October 12, 2022
I have several vivid memories of my first week as an apprentice back in 1971. One was the shock of getting a printout from Human Resources in my first paycheck showing my projected pension amount at age 65 in 2017! “How could they even imagine me being that ancient,” I joked with my parents. They nodded knowingly and changed the subject. The second memory concerns a comment made when I was drafted into helping move furniture into the newly established “Hydraulics” department. It seemed odd that the country’s biggest gear maker was setting up a hydraulics group, but my co-workers pointed to the firm’s new corporate owners being pretty big in that competing technology. The supervisor of the new department cautioned me to prepare for a life “after gears” since hydraulics were obviously going to “take over” the power transmission world. I tend to remember that gentleman when recalling my father’s warning on believing your own BS. He also came to mind during episodes of one of my favorite early reality shows (Junk Yard Wars); if it was hydraulic and in a junk yard, it was there because it leaked. And nobody likes hydraulic fluid spraying on them. So, over 46 year later I again find myself asking: Is there a future in gears? Or more accurately — is there a competing technology that can do a better job of moving heavy loads or multiplying torque? We’ve done a magnificent job of reducing the amount of force needed to do many tasks. Big cruise ships, which once used huge “marine” gearboxes and matching steam engines or diesels as big as a suburban house for propulsion, now employ multiple “drive pods” for increased efficiency and maneuverability. The gears required are not as big — but there are a lot more of them. There was once fear that electric cars would not need gears at all; now it appears they, too, may need more gears — not less — if the motors are to become smaller, lighter, and more responsive. Solar panels that might charge those electric cars could also become a great market for gears as a few degrees of tilt in the right direction can do wonders for efficiency I am told. Where will the opportunities for gear makers be in another fifty years? It is not too early to be thinking that.