State of the Gear Industry Perspectives takes an in-depth look at the challenges and opportunities in gear manufacturing today and in the future. Our fourth installment online is an interview with Scott Knoy, vice president of sales at Nidec Machine Tool America.
How is your recent collaboration with Wenzel best applied to the gear market?
We looked at Wenzel and decided this would be a great opportunity to partner up as they were recently getting back into the gear market. This collaboration has worked out very well for both parties. When you look at how machines communicate, everyone uses the same standard interface. Everything is defined so you can tell the machine if you want the operator to make corrections or ask the machine to make automatic corrections.
Both Nidec and Wenzel can utilize the international VDI/VDE gear data exchange format. Our joint effort with Wenzel offers gear manufacturers the ability to automatically make corrections to the process based on inspection data. This was shown at IMTS on our internal gear generating grinder, the ZI20A-G.
The Wenzel GT 450 gear measuring machine is typically used in the aerospace, automotive and their supplier industries. It allows the precise analysis of gears and rotationally symmetrical parts up to a diameter of 450 mm. This laser unit from Wenzel is faster and more impressive than some of the equipment in the industry today, it gives us another outlet and opens new opportunities.
This partnership could also evolve in the future. It could be best applied to a finishing process, but Wenzel also makes CMMs that could be hooked up to a milling or turning machine. At the end of the day, this collaboration gives us the capability to offer machine tool and metrology solutions just like our competitors.
How is shop floor inspection evolving in our market today?
If you look across North America, there really isn’t anybody making corrections on the production floor. Most of the gear analyzers are found in gear labs. Companies rarely have time to run a 75-foot wire out to one machine or several machines on the shop floor. Brian Slone, for example, is working on functional gaging that is connected directly to the machine. This is the direction this technology is heading.
What is Nidec’s role in the push for electric vehicles and how is this evolving in Europe and here in the United States?
The core business of Nidec is electric motors, biggest in the world. There’s a good chance a lot of these motors in these applications are Nidec motors. Part of the reason they acquired Mitsubishi Heavy Industries was it gave them a partner to help produce electric motors globally. We recently sent some machine tools down to a Mexico plant for this reason. We’re moving into the market because that’s where the business is headed. There’s a big push for electrification across the board.
What are the greatest challenges in the e-mobility market as we head into 2023?
There are basically two types of EV transmissions. You have the external helical gearsets used most famously by Tesla. These are very easy to make the gears, but it’s not as efficient as a planetary set. We’ve recently seen two-stage planetary sets where the weight and overall efficiency is much better. We think they’re going to go in this direction as things progress.
If you were a potential customer and you came to us and said, “We would like you to put together a program for this,” we would look at the green cutting which would probably be hobbing, clearance issues would be skiving, really bad clearance issues, we would be looking at shaping. Generally, people will design around these various challenges. For us, we can offer our technology solutions in pretty much every area in the EV space with the only exception being gear honing and I would simply recommend Praewema for this because I’ve worked with them in the past. We can setup pretty much anything a customer would need outside of honing.
The supply chain continues to be a global issue. In Japan, we have a very good grip on our supply chain. Our factory in Japan makes 700 to 800 machine tools a year, it’s quite a large factory. We order machines for stock, so if someone in these markets need a machine immediately, we typically can provide the technology in reasonable time.
How is automation changing the gear industry today?
Our workforce is still dwindling whether that’s people choosing not to work or other factors. The opportunity to setup a machine and have it run all day unattended is quite appealing. We collaborated with a company at IMTS called AWR (Automation Within Reach) and they make CNC machine tending units. The baskets are a source of anxiety and high cost in many of these applications so they’re moving away from baskets. The AWR unit at IMTS featured a reloadable shelf, two sides, and a robot would work on Side A while the operator is loading or unloading on Side B. This machine would run continuously and only need about five minutes of operator attention per hour. This is what AWR specializes in.
We have an automation division in Japan so if someone ordered a turnkey solution—we just delivered one to Allison Transmission for example—they’ll be able to do conveyors, tending units, whatever the customer needs. If you can think it or dream it, Nidec has probably sold a similar unit and we know how to design it. If it’s for a stock machine here in the United States, we probably go to AWR (parent company Gosiger, Dayton, Ohio). They have a very large automation unit that has grown substantially over the years.
How can automation help alleviate some of the skilled worker challenges?
It’s not going to help you with skilled operations, but it can take the grunt work out of the equation including the loading, unloading, measuring, part washing, etc. anything that can be integrated into these cells. Now you free up your skilled technicians to handle the important challenges on the shop floor which is a real advantage.
Our biggest challenge is field service. Right now, we have 16 field service engineers, so we’re pretty well staffed for what we do, but we’d like to get a couple younger people on staff and train them up. We’re partnering with some of the local colleges here in Michigan to find new talent but it’s still a huge challenge. Mechatronics is the area of study that is most appealing, however, we’re not seeing the interest in our line of work. They typically want to work at GM or Ford. The travel is another issue. Many of these field service engineers are road warriors and they travel more than the sales team, it takes a certain breed to be on the road across North America this much.
How will automation change in the coming years?
I believe it’s going to increase significantly in gear manufacturing especially in the Tier 2 suppliers and the job shops. They’re really starting to see the benefits of these smaller tending machines because they’re very flexible, you can set them up quickly and they provide longer runs. In general, automation is going to be integrated into all industrial segments and a faster rate moving forward.