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Quality is the Word for Illinois Gear Manufacturer
The U.S. Reel SuperCaster 1000 offers a no-eyelet, virtually friction-free and high-speed retrieve operation made possible by a compact internal gear mechanism supplied by Forest City Gear.
Photo courtesy of Forest City Gear.
Knowledge is valued at Forest City Gear, where a tradition of re-investing in technology and people pays big dividends for customers.
For many companies, periods of economic downturn are a time for retrenchment across the board. But for one quality-conscious gear manufacturer in Roscoe, Illinois, the past few years haven't deterred the company from pushing the limits of its capabilities and re-investing in its most important resources. That company is Forest City Gear (FCG), a maker of high-precision custom gears for some of the world's leading companies and technology innovators.
Forest City Gear (www.forestcitygear.com) offers expertise in fine- and medium-pitch gears, and is certified to ISO 9000, AS9100, and ISO 13485 standards. As a turnkey manufacturer, the company is responsible to its customers for virtually every facet of gear manufacturing--from prototyping and testing to production, finishing, quality, process validation, and even packaging and delivery. Gears produced by the company are found on the Space Shuttle, in cars in the starting field at the Indy 500, and on what is reportedly the world's longest distance casting reel. They're also used in highly sophisticated measuring instruments and Siemens magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines, as well as Howitzers and surface-to-air missiles, to name a few.
The company was founded in 1955 by Stetler and Evelyn Young, parents of the current CEO, Fred Young. Today, carrying on his parents' legacy of continuous re-investment in equipment, facility, and people is important to Young and integral to the company's success. Forest City Gear's ongoing efforts in these areas are crucial to building what he calls "an ever-expanding base of knowledge" that can be applied to every gear that the company makes.
"We don't wait for the order to buy the machine; we acquire the best technology available to push our capabilities into new arenas, every day," says Young. "That policy, coupled with arguably the most sophisticated gear quality lab in the world, has kept us in the forefront of the industry for decades. We're very proud of that fact. Forest City Gear counts dozens of other gear companies among our customers, as they bring work to us that they cannot perform themselves."
Forest City Gear recently developed an in-house blanking department, a move that has extended its capabilities for custom gear making while improving its turnaround time on most jobs. According to company president Wendy Young, FCG had previously relied on a number of outside suppliers for blanking. "While our volume overall is quite substantial, we were often slow to receive some small, project-specific blanks for production," said Ms. Young. "Many of our jobs are short-run, highly specialized precision gears, and that means we place a premium on being very efficient in our time-to-first-prototype."
A key addition to the new blanking operation is a Takisawa TT-200G, a fully-automated turning center with twin-spindle, twin-turret, and twin-CNC operation. According to a company spokesperson, the machine has radically improved production in the blanking department by combining full automation with twin-sided, simultaneous machining. The Takisawa TT-200G provides 16-pallet capacity, an 8-inch chuck, and a feed rate of 8m/min; it also offers a standard spindle and turret, plus a second C-axis spindle and turret with milling function. Additional features include a bar loader, workpiece stacker, turnover unit, chip conveyor, air blower, and tabulating counter.
Wendy Young and Tommy Kalt, who runs the blanking department at Forest City Gear, say that the Takisawa is already making a big impact on Forest City Gear's blanking operation.
"We're achieving a 27-second cycle of continuous turning, and the fully automatic mode means a big boost in production for our department," says Kalt. "Because we do so many jobs that require relatively few blanks, our overall speed was hampered, due to excessive downtime for set-ups. That situation is diminished to a great degree with the Takisawa machine. Having this capability allows us to reduce our lot sizes on high-volume blanket orders and increases our ability to prototype."
New Gear Design Boosts Performance of Fishing Reel
What Fred Young referred to as Forest City's "ever-expanding base of knowledge" is respected by the company's customers, which include NASA, and its competitors. According to Young, more than 20% of the firm's customers are other gear companies that bring work that they can't do themselves.
"We actually seek out the tough jobs, not because we're masochists," he jokes. "Rather, it's because we know a few things about the business of designing and being able to produce the right gear solution for the job at hand. That's not as simple as it sounds."
Forest City's knowledge of gear design and engineering was put to the test recently when the company was asked to build an internal helical gear for a new bait casting reel, the SuperCaster 1000 from U.S. Reel. Besides allowing anglers to cast farther than they could with conventional casting reels, the SuperCaster 1000 enables high-speed retrieving, thanks in large part to a compact internal gear mechanism built by Forest City Gear. The new gear design, reportedly never used in a casting reel before, provides reverse rotation by moving the pinion gear from the outside to the inside of the main gear.
"We'd produced our design to the CAD stage in Catia, SolidWorks and Pro-E formats, working with an outside consultant and our manufacturing partner in China," says Fred Kemp, president of U.S. Reel. "It was a combined engineering effort, using GearTrax software from Camnetics. We'd been referred to Fred Young at Forest City by our consultant, Bob Benzinger. Upon first meeting Fred and his engineering team and learning Fred was a passionate fisherman, we quickly realized we had a receptive ear for our needs."
Kemp described the part they'd designed as a 7075 aluminum gear with internal helix, 0.45 module. U.S. Reel's manufacturing partner in China was using wire EDM to machine the part, and the weak area on the teeth was consistently breaking. But as U.S. Reel worked with Forest City Gear's engineers, Kemp says, they had "a Eureka moment" when Forest City discovered two inconsistencies in the initial design and "simply worked harder to overcome them for us."
The reverse rotation of the SuperCaster 1000 spools required a new gearing mechanism, different from the mechanisms previously used in spin casting reels. Most 7-to-1 retrieve reels, according to the company's literature, have a large casing on the main-gear side of the reel that often protrudes down beyond the reel foot. The SuperCaster, owing to the design of the internal mechanism by Forest City Gear, is able to achieve high-speed retrieve with a much more compact assembly that uses a new main gear with teeth on the inside to produce a stronger, smoother drive train.
High-speed retrieve is enhanced by a rotating angled bar--the patent-pending Angled Bar Levelwind (ABLeTM)--rather than a levelwind eyelet to guide the line. The ABLeTM Levelwind uses a rolling motion to create a see-saw effect that guides the line without restricting it.
Although the SuperCaster spool appears to rotate the "wrong" way, it's actually the right way, according to Kemp. "Spool control is easier with the spool turning into the thumb rather than moving away from it," he says. The spool is forged aluminum with stainless steel ball bearings for optimally smooth motion.
"This was one of the toughest challenges for us, because any irregularity in gear operation is easily detectable in the hands of an experienced fisherman," says Young. "We knew we were breaking new ground with this design and wanted to be sure we did everything to make it happen right." Though working with multiple sources on different continents brought some challenges to the process, he believes the end product was worth the effort. "This reel is new on the market but is really generating a lot of interest," he says. "We're proud to have helped Fred Kemp and U.S. Reel achieve this success."
In another case, Forest City was encountering small errors in gear inspection. Young says that "a simple adjustment involving a AA hob versus a B hob" solved the problem, at a cost of about $75. "On small gear tooth count, we were able to eliminate the error with a relatively simple tool adjustment on the circular pitch," he explains. "As a collateral benefit, we were able to institute a new procedure at our company that reduced gear grinding time. Just a little thing, seemingly, but those little things make a big difference."
According to Young, Forest City Gear's accomplishments are evidence of what a company can achieve when it remembers to bring its best game to every competition. "We even export gears to China and other countries where that's not supposed to happen, right?" he says. "Like the great sports teams of the past and present, our company puts its very best effort into every project we tackle, not just the high-margin ones, the glamorous ones, or the ones where we get press coverage. This philosophy has served us well, since my parents started our company in 1955."
When visitors take a tour of Forest City Gear, they can readily see things like the company's new technology for gearmaking, a state-of-the-art production department, and FCG's quality lab, where Young says he'd stack his people and equipment up against any gear manufacturer on the planet for comparison. "The fact that over 20% of our customers are other gear companies is no accident," he says. "Rather, it is the result of our commitment to manufacture absolutely the finest quality products in the industry, coupled with the ability to prove out that quality in a lab that's the envy of the gear industry, as well as the very latest machine tool technology to do things our peers in the industry cannot.
"There's a notion going around these days called re-shoring, and it makes the case that American manufacturers can regain lost business by talking about total cost of ownership, trade regulations, and other ethereal concepts," he continues. "Let's be direct about it: Offshore competition will always remain a serious option for any customer who doesn't understand that quality components make the best end product. When your company's products are better, people will beat a path to your door."
A tour of Forest City Gear also reveals some things that you don't see. Young acknowledges that the company invests a lot of money into new equipment, and says it's also one of the country's top sellers of used gearmaking equipment. "That's one of many reasons we can continue to invest," he notes. "Beyond the machinery and testing facilities, however, we invest in our most important asset--our people. We have an ongoing educational program, so employees can constantly increase their knowledge about the business. Plus, we engage our machine and equipment suppliers on a regular basis to tap into their expertise, because we know they contact the top gear manufacturers in the world and this knowledge transfer and cross-pollinization of technology will make our company better.
"Likewise, when you tour our shop, you won't notice it, but there's a constant transmission of the 'tribal' knowledge we've acquired over our 56 years in business that's pure gold. Better said, it's pure particle accelerator power, because as it passes from one generation to the next, it increases in its focus and energy. Too many companies rely on the machine tool's CNC to get the work done, rather than that one computer that can still outperform anything in the world: the human brain and its capability to analyze and adapt. If our company didn't invest in those 'machines,' we'd quickly fall behind.
"Thus, while we push our leading-edge machine tools to the limit of their capabilities in making gears, we also push our people to advance the technology at Forest City Gear through their own individual effort, imagination, and talent. We send our people to the AGMA (American Gear Manufacturers Association) gear school, where, as I like to say, they don't learn how to pick the brand of car, but rather they learn to drive. I had a little part in starting that school, so it has a special place in my heart, by the way. Many others in the industry did, as well, and that brings me to another worthwhile point--the old saying about a rising tide lifting all boats is really true.
"American manufacturers will succeed and prosper if they work together to build their respective industries," he continues. "I'm aware of several current coalitions, where metal stampers, as an example, got together to increase their product knowledge, provide disaster relief to each other and, believe it or not, share information about their respective companies' inner workings, all to the betterment of the industry overall.
"Gear manufacturers and others who compete with off-shore companies are not at a disadvantage, as some would have you believe. At least they're not, if they remember the things that made them successful in the first place. Having better equipment and better people than the other guys, plus utilizing all available engineering support from vendors, industry associations, and others in the business who can help, will all accomplish the goal every company must have to succeed. That goal is simply to produce a better product than the other guys, every time, with no compromise on quality or service."
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