It was 1952 when a small-town blacksmith by the name of Calvin Lawler was drafted into the Korean War effort. He had just completed basic training when he signed up for a three-month course at an Army base in Atlanta that would prepare him to man a mobile machine shop mounted in the back of a two-ton truck to do repair work as necessary near and along the front lines. He was just glad that he’d have a truck instead of a foxhole to sleep in, according to his son, Ray Lawler.
“The way it turned out, though, is that dad was so good at it that they kept him on base to teach the course,” Lawler says, “so he never even had to leave Atlanta during the two years he was in the military.”
Returning home to Missouri, he found that the local farmers had figured out how to do without his blacksmith services during his absence, so he relocated to Kansas City, where he spent 15 years working in machine shops, and then another decade with a company that made tooling for stamping operations. As a result, Ray Lawler’s father was 50 years old before he decided to start a business of his own.
“He started off with two full-time employees in a little 3,000 square-foot shop, and the reason he got into gears is because everybody was doing basic machining, so he thought he needed to do something different to set the company apart,” says Lawler. “I decided to join him about six months after that.”
Lawler had started running a mill and lathe in his dad’s home shop even before he was a teenager, and he then attended a vocational technology school while in high school where he studied drafting and architectural drawing before going to work for the Allis-Chalmers Corporation. “They had a combine plant in Independence, Missouri, and I was in their product engineering department, working on my engineering degree at night,” he says. “I had to put off school when I went to work with dad, but then I switched over to manufacturing and eventually graduated. Thing is, because of the hands-on experience I was getting, I already knew almost everything I needed to know about manufacturing once I’d earned my degree. But I wanted to finish what I’d started.”
In the early years, the Lawler Gear Corporation focused on doing gear and tooling work, but it wasn’t long before they decided to get away from tooling to concentrate on gears. “When you’re working with gears, you’ll always have some turning to do, like grinding on shafts and secondary millwork. So we found that if we just stuck with the gears, it seemed to automatically fill up the rest of the shop with work,” Lawler says.
Since that time, the company has grown steadily, but Lawler says he can look back and identify certain turning points that helped make the business a success. The first came in 1981, when the company invested in its first CNC lathe. “That might not sound like a big deal now, but we were really on the cutting edge for a shop our size back then.”
Along with the acquisition came certain challenges, though. “In those days, you couldn’t hire a CNC machinist to save your life,” he says. “Of course, it’s the exact opposite now. These days it’s hard to find a manual machinist.”
Another turning point came the next year, when Lawler purchased the company’s first computer. “It was a RadioShack Model 3, and it had something like 48K of memory, which is laughable now, since saving a Word document alone takes about 20K,” he says. “But I’d learned how to write computer code in college, so I’d bought it to help us do our gear cutting calculations, which were taking us forever to do by hand.”
Writing and debugging a gear quoting program took Lawler more than six weeks, and when it was printed out line by line, it measured 14 feet long. “But it was well worth the effort,” he says. “To manually quote a gear would take us about 45 minutes to an hour, and you just hated doing it. Plus you were making so many decisions right out of your head that you could do a quote one day and the same quote three weeks later and it would be completely different,” he says. “Once I’d gotten the program written, the quotes came out the same every time, and the time it took to do a quote dropped from an hour to two minutes, which let us do a lot more quotes. And the more you do, the more work you get, which is exactly what happened.”
With the additional work, the company needed more room, which led to yet another major turning point. “We’d started out in 1978 with 3,000 square feet, and then we moved to a 7,500 square-foot building a year later, where we stayed for the next 10 years,” says Lawler. “But we built our own 20,000 square-foot building in 1989, and then added another 11,000 square feet in 1996, and that has made all the difference.”
Finally housed in a facility built specifically for the work they were doing, and with an overhead crane that allowed material to be moved more quickly and efficiently, the company was poised for growth. “Our profitability went up just because of the improved efficiency,” Lawler says. “It was really amazing.”
Although Lawler Gear’s focus remains on gear manufacturing, it offers additional services as well, such as gear inspection. “We put in an analytical testing lab several years ago, and it’s really come in handy,” says Lawler. “We mostly use the gear lab for internal purposes, making sure we’re doing a good job on the gears and deciding which machines need to be repaired, but we offer the service to our customers as well.”
The testing service has even proved handy for pulling in new business, he says. Lawler recalls a potential customer who was having trouble with gear noise and brought in some of his gears to be checked. “The inspection machine prints out a little strip chart, and the first gear we put in was so bad that the lines went right off the paper,” he says with a laugh. “So we found out that the guy who was supplying this gear didn’t know what he was doing, and we were asked to make a sample, which the new customer loved. We picked up a contract worth about $50,000 a year.”
Another service the company provides involves reverse engineering. Lawler says that customers will bring him a gear from a manufacturer that’s gone out of business, or the OEM is still in business, but the delivery time may run 10 or more weeks, and the customer can’t afford to wait. “Fact is, if you can wait 10 weeks for the part, then you don’t really need the machine,” Lawler says.
The work is rewarding in other ways, as well. Many gear manufacturing companies would rather work from plans than samples, but by rejecting reverse engineering projects they miss an opportunity to form lasting relationships with their customers. “I really like taking the jobs that nobody else wants to do,” says Lawler. “We end up making some really bizarre looking parts sometimes, and yeah, it takes a lot of thought and a lot of tooling and a lot of trial and error to get it worked out and running smoothly, but you typically get a premium for the part, and you don’t have everybody in the country trying to take that business away from you. Once you get a job like that, and you take care of the customer, that business is yours forever. Plus you need to get one of those jobs every once in awhile just to clear all the cobwebs out.”
Lawler says he’s amazed when he thinks of all the advances that have been made in the industry in the past 25 years. One example, he says, involves calculating gear trains. “That’s all gearing is, tons of formulas,” he says. “In the early days, we had to figure everything by hand, with nothing more than a calculator, which took forever. It could take three to five hours to find four gears that would equal a decimal for a helical gear train. Then we got our hands on a book that had 16,000 gear trains already worked out, and we thought we’d died and gone to heaven. And then we purchased a set of books that had something like 650,000 gear trains, which was just unbelievable. Then computers came along and we wrote a program to find the four gears, and the time dropped down to about 20 minutes on an old 486 computer. These days it takes about two minutes to run the same program, but you still find yourself drumming your fingers on the table and getting restless.”
With this technology now available to everyone, though, it’s that much harder to separate yourself from the pack, Lawler says. But he and his family, which includes Calvin, who is now 75 and semi-retired, his brother Wayne, who is the shop foreman, and his mother, Pauline, who handles the book keeping and still keep their eyes focused on whatever’s coming down the road. He says that’s one of the things that keeps the company sharp. “Everybody else is moving forward, and if you’re standing still, they’re going to leave you behind,” Lawler says. “If you’re not moving ahead, then you’re really moving backward.”
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