I know that mG miniGears has been involved inmanufacturing powder-metal gears for nearly two decades now, but how did your company get involvedin working with powder metal in the first place?
Back in 1985, one of our customers expressed an interest in having us take a look into producing powder-metal products, and we decided that it would be a good area for us to branch out into. Plus this customer had the high-volume needs that justified the investment in tooling that powder metal requires. So we saw it not only as a way to satisfy our customer’s needs, but also as a strategic move in the right direction on our part.
Where are your powder-metal operations based?
At our world headquarters in Italy right now, but we’ll soon begin producing powder-metal gears at our new manufacturing facility in Pudong, China, too, which is scheduled to go online later this year. We’ve just invested about $10 million in our cut-metal facility here in Virginia Beach, so the company decided it would be best to focus its resources on powder-metal tooling for the newChina operation right now.
You’ll be stocking those products at your facility, though, won’t you?
That’s right. What we bring to the party, in terms of mini gears, is that we already have a pres-ence in the United States market, so our customer swill be able to purchase from our stock instead of having to buy a whole container load from a vendor in Europe or Asia who doesn’t have distribution capabilities here. We’ll import product from our sister company in China, warehouse it, and distribute it as required by our customers so that they don’t have to buy a whole boatload of stuff all at once.
From a manufacturing standpoint, what do you gain from working with powder metal?
CT: Well, in a lot of cases you gain very detailed geometry that could only be achieved by a forging process of some type otherwise, which is overkill in some instances. So it provides us with geometry that isn’t easily achieved through normal machining processes, and it allows us to offer a reasonably complex piece that is very competitively priced, as long as the volume is there.
You say “competitively priced,” but isn’t it less expensive in some cases?
CT: Well, everything is a balancing act, so there’s always a tradeoff. For instance, the tool-ing required to do cut metal gearing isn’t nearly as expensive as powder metal tooling. It may take $6,000 to get up and running on a cut metal part, but it could cost as much as $26,000 for powder metal. If you’re looking at a decent volume, though—somewhere around30,000 or 40,000 pieces—then when you apply the tooling cost to the per-piece price, it becomes almost negligible as time goes on. Just to give you an example, we’re making a cut metal 1:1 ratio right-angle gear set right now that we sell for 88 cents apiece, and the customer is looking for a cost-effective way to introduce the next generation at a lower price. With powder metal, our quoted price is more along the lines of 18 cents apiece.
That’s amazing. What’s the downside, though?
Well, powder metal doesn’t have the same mechanical properties as cut metal does right now, but advancements have been made recently to increase the density of the product so that the mechanical properties are approaching those of cut metal. We’re not quite there yet, but research is definitely ongoing—and quite promising.
How do you go about deciding which base materials to use?
There are a lot of different powder mixes that you can buy, including diffusion-bonded material and others, but we primarily rely on about four or five as our standard base materials. That’s basically because we understand those materials well enough to know how they’re going to respond during the sintering and heat-treat process. That familiarity is important so that you can predict what might happen during those processes and avoid any undesirable outcomes.
Can you give me some sense of the applications for which powder-metal gears are best suited in the industries you serve?
A lot of our powder-metal gears are used in motion control, such as synchronizer rings for manual transmissions, as opposed to power gearing. They’re also used in the lawn and gar-den industry. For example, there’s a sprocket on the end of a chain saw that guides the chain, and that’s a powder metal part. And in hand power tools, there are a lot of powder-metal gears that are used in angle grinders. They’re used across the spectrum of industries that make up our customer base, and we expect to see a great deal of growth, in terms of additional applications, in the coming years.