When a company’s gears are literally tooling around on another planet, then to say those gears are “out of this world” is not just a cliché, it’s a fact.
Forest City Gear is the company that can take ownership of that fact: Right now, gears made at Forest City Gear are roaming around the planet Mars as components of the Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity, and Perseverance rover projects.
“That’s been a big staple at Forest City Gear for many years,” said Jared Lyford, director of Manufacturing Operations. “Spirit and Opportunity, we did the drive wheels. And for Curiosity, and then Perseverance, the latest Rover, we have all of the actuators on those vehicles. All those gears came from Forest City Gear.”
Here on Earth, Forest City Gear continues to do unique and challenging work applications in the industry, according to Lyford.
“We are a parallel-axis gear manufacturer, so we don’t do bevel gears,” he said. “We’re primarily aerospace. In most circles, we’re 40 to 50 percent aerospace, but yet a lot of our other customers in aerospace are maybe third tier type customers. We do unique applications, high tolerance, critical, low volume. We’re purely a job shop.”
Two value streams
Forest City Gear basically has two value streams, according to Lyford. One is the company’s ability to do parts complete to print.
“That’s raw materials through finished part and all the part processing along the way to customer design,” he said. “We have no design. We have no catalog. Again, we’re purely a job shop.”
Secondly, Forest City Gear does operational work, which is what Lyford refers to as “cut teeth only.”
“That work is where you would send the blank or your part to us; we would put the gear teeth on it, do the inspection, and send it back,” he said. “A lot of the time, the reasons the industry comes to us is our manufacturing capability, our technical capabilities, as well as our engineering staff. We do a lot of DFM. We work with our customers and try to provide a lot of value on the front end, set them up for success, and give them some feedback. Now, we’re not design responsible, but yet, from a gear-manufacturing perspective, we see a lot of different iterations of designs and concepts, so we like to work with customers on the front end to provide that value before we even begin cutting chips.”
Words to live by
The precision work Forest City Gear does for aerospace and other industries is a testament to the company’s credo of “Excellence without exception,” according to Lyford.
“That’s what we go by; that’s what we live by — culture, employee development, contribution to the community, as well as providing value to the customer,” he said. “And for the gear industry en large, it’s the same, but we really believe — and one thing (Chairman) Fred Young had always fostered with us — is that the doors are open. We have an open-door policy to our customers, to our competitors, to our friends and business, because we all feel that the more we can learn from each other in the industry, the better off the industry is going to be in whole.”
Forest City Gear has been able to stay the course with that industry by being aware of paradigm shifts and purchasing strategies, according to Lyford.
“Forest City Gear has always positioned itself, and we’re very deliberate in making sure we can respond to both sides of that market in whatever direction it goes,” he said. “And with technology, it’s another whole discussion with cutting tool technology machine tools. We try to stay very current. One thing we’re known for is staying extremely current on the latest technology in terms of machine tools. Therefore, we’re able to utilize cutter developments, etc.”
Taking care of customers
Attention to detail and dedication to an ever-evolving industry is what makes potential customers take notice, but once they do, then it’s up to Forest City Gear’s experts to turn those potential customers into actual ones, according to Lyford.
“Generally, the way we approach the customer, if they come to us with a challenge — we get them in the door; that’s generally the first thing we do,” he said. “If we can get them in the building, we give them a tour, they get to see what we’re about, they see how the plant runs, the condition of the shop, the type of equipment we have, the enthusiasm in our employees. That’s the first thing we do when we approach a customer. Once they see that, they become a lot more comfortable and start to understand that now the technical discussions can begin.”
Those technical discussions are just the start of the customer process, according to Lyford.
“There is sourcing, and customers are bringing us opportunities that may be legacy for them, or it may be something they’ve already done,” he said. “Maybe we’re in the prototype stage, but they have a very good idea of what they want. And then the DFM for us is a little bit of a smaller piece because they have gear technical experts on the design side, and they know what they want.”
For other customers, the final product might not be as cut and dried, according to Lyford.
“We have customers that come to us, and they have a concept; they have a gearbox,” he said. “Maybe they don’t exactly know what they want to put in that box, or they don’t exactly know how that’s going to work. We may look at the design and say, ‘This isn’t going to work. We would recommend this. Maybe change that.’ Or they have a type of material, and they come to us and ask, ‘What do you typically commonly see?’ So, it’s quite the spectrum.”
Basically, Lyford said in some instances, a customer may have an idea or a concept but needs Forest City Gear’s experience to push the project in the right direction.
“We have projects and programs where there’s an instance where we are on the front end, so they’re doing concept,” he said. “They haven’t even built proof-of-concept parts yet. That’s often exactly where we want to be with those customers, because then we can start to be part of the development, and we can have some input, if you will, into what the final project is going to look like.”
Taking pride in accomplishments
Many times, that work is not only satisfying, but sometimes even humbling, especially when those parts end up in space, according to Lyford.
“When you’re holding these gears, you sometimes forget that they’re going to be on Mars, and then, all of a sudden, one day you’re in the middle of that production, and you’ve got this super-complicated, high-quality gear in your hand, and you just grab that light-bulb moment and go, ‘That’s going to be on Mars,’” he said with a grin.
From humbling jobs to humble beginnings, that type of expertise has kept Forest City Gear going since it opened its doors in 1955.
The company was started by Stetler and Evelyn Young when Stetler Young borrowed money to invest in a company that made gears for ice cream mixers. With that loan, Young was able to buy a few gear machines and started producing gears.
Demand for higher tolerances
Those decades of history have only helped prepare Forest City Gear as it moves into the future.
“In the industries that we participate in, I think the gear industry is going to become more demanding,” Lyford said. “Tolerances are going to become tighter, more demanding. The customers are becoming more sophisticated in their requirements for acceptance of product. You’re going to see the gear industry having to evolve and some of the smaller gear manufacturers become more sophisticated, which drives cost, which is going to make that more competitive. We don’t do much in automotive, but then with e-drives and everything that’s going on in that industry is going to really open the door for higher quality and more demanding capabilities and processes.”
With those gears in need of higher tolerances, Lyford said Forest City Gear is already prepared to meet those demands.
“We already play in that area pretty well,” he said. “What we’re doing now really is we’re focusing on the core of what makes Forest City Gear, Forest City Gear, and what’s made Forest City Gear, Forest City Gear. We’ve had some changes in our business. But right now, we’re in the process of focusing on managed growth and controlled growth. We’re going to move forward, and the sophistication in program management and customer expectation is really where we’re focused. We’re building our quality team. We’re building our engineering staff. We’re putting in the proper things we need to do to be able to respond to that, because we have capability. We have technology. We have expertise on the manufacturing side. And now we’re building out the rest of the business to meet those sophisticated demands.”
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