February 16, 2024
Mrs. Curtis’ account of their family firm’s transition from general machining to noted gearbox manufacturer is an important reminder that success often requires a big change in business model. My first employer started off as a brewery before transitioning to making railroad “frogs”, cast steel connectors for complicated railroad or street car crossings. It was years later that The Falk Corporation became “A Good Name in Industry” by making enclosed gear drives. Over the years they added couplings of several different types to their portfolio while experimenting with and rejecting the idea of making diesel engines. Across town, the Borisch family’s trucking and storage business got stuck with an unpaid bill for some gear cutting machines and decided to plug them in and start The Milwaukee Gear Company. I especially like Mrs. Curtis’ assertion that making gearboxes and nursing required similar skill sets. One of our goals for this “origin story” series is to show that there is no “right way” into the gear trade. The company I visited last week, Great Lakes Industries, has been around for many years but did not start making gears until it moved from Detroit to Jackson and sought other markets for its machining skills. The line between specialty “gear-only” shops and general machinists gets less distinct with every multi-axis machining center sold. A hobbing department might get disbursed into manufacturing “cells” and the “cell” itself may be obsoleted by a “live axis” lathe that can cut gear teeth accurately enough for post heat treat grinding. It would be foolish to predict the disappearance of conventional gear making machinery. The hoopla about 3D printing taking over the world quiets down when you ask about component strength. There will always be parts too big, too small, or too complex for the multi-axis machines. But change is coming and companies that want to survive and prosper will need to be ready to change with it.