As the gear manufacturing industry weathers the economic downturn along with everyone else, one key to survival involves remaining active in a wide range of markets, in terms of their activities and geography as well. Forest City Gear Co. serves as a case study in this type of market diversification, further defining its reputation by taking on the tough jobs.
“We actually seek them out and not because we’re masochists,” says the company’s CEO, Fred Young, with a laugh. “Rather, it’s because we know a few things about the business of being able to produce the right gear solution for the job at hand. And that’s not as simple as it sounds.”
He goes on to detail how the numerous factors of physics, math, material science, machine tool technology, and especially the wave of new applications and materials in certain markets all impact the gear making and finishing business. Forest City Gear is a turnkey manufacturer, responsible to their customers for literally every facet of gear manufacturing, including prototyping, testing, production, finishing, quality, process validation, even packaging and delivery. These traits have been the company’s hallmark for decades, according to Young.
“We keep our machinery and equipment on the tip of the sword technologically. This allows us to do much more for our customers and even a few of our competitors, who use us for specialty work. Secondly, our employees are simply among the best manufacturing, engineering, production, and QC people in the gear business. And that’s not bragging, it’s a fact. All of us working together are the reason Forest City Gear wins awards and accolades from the industry and trade magazines,” he says, adding that many of his family members, including his wife Wendy, are involved in the company’s day-to-day operations. “More importantly, it’s how and why we get and keep customers satisfied, job after job, year after year. Last, but certainly not least, is that the commitment and passion our family brings to this business would be hard to beat. That’s also a fact and one that we’re pretty proud to assert.”
In these economic times, Young says that it’s precisely the diversity of customers and the broad range of gear solutions the company provides that enables them to survive and thrive in these most difficult times. The following case studies offer a glimpse into the inner workings of a well-diversified gear company.
Motion Control, Inc.—one of the Fillauer Companies and based in Salt Lake City, Utah—is a world leader in myoelectric prosthetic devices and makers of the world-renowned Utah Arm, the most advanced prosthetic elbow/hand ever built for above-elbow amputees. The development of this unique device was done by Motion Control and the University of Utah’s Center for Engineering Design and is today in its third iteration, the Utah Arm 3. This device incorporates two microcontrollers for the elbow and hand, thus separate and simultaneous control of both limb sections are possible, allowing the wearer a more natural feel and free-flow movement. Many veterans of the Iraqi war have been fitted with the Utah Arm 3 at Walter Reed Medical Center and Brooke Army Medical Center. Motion Control also released the myoelectric Motion Control Hand and Electric Terminal Device (ETD) to complete its line. With a powerful motor, strong fingers, battery save feature, wider grip and quick-disconnect wrist, the Motion Control Hand offers speed and rugged wear performance. Motion Control follows all rigorous FDA and ISO quality control standards. Figure 1
“Motion Control has partnered with Forest City Gear since its earliest versions of the Utah Arm and the company has provided gear design expertise and quality gear cutting performance to us over the years,” according to Roger Morandi, documentation manager at Motion Control. “Forest City Gear’s quality and reliability are crucial in creating the precision sector gears and pinion gears for all three of our flagship products, namely the Utah Arm, Motion Control Hand, and ETD. We continue our relationship together as we strive to develop new products to enhance the lives of people with limb loss worldwide.” Figure 2
For many years, the sector gears on the Utah Arm were made in a multi-step process that included machining two separate parts, welding those together, grinding down the weld, hardening the part, then having Forest City Gear cut the teeth and do some final machining. The time and costs involved just moving the products from one vendor to another were substantial, and a 10-15 percent product loss was typically experienced in this process.
Forest City Gear proposed single sourcing for the product and the job was awarded to them. As Morandi puts it, “Now, we just send them an order and continue to concentrate on our customers. We know we’ll receive the highest precision gears from them quickly, at a better price than we were paying and without the hassle of chasing the products from one vendor to another.” Figure 3
Reel It In
At U.S. Reel in St. Louis, their new SuperCaster 1000 has a same-direction, no eyelet, virtually friction-free operation and a very high-speed retrieve rate, owing in large part to the internal gear mechanism made by Forest City Gear, according to Fred Kemp, U.S. Reel’s president. “We produced our design to the CAD stage in Catia, SolidWorks, and Pro-E formats, working with an outside consultant and our manufacturing partner,” he says. “It was a combined engineering effort, using GearTrax software from Camnetics. We’d been referred to Fred Young at Forest City by our consultant, Bob Benzinger. Upon first meeting Fred and Mike Goza, the Forest City product manager, and learning that they were both passionate fishermen, we quickly realized we had a receptive ear for our needs.”
Kemp describes the part they’d designed as a 7075 aluminum gear with internal helix, 0.45 module. The part was being wire EDM’d by U.S. Reel’s manufacturing partner and the weak area on the teeth was consistently breaking. Then, working with Forest City Gear, Kemp says they had that “Eureka moment” when Forest City discovered two inconsistencies in the initial design and “simply worked harder to overcome them for us.” Figure 4
The reverse rotation of the SuperCaster 1000 spools required a new gearing mechanism compared to those previously found in spincasting reels. Most 7-to-1 retrieve reels, according to the company’s literature, have a large casing on the main-gear side of the reel that often protrudes down beyond the reel foot. The SuperCaster 1000, owing to the design of the internal mechanism from Forest City Gear, is able to achieve high-speed retrieve with a much more compact assembly that features a new main gear with teeth on the inside to produce a stronger, smoother drive train. Figure 5
Results with the SuperCaster 1000 include casting farther with lighter lures and fewer backlashes, according to the reel’s manufacturer. Unlike the side-to-side action of most conventional casting reels, there’s no levelwind guide or eyelet on the SuperCaster 1000, so regardless of the line position on the spool, the line leaves straight and virtually friction-free. The retrieve is enhanced by an Angled Bar Levelwind (ABLeTM) that creates a seesaw effect to guide the line, plus the spool rotates the “wrong” way, but it’s actually the right way, according to Kemp. “Spool control is easier with the spool turning into the thumb rather than moving away from it.” The spool is forged aluminum with stainless steel ball bearings for optimally smooth motion. Figure 6
Commenting on the achievement of this new design, Young echoes his counterpart at U.S. Reel. “This was one of the toughest challenges for us, because any irregularity in gear operation is easily detectable in the hands of an experienced fisherman,” he says. “We knew we were breaking new ground with this design and wanted to be sure we did everything to make it happen right.”
Though working with multiple sources on different continents created some challenges to the process, Young believes the end product was worth the effort. “This reel concept is totally new to the market, but it’s really generating a lot of interest. We’re proud to have helped Fred Kemp and U.S. Reel achieve this success.”
Winning with Weiss
At Frank Weiss Racing Components, Inc., Young is a known supplier and has been a trusted partner for nearly 20 years in the design of gears for this high-performance racing team, located near Gasoline Alley in Indianapolis. FWRC specializes in the machining, fabricating, and assembly of various oil systems, exhausts, and starters for many who compete on the top racing circuits in America, as well as powerboat and motorcycle teams.
Wade Weiss, who recently assumed day-to-day operations from his dad, comments on the relationship with Forest City Gear. “We use a number of their products on our starters, oil pumps, limited slip differentials and elsewhere. Most often, we only need 50 or 100 pieces for a job, but the accuracy must be extremely high due to the performance specs and such work is often very challenging,” he says. “What that means with many vendors is either very high prices or very long lead times. Neither of those applies to Fred and his team at Forest City Gear. Truth is, we could go out and buy machines to do the hobbing, splining, shaping, and finishing work, as we’re a pretty sophisticated CNC machine shop here. However, we wouldn’t get that complete package of design assistance, state-of the art machine tool technology, testing software that’s simply the best, and the delivery we get from Forest City Gear. They really have the complete package.” Figure 7
Weiss continues, explaining how the Forest City Gear operation frequently exceeds expectations at FWRC. “Our customers are the racing teams and the aftermarket. For the latter, we often see very inferior products in the market, as the price driver in that arena is quite prominent. What impresses us about Forest City Gear products is how they often exceed the spec, providing us with higher performing products than we actually ordered. Time after time they’ve solved problems for us and gone the extra mile, despite our lower volumes.”
Proof of that performance is found in the winning tradition of both FWRC and their primary gear supplier. “As the old saying in racing goes, when the truck leaves for the track, if the parts aren’t on it you don’t need them,” Weiss says. “There is simply no tolerance for failure, because you only get that one chance on race day. If the products fail, the team loses, it’s that simple. In our case, we’ve supplied Nextel and Indy car winners consistently for the last 15 years and we’re very proud of that fact. It’s also a fact that the complete field at Indy since 1997 has had our products, and therefore Forest City Gear’s products, onboard. That’s the best evidence I can give for why our relationship stays solid. It works!”
For FWRC, Forest City Gear produces various alloy steels, bronze and even titanium gears, with performance ratings up to 850HP, according to Wade Weiss. “Our diversity of products and customers has helped us prosper in all economic conditions,” Young says. “We know our customers and we work with them to find solutions by applying the talents of our most important assets, our people, to every job. That philosophy has served us pretty well and it will continue, believe me.”
These examples provide insights into the fascinating markets and applications that exist for an innovative and forward-thinking gear company and also the benefits to be gained by pursuing them. To take another adage from the racing world, only one car crosses the finish line first. In the relationships described here, however, everyone wins.