“Artistic freedom” isn’t usually a term thrown around in conversations about the gear industry. But like in any industry, every gear company is unique, and John Winzeler, president of Chicago’s Winzeler Gear, has put his perspective to good use in his gear factory.
Winzeler has worked with photographer Erich Schrempp and his team for 15 years to make gear-themed art. “It’s just the way we live,” said Winzeler. “We have an art gallery in the building. We want the art stimulate our customers’ creativity and help them think about gears in a completely different way.”
Let’s start at the beginning. In 1908, a young Johnny Winzeler (John’s grandfather) left Ft. Wayne, Indiana Children’s home and started an entry-level position at a Chicago manufacturing company. After completing a tool & die apprenticeship, he became a toolmaker and in 1920 partnered with Pete Jacobsen to establish Reliance Die & Stamping. The business flourished for years and grew to over 100 employees until the Great Depression forced the company to close in 1931.
Fast forward to 1940. Still in the wartime production attitude, the city was producing anything from toys to office machinery to any number of clocks and appliances. Johnny’s son Harold Winzeler started Winzeler Manufacturing & Tool Company and decided to try his hand in making stamped metal gears from sheet steel to be used on car radio tuners, timer mechanisms, bomb fuses, and a host of other products. Johnny joined his son and the company soon became one of the North American leaders in the field of stamped metal gears and gear assemblies.
“This was before plastic gearing,” Winzeler explained. “In order to make a clustered gear, you had a lot of labor—screw machine parts and various techniques to make assemblies. It was a lot more expensive than making a complete part out of die casting, injection molding, or powder metallurgy.”
But by the late 1950s, Harold saw competing technology—plastics, powder metallurgy, die cast—as major disrupters of the stamped gear business. He began doing joint ventures with specialists in injection molding and, over time, eliminated Winzeler’s metal gear business completely. Today they design and manufacture plastic gears, primarily for the automotive industry.
Now 3rd generation John Winzeler is leading his father’s company through the 21st century. In 2013, Winzeler Gear shipped about 120 million gears. Production is verified with scientific molding technology and quality monitored with dual flank inspection throughout production. They also utilize analytical inspection for product development, analysis, and sound improvement. Their facility is 42,000 square feet with 39 molding presses. Winzeler also conducts ongoing research and development with Bradley University’s Mechanical Engineering School and their strategic material partner DuPont Performance Polymers.
Over the last 10-15 years, Winzeler Gear has developed an extensive knowledge on the strength and durability of DuPont materials for molded gears. The company has expanded its manufacturing business with the assistance of its strategic suppliers and customers to create a highly automated gear molding facility with the capacity to produce 150 million gears annually. Advanced knowledge of the design and optimization of plastic gears has better equipped the company to help their clients develop innovative, robust gear driven products.
“With any type of material or process, you have to understand the limitations of it,” Winzeler explained. “Our primary material is Delrin, which is very machinable. You can do a lot of development work by machining parts without the cost of molding or tooling. Due to the complex configurations, you can make them in large volume. They’re lightweight and low-cost, with good lubricity and sound-deadening properties. They’ve very desirable in an automobile, because of weight and sound quality, especially on the interior.”
Let’s get back to Winzeler Gear’s “gear art.” Erich Schrempp, the company’s resident photographer, has an amazing digital library of gear-themed artwork—even a “gear fashion” section (worm gear earrings, dresses adorned with spur gears, etc.). The company itself has an in-house art studio.
“I haven’t worked with another client who’s given me more artistic freedom than John,” said Schrempp. “He’s one-of-a-kind. We’ve been working together long enough, I can pick up on what will work and what won’t. He tells me what he wants, and then he gets out of the way.
Schrempp has always enjoyed factories, gears, and “the way things work,” he said. His background in photography affords him a unique perspective on the physiology of gears.
“A gear really is a beautiful thing,” he said. “It’s a mathematical formula made into a solid object. You can see the math, the same way you look at a pinecone. It’s a beautiful shape, because it’s actually just an equation. There is something about it that just looks right.” When I asked if he had any particular favorites to photograph, he said, “I’m a sucker for a helical gear.”
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