Q&A with James Richards

President at James Engineering

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What’s a typical day like for you at James Engineering?

I usually get up and get in here a couple of hours ahead of everyone, so I can have my time when it’s peaceful and quiet. I’m not always working, but I’m usually thinking and planning the day out. I do the design work. I also spend a lot of time in the day running around making sure things are happening the way I expect them to.

If I’m designing something, I’ll be back in my corner drawing on paper, and I’ll interface with the guys in the design department to get it digitally converted into 3D solid models. We’re a smaller company — we’ve been double our current size in years past. But we’re now implementing a plan to move far beyond our past accomplishments. We build some complicated machines and manufacture more than 2,000 parts in-house. This strategy is nurtured through growth. We’re able to do more, not less, designing and building of our machines. The goal is to give our customers what they really need using the most direct and efficient means possible.

How would you describe your overall philosophy when it comes to the industry?

If I’m not an asset to my customers, then I’m probably a liability. I fundamentally try to be an asset. With that being said, I try to build machines that will perform, not just the deburring that they need to do, but to do it efficiently and fast enough to where I’m actually saving them money by making that process friendly and fast and efficient.

Some of the deburring I see out there, it’s really a liability, because it looks terrible. We’ve always tried to be on the leading edge of quality. Recently, we’ve added surface finishing. We’re able to surface finish the whole part with the MAX System. That’s a bigger value-add. When you get a part that’s done on the MAX — the chamfering, the deburring, and the surface finishing — the overall quality of the part is far superior. That’s another asset to my customer.

What sets James Engineering apart from its competition when it comes to gear manufacturing?

I’m creative at building new machines that do a better job. As I build machines, I find areas that are lacking or tools that aren’t powerful enough. I’ve got patents on motors that we use in our systems and things that allow me to do the job better and faster. That’s one of the assets I give my customers. I can deburr a part very quickly.

The first thing I brought to the industry was multiple operations happening concurrently during the deburring cycle. Before, you had to run the part through the machine multiple times to do two or three operations, and it wasn’t efficient. We tried to optimize the deburring and chamfering capability and now we’re adding surface finishing to it. We’re always trying to improve the process.

What other innovations make James Engineering a leader in the gear industry?

I take all my ideas, and I try to formulate them into a machine that is as flexible as it can be, so we can do multiple things within a cycle.

On the ergonomic side of it, I’ve seen a lot of deburring machines where I can’t get my head in to see what I’m doing. The openings are too small, or you have to get too contorted to get in and try to make changes. My dad was an automobile mechanic. The one thing I hated was getting on a creeper and crawling underneath the car because everything fell in your eyes. Probably from that young age, I’ve always wanted to be in a good work position.

Now, with our machines, they’re not only ergonomic to get up and work on, but we’ve brought the computer into it. Through computer programming, we’ve brought repeatable processing back with the select ENTER, cycle-start capability of computers. It’s a game changer to the industry.

Where do you see the gear industry in the next 10 years or more and your place in that future?

In general, we’re going to see gears get smaller, tighter, with more accuracy and better metallurgy coming, especially with the ability of some of the powder metals where we can deal a mixing of dissimilar materials in a powder-press format. Vapor deposition coatings are also going to be huge. It is huge now, but it’s going to just continue to get bigger.

Gear deburring has always been a necessary evil. We make gears, and because of that, people like me have built gear deburring machines. Through the years, gears have been defined as being round for the most part. The burrs usually have also been confined to the outer edges. But advances in machine designs have changed all of that.

When it comes to non-gear parts, there isn’t really a machine out there that does that, short of mass finishing, and mass finishing erodes precision-part dimensions and designs.

With the MAX System, we are capable of deburring non-gear parts and the many new gear designs. It isn’t that we’re going to get away from gears, we’re going to be as important to gears as we’ve ever been, but we now have a machine that’s capable of going and doing the cases the gears go in, the shafts that the gears go on — all of this type of stuff.

You go into a CNC shop of medium size now, and you usually see the operators standing there with a piece of sandpaper, sand deburring parts during cycles.

If we can automate that process, then an operator can run two or maybe three machines or do more valuable work and less repetitive hand work. I’m hoping I can bring some automated deburring to general machining. A lot of my customers make parts besides gears.