In the depths of the recession that started in 2008, there were a lot of questions surrounding Gear Expo 2009. While the show featured plenty of exhibitors and all the usual “buzz,” the show promoters had no idea how many people were going to attend. Consider the circumstances: The gear industry was on its back. The country’s economy was down. Automotive sales and the housing market were way off. Are we going to recover? Is this the next depression? These were open questions.
Cut to the rip-roaring opening day of the 2009 AGMA Gear Expo, held in Indianapolis and filled with people from across the country and the world—many present just to see which companies were still alive in the industry, others to show their own survival to the rest. By all accounts, it was an inspiring event.
As Joe Franklin, president of the American Gear Manufacturers Association, recalled, “Regardless of the inquiries or sales, if you went back to people and asked for evaluations, the response was off the charts. It was phenomenal. It’s moments like that where you open your eyes and say, ‘This was good.’”
AGMA, celebrating 100 years in 2016, is in the process of answering a few of its own questions: What is our role in a developing gear industry—in terms of technology, standardization, and by extension, in the business practices that accompany these things?
Fast-forward four years to Gear Expo 2013, returning this year to Indianapolis. It’s one of the go-to places to meet other people in the industry, competitors as well as customers. The original show space has sold out, so AGMA added exhibit space and has nearly sold that out as well.
“Gear Expo is where everyone will talk to you,” Franklin says. “Many of these people are difficult to get on the phone, but you can sit down and have lunch with them at the Show. That’s what networking is about. Go easy with the sales talk…get to know folks, and that will be a life-long relationship. The sales will come later.”
In our July issue, Gear Solutions spoke with a handful of AGMA’s members about their experiences with the association’s classes and committees, technical meetings, and Gear Expos. The resulting picture was a broad spectrum of a close-knit group, a network of men and women sharing ideas to advance their businesses and the standard of living in America.
But AGMA is more than a resource library. And while AGMA has, unquestionably, made a tremendous impact on the technology, Franklin believes the actual development of technology is best left in the capable hands of the association’s 455 member companies.
“We don’t do the research,” Franklin said. “We capture the research for our technical standards.”
To that end, the association has assembled dozens of technical committees—focused brain trusts consisting of the best minds in various gear industry technologies. Committees exist for metallurgy, surface finish technology, fine-pitch gearing, or marine applications, among others.
These committees are hotbeds for practices and procedures, and while it’s difficult to document that a certain process came out of a particular discussion, it would be surprising if anyone argued that there wasn’t a benefit to getting these experts together. These are the leading technologists in each of these areas, and when they assemble at one table, they can debate—professionally and intellectually—about their understanding of what’s going on, and how it affects the physics and dynamics of a process.
“When the industry finds a way to increase the beneficial aspects of metallurgical properties of a gear or gear tooth in a drive train, we want our standards to evolve to incorporate those ideas,” Franklin said. “We want to drive the requirements higher and higher.”
That’s part of the reason why, for more than two decades, AGMA has been developing its own educational materials, inviting industry personnel to share their technical knowledge with newcomers through in-class seminars, online resources, and webinars. These classes are often provided by consultants or machine tool builders with expertise in their specific areas. On many occasions, AGMA has encouraged seasoned industry veterans to put their expertise to good use educating others in the industry. “These are people who are retiring and have too much energy to sit at home,” Franklin described. “They ask ‘What can I do?’ and I’ll say, ‘Well, you’ve got a lot of expertise in these areas…why not teach?’”
As an example, Franklin recalled one occasion when a business consultant contacted AGMA about the possibility of teaching: “We had plenty of technical consultants. But we were short on business consultants who also have technical knowledge. That’s where he was useful: a business brain who came up in technical knowledge. People like that have a lot to add to the industry; now he has clients all over the world. In that way, AGMA is a catalyst, a non-competitive environment for people to meet and develop the best standards they can, documenting best business practices in the process.”
Franklin referred to some profiles of gearboxes in a particular company. “Show me the profile of the replacement gearbox ten years later,” he said, “with the same power density. They don’t just shrink because they used an old copier; they shrink because with new technology they get more ‘umph’ out of the gears than they used to. Metallurgy, cutting tool techniques, processing machinery, new surface finish, lubrication…all these things coming together allow you to do more work with a smaller gearbox. Decreasing the size means smaller areas, less energy use.”
Today, our lives are made easier and more productive by reducing the size of electronic components. The same is true of mechanical component manufacturing. Gear engineers are designing smaller components that are able to exhibit the same vital properties as their larger predecessors. This in turn, increases our standard of living. “This is a collaborative effort of a number of contributors in the industry,” Franklin said. “AGMA adds our little bit. Someone down the street adds their little bit. Soon, we end up with a more modern world than we had five years ago.
“AGMA tends to be very collegial with other organizations,” he said. “As a basic business practice, we will not do something that’s already being done. We have plastic and powder metal standards for gears, for example, but we’re not trying to compete with the SPI: The Society of Plastics Industry trade association or the Metal Powder Industries Federation. We collaborate, because they have the expertise on their materials and we have the expertise in gearing.
“This philosophy has worked well for us, to the point that our trade show is held co-located with ASM’s Heat Treat Society. The AGMA Annual Meeting is jointly produced with the American Bearing Manufacturers Association; both technologies are integral to gearing. Fortunately, AGMA, ABMA, and ASM are all looking to the same direction. It’s a win-win for everybody. AGMA brings together technical experts to advance industry standards, and we’ve had a recognizable role in helping the industry document business statistics, as well as cultivate financial and business relationships through the data we collect and produce at conferences and seminars.”
But Franklin pointed out another side to this shrinking effect. “The gear industry,” he says, “is a technology-based industry, and as this evolves, one of the first things you see is that you can do more with less. One new machine today typically will replace several older machines, and you displace people, putting in a smaller footprint. Fewer employees means decreased political power, influence, and awareness. Increasingly, some politicians claim to not be aware of our interests—‘our’ meaning the larger manufacturing community.”
“When do we reach critical mass? As we put downward pressure on employees—not just operators, but the whole network of design engineers and manufacturing engineers—will we continue to attract the talent that we need? Is this a realistic risk? Could the industry get so efficient as to stunt its own growth, unable to attract the brainpower it needs?”
“Seems like an unlikely process,” he said. “But follow the chain all the way back. Fewer mechanical engineers means fewer professors of mechanical engineering. The student to-pupil-ratio drives the number of teachers—in every university. It’s a daunting possibility—reaching the point where it becomes very difficult to maintain the breadth of technology.”
Then again, Franklin commented that he’s seeing a lot of new faces. “At the Fall Technical Meeting a few years ago, we looked around and thought, ‘Who is going to replace all these minds?’ Then this past year, there were all these new, younger engineers. People with 20 years’ experience in the industry commented that they barely recognized virtually anyone. It’s exciting.”
“Gear companies aren’t dumb. They recognize that if a growing portion of their staff is older, they’d better get to work on looking around. And that’s what they had done, what we saw at the FTM…it was amazing.
“The gear industry is a capital goods industry,” Franklin said. “If you look at the whole scope of the economy, you’ll see we are a cyclical part of the U.S. and world economy. If the GDP moves a half a point one direction, the gear market might move seven to ten points because of that—it’s the natural structure of things. That’s why people who go into this business tend to be more conservative than, say, the typical leading-edge startup guy might be. We recognize the extraordinary risk of being caught on the wrong side of a cycle. People recognizing the cyclicality of the industry are more prudent, so that they can withstand business going down 15 or 20 percent.”
Fortunately, the long-term growth rate for the gear market is in the four percent range, growing with population and economy. AGMA will continue to grow.
“Over time, who we are has expanded,” Franklin explained. “Before 1973, we never had international members. The board of directors, in their foresight, said, ‘There are people around the world making gears. Maybe we should sit in the same room.’”
So in 1973, AGMA began accepting international members: Hansen (out of Belgium) was the first. Now, 25 percent of members are outside of the United States. There are AGMA members in 32 countries.
“If we continue to see some of these trends we discussed (restructuring the industry because of technological advancements) it only makes sense that we continue to embrace companies around the world,” said Franklin. “AGMA has no interest in replacing an industry’s national association. We’re a trade association for gear manufacturers, and that’s what we pay attention to. We are interested in becoming a focal point for networking around the world and for bringing together business and technical leaders to share what they know in a proper legal environment to advance the well being of the industry.”