Company Profile: Forest City Gear

Forest City Gear continues to excel at producing world-class gears after 50 years at its Illinois facility.

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People may say Forest City Gear has its ‘head in the clouds’ these days since some of the gears for the Mars Rover ‘Curiosity’ were manufactured at their facility. Forest City Gear produced 75 different types of gears for the nuclear-powered Curiosity, which recently touched down on Mars. Curiosity will spend several weeks in tests before it begins a two-year surface exploration to search for signs of life, while studying geology and other scientific research.

Forest City Gear also made gears for both the Spirit and Opportunity rovers that were launched in 2003. Opportunity continues to roam the Mars surface, but Spirit became stuck in position in 2009 and stopped working in 2010.

While the Mars projects demand a lot of international attention, they are only a small part of Forest City Gear’s $10 million to $12 million annual revenue, but this year the company is on pace to reach $18 million in sales. Wendy Young, President of FCG, says while the company now has gears on another planet, the company’s roots remain firmly planted.

Forest City Gear is a family-owned business where gears are the corner stone and excellence is the daily ambition. Young says achieving world-class gear quality is the result of the company’s investment in machines, employees and systems. FCG delivers value and satisfaction for its many customers. Gears for printers, telescopes, tractors, aircraft, defense and medical devices are manufactured for demanding specifications to customers around the world.

“We are definitely a family-owned business,” Young said. “Stetler and Evelyn Young founded Forest City Gear in 1955. Fred (their son and now CEO) worked under his parents’ tutelage for many years. After graduating from college and completing military service, he returned to the company. Fred assumed control of FCG in the late 1960s. With young children no longer at home, I came on board full time in 2003. Today we have three adult daughters, all of whom are involved in the company at various levels of participation. Our youngest daughter is on the support staff team and serves as the company photographer. Our middle daughter is our Human Resources Director. As a young girl, she picked up trash from the grounds and was assigned various sundry small jobs. Before our oldest daughter and her husband started their family, she was also employed. Her husband Rustin began his gear industrial career at FCG, and is now the Vice President of Manufacturing. So yes, we are a family business with ties to our local community.”

The community is important to Forest City Gear. FCG considered relocating to a new site near the Wisconsin/Illinois border about five miles from its current location to take advantage of tax breaks and incentives, but the citizens and government officials convinced the company to stay.

“The village of Roscoe offered us favorable incentives and has been gracious beyond what we expect from a government entity.” Young says. “We had been looking at Wisconsin because of the tax advantages and lower workers’ compensation rates, but our hearts are here and the village met us more than halfway. It’s an honor to be recognized by our own village.” With the decision to stay, Forest City Gear also announced plans for expansion and a new division of FCG named in honor of the village they call home — Roscoe Works.

“In middle September we will break ground for an 8500-square-foot facility that will house our blanking department.” After many months of deliberation, FCG purchased its first lathe. It had always been the company’s belief that FCG should have one area of concentration and to be the best it can — cutting gears. With increasing costs, long lead times (some as far out as 14 to 16 weeks), and ongoing quality issues, company leadership believed it was time to address this segment of vertical integration. Today, there are six pieces of turning equipment and eight employees dedicated to the new department. Along with those additions, however, there is less gear manufacturing floor space, and working conditions are quite close with overcrowding. “Our goal is to be operational in the new facility before year end,” Young said.

With today’s demand, the lathe department at FCG cannot meet the demands of its own FCG customers, and will be investigating additional machine purchases for 2013. Along with increased business came a shortage of storage space.

“In July, we purchased a 6000-square-foot storage facility adjacent to the property,” she said. The additional storage space will house overflow capacity. “Our vendors are shipping blanks to us in sizeable metal containers requiring 1500 to 2500-square-feet of storage space.” Figure 1

Young said, “Forest City Gear has a reputation for manufacturing excellence. Historically, the company has reinvested 25 to 40 percent of gross sales each year for more than 30 years to continue that level of quality. People question our numbers. They question whether we really reinvest as much as we do on equipment. We do. The numbers don’t lie.”

Fred Young doesn’t hesitate to open the books to show doubters when they ask. We have to buy new equipment to expand our capabilities and technology. With space restrictions, older equipment is sold to ensure space for new machinery. We have never let a slow business environment be a reason not to invest in the future,” Fred Young said. “Building that new blanking plant adjacent to our gear cutting building will allow for more growth in our gear cutting areas.”

With the acquisition of new equipment employing new technology, FCG has expanded its capabilities. Gene Fann, FCG Technology Manager, said “FCG is able to cut splines to 72 inches of spline length with a new 2012 Bourn & Koch Hobber and can handle shafts that are up to 400 mm diameter. The Pfauter 125 Horizontal Hobbing machine is used to perform high helix gears to 75 degrees and has carbide re-hobbing capabilities for skiving.”

“To date, the finest pitches we have hobbed and shaped have been 200 DP,” Fred Young said. “We also shape face gears in fine and coarse pitches, both straight and helical. Our highest achievable AGMA quality is usually achieved by gear grinding and we often hit 13 to 15, which is equivalent to ISO 4 to 2.” He continued to say that quality depends on the condition of the blank, material hardness and number of teeth, and it is often more difficult to hit high involutes quality on low numbers of teeth.

“When hobbing, we achieve excellent variation or spacing quality of AGMA 12 to 15. Again, gears with low numbers of teeth prove more problematic for spacing,” he said. “The profile error is governed by the quality of the cutting tool, geometry of the part, however, we usually achieve AGMA 8 minimum and it generally 10 or better. We try to secure AA quality hobs to maximize the involute quality, and lead error is controlled by the accuracy of the blank and mounting fixture, and we usually hit AGMA 10 on average. Bear in mind, in fine pitch of gears 72 DP and finer we are only checking against a master gear, which is more forgiving than by analytical inspection, which downgrades the gear quality to that of the lowest parameter. Our average quality is about AGMA 10 for hobbing and shaping.”

Young continues by saying the AGMA 2015 standard mandates analytical inspection to 50.8 DP (.5 MODULE). “We have been routinely inspecting gears to 64 DP for some time, which we doubt many of our competitors have been doing,” he said adding, “Gears checking AGMA 10 ISO7 analytically would appear to be more accurate if only inspected against a master gear similar to AGMA 11 or 12.”

For shaping, the company produces AGMA 12 gears on special accuracy Gleason 300 and 500 shapers, and they say quality is dependent upon the accuracy of the cutter, blanks, and fixturing. All three brands of shapers or all eight of the shaping equipment in the facility feature CNC helical guideless machines, with two of them accepting face gear attachments, and two of the shapers are used to perform crown shaping.

“Almost all of our machines would achieve a minimum of AGMA 10 with many capable of exceeding that level,” says Fann. “We have nineteen hobbers, eight shapers, five gear grinders, one with generative or threaded wheels, and the other four are form grinders with two having internal gear grinding capabilities using wheels as small as 45 millimeters in diameter. We can grind gears with CBN wheels as small as 20mm. Two of the grinders also do high accuracy thread grind on shafts to a meter in length.”  The company also has two Drake thread grinders, one of which has auto-loading and additionally does gear grinding.”

Recently the company acquired a Koepfer hobber for crown hobbing. Crown hobbing is cut on splines and gears for misalignment correction and noise reduction. The company commonly produces splines for hydraulic wobble motors, which are called the dogbones. They say the Koepfer consistently achieves AGMA 12 or better compared to the older equipment. Figure 2

“We acquired our latest gear grinder, a Hofler 400 SK to investigate its ability to augment our capabilities and capacity in grinding, especially with small diameter wheels to allow us to grind parts others cannot do easily,” he said. “This has been a common denominator for us in the past to acquire new equipment to determine if it can help us expand our offerings and improve our quality.”

Quality gear manufacturing has always been foremost in our production processes, and was equally important when fulfilling orders for three companies for the vehicle wheel assembly for the Martian Rovers Spirit and Opportunity.

“One difficult requirement was for a severely crowned gear,” said Fred Young. “Because of the time and expense required to get a crowning block and, more importantly, the difficulty in producing a special shaper cutter with sufficient side clearance to shape the crown, I was able to talk the engineers into a slight design modification, which allowed the use of a very small diameter hob, allowing us to hob the externals. We also produced some very high accuracy internals that featured a very small relief that was challenging for this project as well. The tests were to produce some very special high accuracy gears with little lead-time for cutter acquisition and machining. Apparently we came through adequately as they are still in operation well beyond the planned experiment length. We continue to expand our aerospace business, as it requires very accurate gears and splines in exotic materials. That reduces the amount of competition we face.”

Forest City Gear hopes to expand its customer base by adding additional manufacturing equipment to its 31,000-square-foot facility when the blanking department relocates and becomes the new Roscoe Works. Forest City Gear offers large hobbing, shaping, small gear hobbing, milling, drilling, tapping, boring, honing, lapping, surface grinding and tools for fixturing, and cylindrical grinding.

Critical to gear production is quality control. FCG has been certified and has maintained its certification to ISO 9000 and AS9100 since 2004. In December 2011, FCG successfully transitioned to and passed its AS9100 Revision C audit promising to continue unparalleled service in a rigorous compliance environment. FCG recognizes that AS9100 is the aerospace equivalent to ISO that requires more rigorous accounting of parts, quality, review of satisfactory delivery, non-conformance issues and monitoring and reporting for continuous improvement. It prescribes the “rules of the road” for a business to perform from request for proposal, through delivery and now including customer satisfaction as a result of the AS revision C requirement. In addition to ISO and AS, FCG holds a ISO 13485 accreditation to round out its offerings in the medical sector for medical devices. Whether it be a simple spur gear component or sophisticated worm gear component, our goal is to ensure we contribute to medical device quality, safety, and effectiveness.

The company utilizes state of the art Analytical Gear Inspection equipment to verify conformity on every first piece at machine set up prior to machining the parts. In-process inspections are performed in the same manner to guarantee a complete conforming order and final dimensional verifications simulating the actual performance of the gear in a mating scenario in most applications. They also manufacture gears or generate the teeth on blanks supplied from many other gear manufacturers that do not have the capability of producing the quality level needed by their customers. FCG is a leader in gear manufacturing by continuously improving its operations, upgrading its equipment and striving to meet and exceed customer and regulatory requirements.  Hence their motto, “Excellence Without Exception.”

The FCG gear quality laboratory is home to several pieces of high precision inspection equipment. The newest arrival this year is the Klingelnberg P65 on which gear inspectors can measure up to 25-inch gears. The three Wenzels in daily operation are an LH87, WGT 350 and a WGT 500. Outside gear inspection once accounted for 30% of all FCG lab work. Today, on rare occasions, FCG will do gear inspection for other gear houses or for customers requiring product traceability and troubleshooting.

“It is our custom at FCG, to encourage and invite our friends, competitors, and vendors to visit us,” agreed Wendy and Fred. “We always capture a nugget of learning from each person who walks through our front door, and it is our desire that everyone who leaves here might learn something from us, as well.”

To learn more:
Visit www.forestcitygear.com or call 815-623-2168.