A One-Stop-Shop for Building Highly Precise Mechanical Assemblies
PIC Design was founded in 1954, operating as Precision Industrial Components, LLC. PIC Design was the first company to satisfy the need for pre-engineered gear products in the United States and was one of the original mechanical component "catalog" companies. The manufacturing plant is located in the Naugatuck Valley of Connecticut. In 2008, PIC Design was purchased by RBC Bearings. We caught up recently with Mike Hamburg, Business Development Manager, Ron Bell, Senior Mechanical Engineer and Tyhler Howard, Plant Manager at PIC Design to discuss the fine pitch gearing market in 2022.
How has PIC Design evolved through the years from a gear company to a provider of high-quality precision components?
Hamburg: The company began producing gears, but when you have a gear, what do you do with it? You mount it to a shaft. How do you support it? You put bearings on the end, etc. Our company is really an Erector Set for the engineering community as our customers try to put together different types of precision mechanical assemblies.
What are your customers specific requirements heading into 2022?
Hamburg: Fortunately, a number of our clients that were quiet during the pandemic have come back to life. They’re looking for short lead times, but everybody is looking for a quick return. We’re also starting to see new requirements from the medical devices and instrumentation market, a lot of people are working on technologies for COVID-testing requirements and things of that nature, trying to bring new products to market.
What are the most significant challenges in this gear market today?
Hamburg: One of the most significant challenges is our customers’ requirements for extremely short lead times. In some cases, 3D printing is an option, but in many cases, the parts have to be made from the actual production or production-intent process. We’re using a flexible scheduling process at our manufacturing facility, allowing us to move priority parts through the system quicker. In addition, many of our customers are still working remotely in 2022 which can make the approval process for new parts more time-consuming and can actually slow things down a little without the face-to-face meetings that happened regularly pre-pandemic.
Describe the process of selecting the right gear to fit a specific application in the fine pitch market.
Bell: Usually, PIC Design will receive a technical phone call or a technical request via e-mail and we’ll consult with the customer to determine the load, the material required, the gear ratio required, any accuracy requirements, and particular customer specs or industry specs. Based on all this information, PIC Design will create a design that specifies the pitch, number of teeth, facewidth, center distances, etc. We will submit preliminary drawings to the customer for approval and we’ll then finalize the design and develop a price quotation. Hopefully, by this point the design would move into production.
Hamburg: One of the nice things about our website is that customers not only have the ability to put in a request for engineering services, but they can also attach drawings, documentation, and other pertinent information that goes along with their request. This makes for an extremely efficient process.
Bell: If the customer has Internet-access, I’ll guide them to our website, and lead them to the online tools they may need whether it’s a calculation tool or custom precision part request. Hopefully by going through the services and capabilities we provide then this will result in an new order.
How has your website content evolved in recent years?
Hamburg: When the website first launched it was very product-orientated. We wanted to make it a lot easier for customers to navigate and turn it into a tool for young engineers. We’re trying to supply information online to eliminate some of the common mistakes we see on customers’ fine pitch gear specifications that are sent to us. PIC Design’s website is: www.PIC-Design.com.
Discuss the trend of customers choosing custom parts vs. off-the-shelf components.
Bell: I’m not sure what happened in the industry, but it seems like many people have moved away from standard parts and instead they design their own parts. We run into an issue on occasion where a customer wants to design a gear but knows nothing about the process. This can be a steep learning curve for the customer. Generally, built-to-print and modified standard parts are now about 50 percent of PIC Design’s business. What we try to do, but it doesn’t always work, is to steer the customer toward a catalog part to save them time, money and resources. Or at the very least, to a standard modified part since we have these parts stock and can fulfill their manufacturing orders faster and more efficiently. When a built-to-print situation is required, we work with the customer to simplify the design both for efficiency and for lower cost.
Hamburg: One of the things that Ron has taught me over the years is that you’ll see a young engineer will look at a print and apply those tolerances from that print to the drawing that he/she is putting together, and in some cases, we see the tolerances are way too tight for what they actually need. So, we begin a discussion with the customer to find out if they really need this particular tolerance, or could they live with an industry standard tolerance. We want to make sure we meet the customer’s design requirements, but we also don’t want to design something that is impossible to manufacture and will cost much more than the customer is willing to accept.
How does your organization stay competitive in markets that require such high precision components?
Howard: We’ve made significant capital investments in blank manufacturing equipment and we’re now capable of machining a complete gear blank from bar rather than using secondary operations to complete a gear giving us an opportunity to stay competitive in the higher volume categories. From our standpoint, there hasn’t been many technical advances in fine pitch gear cutting. Instead, we see advancements more in technology for course pitch gears for higher volume applications like the automotive industry. You’re still looking at 40-year-old technology when you look at the fine pitch gearing where PIC lives. It’s a catch-22, you can make the blanks fast but can’t cut them fast enough.
What role does R&D play in providing the latest gear technologies to your customer base?
Hamburg: The MPT Expo is probably the greatest driver for us. It’s an opportunity to get on the expo floor and see the industry face to face, and you may stumble upon a product or technology that you were not aware existed. Manufacturers of gear cutting equipment have been focused on much larger, higher volume course pitch gears. I do not feel that there has really been a focus on equipment for fine pitch gear. However, when you get the gear industry together at an event like this, there is an opportunity to see what’s happening across all the different gear segments.
How will the fine pitch gears market change/evolve in the coming years?
Bell: The cutting tools and the coatings seem to be advancing in the fine pitch gearing market. We’ve used some of the newest tool coatings lately and as far as advancements on the cutting tool side, and they’ve made a substantial difference from a cost perspective. The gear market is evolving and we’re finding more business in retrofitting hardware as well.
Hamburg: There are more opportunities available in the medical device market. In some of the defense applications the gear applications have got smaller and smaller until they were completed eliminated by electronics, but it will be interesting over the next couple of years to see how this all shakes out.