consulting and love the work and lifestyle that the business provides me. My biggest thrill is to pass on knowledge to others in a similar manner in which Irving has helped me. Participation in AGMA technical committees plays a big role in that dissemination of knowledge. One can be assured that the knowledge passed down into AGMA standards and information sheets will be long-lasting knowledge that can serve many generations to come. Writing a book on the subject does not have the kind of staying power in the industry compared to AGMA documents! It really is one of the best ways to pass on knowledge to future generations.
My college education did provide me with the fundamental tools needed for life-long learning. I am sure if my former classmates and I discussed this again at a reunion, we would all agree that college teaches you how to think. The technical details on what you’re thinking about is up to you.
Ernie Reiter (PE) is a consultant — Web Gear Services — specializing in the design of gears and geared products, author of modern software on gearing and other mechanical components, and client provider of gearing-related design, consulting, software, gaging, training, and support. In addition to contributing articles for Gear Technology and Power Transmission Engineering, Reiter is active in five AGMA technical committees, including vice chair positions in both the Plastics and Powder Metal Gearing Committees, and is an active participant in the Fine Pitch, Gear Accuracy and Worm Gearing Committees. He can be contacted at: reiter@webgearservices (email) or www.webgearservices.com (Web).