As machine shops have modernized, many of them still rely on keyseater machines that are used to cut internal shapes and forms for large gears.
Some keyseater machines still in operation are decades old, and, since a new one can cost upwards of $1 million, it’s essential to keep these used machines running.
Although Machine Tooling Technology has been branching out in what it can offer the gear manufacturing industry, it still works hard to maintain those older, but reliable, keyseater machines.
“We have a lot of very modern machines here, but the keyseating industry hasn’t changed a lot,” said Scott Thielman, president and owner of Machine Tooling Technology. “I mean, literally, we are selling parts for keyseaters that are 100 years old. And the problem is, the gear industry is really relying on these keyseater machines. Especially the Mitts & MerrillTM ones that we supply for that cut the really big keyways for large gears and large shafts for ocean liners and those kinds of sizes — the really big stuff. Most of your gear shops are relying on these older keyseater machines, because they’re very reliable. They’ve lasted for 100 years, and, actually, there really is no replacement.”
Helping shops, both large and small
By keeping these machines operational, Machine Tooling Technology is helping small shops and even some of the bigger shops, according to Thielman.
“The manufacturer does supply them, but it usually involves long lead times and are more expensive,” he said. “We have a cost-effective way of getting an equivalent supply of tooling to the gear shops.”
Thielman learned how to keep these older machines functioning properly from an excellent teacher — his father.
“That’s what my father did for 40 years; he would buy some of these machines that were very, very old, and they would literally strip them down and replace all of the parts,” he said. “They would grind those down or replace them and basically restore them back to new condition.”
Once the keyseaters advanced from mechanical to hydraulic, then Machine Tooling Technology began rebuilding those as well, according to Thielman.
“We rebuilt a lot of the hydraulic ones,” he said. “We even rebuilt a lot of the mechanical ones with these big flywheel belts. We upgraded a lot of them over the years.”
Machine Tooling Technology supplies compatible parts and tooling manufactured in Canada by Keyway Tooling Company, which has been supplying the keyseater industry for 30 years. The company also carries new compatible insert cutters for Mitts & MerrillTM and MorrisonTM and stocks most tooling including post feed wedges, cutter bars, clamps, step bushings and more. It also carries an extensive inventory of used cutters, cutter bars, feed wedges, clamps, step bushings, and posts.
With rebuilding machines a large part of Machine Tooling Technology’s history, Thielman said that his company has been expanding beyond that.
“We’ve kind of gotten out of rebuilding machines,” he said. “We are now focusing on supplying new parts and helping people out with new re-expendable tooling, and we’re helping them out with our vast inventory of used parts. We sell parts that you can’t even buy new anymore. So, we’ve begun to move out of the restoration business. That was more of my father’s love, rebuilding these machines. But this is a good thing we’re doing for everybody by supplying these tools and cutters.”
Supplying parts for these machines is essential because it’s often difficult to find a used Mitts & MerrillTM machine that someone is willing to sell, according to office manager Rose Brown.
“Because, for the people that have them, they’re just gold,” she said.
It’s not just business for Thielman and his team to make sure a customer has the parts he needs to get the job done, it’s personal, too.
“What makes me the proudest is when we can help somebody when their shop is literally shut down and they can’t supply a huge order because they don’t have the right part or they can’t find the part; that’s when these keyseaters become critical,” he said. “You can make a half-million-dollar gear, but if you can’t cut the keyway in it, then you can’t ship it. We’ve had customers over the last decade that come to us and go, ‘I’m panicking. I’ve got to get this out, and I need the right cutter, or this toolbar is broken. I need it immediately.’ And we’ve either been able to actually get some of our parts from our used machines that we’ve had out here, or we’ve been able to get a part made very quickly for them, and get their order out on time so they can stay in business.”
Brown put an exclamation point on that directive.
“My motto is, here in Chicago, if I get your order by 3 o’clock, I can ship it today,” she said.
That rapid turnaround time can be partly credited to Machine Tooling Technology’s huge inventory, according to Thielman.
“We stock a huge inventory of brand-new cutters to common sizes and especially cutter bars and things like that,” he said. “We’ve been serving this industry for 40 years, so we’ve got a lot of good established customers. They really like us, and we try and service them the best we can.”
Thielman said he owns several other companies that can often assist in solving a challenge for a potential customer.
“I’m a mechanical engineer with a lot of history,” he said. “When a customer comes to us with something that’s worn out or something’s not cutting right, we involve one of my companies, Material Testing Technology. We have a lot of experience in materials and failure analysis. We have analytical labs here. We can do chemical analyses. So, when customers come to us, we can literally help them solve problems in the cutting of their gears or whatever they happen to be making. We give out technical advice on how to get things cutting better and making better parts. That’s our way of helping out the shops.”
Another of Thielman’s companies supplies components for test machines, which translates into huge inventories.
“That’s what our customers really like,” he said. “They need a part; they need it quickly, and we try and have them in stock and get them out of here quickly. We hope to do that in the future and continue to inventory even more and have more available.”
Good costs; quality products
As varied as the company’s directives have been throughout its history, including looking at the actual manufacturing of machines to doing more restorations, Thielman said his goal is ultimately a straightforward one.
“My goal is just basically to supply the gear industry with good costs and good quality products that we can deliver in a timely manner,” he said.
Those good quality parts Machine Tooling Technology can provide include some for the bigger machine names, including Davis, MorrisonTM, and Mitts & MerrillTM, according to Thielman.
A father’s brainchild
Machine Tooling Technology goes back two generations and was started by Thielman’s father, Les, when he began a company called Wings Machinery.
“He was a machinery dealer, and he bought up used machinery around the country,” Thielman said. “He ran auctions, and he found out about these machines called keyseaters. Nobody really knew what they were or why they were used at the time, but he actually figured it was a good way to make money. Basically, he cornered the market on used keyseater machines. And he bought up all of the Mitts & MerrillsTM and Davises and the different types of keyseating machines that were out there.”
Thielman’s father would restore these machines and supply parts for them, and that helped spawn the business model of manufacturing and selling new tooling such as cutters and drill bits for regular drill machines. Thielman’s father passed away earlier this year, but Thielman said he has been running the business for about 11 years.
“I took over the business 11 years ago, and we primarily have been selling the new tooling for the aftermarket keyseater machines,” he said. “We do sell some replacement parts, and we still have 40 years of history sitting out in the warehouse. But, since taking over the business, we’ve been selling used and mostly new parts for keyseater machines.”
Keeping gear makers going
Supplying cutters and replacement parts for the keyseater machines has helped a lot of the gear industry stay in business, Thielman emphasized, referring to the enormous cost considerations of buying a new machine.
And that mindset boils down to a simple concept: helping the gear shops as much as possible by supplying them good quality parts, according to Thielman.
“We’ve got a lot of history and a lot of know-how on keeping these types of machines running, and people are constantly calling us saying this broke, or this happened,” he said. “And we go out in our files, and we pull up files on the old machines, and we’ll send them drawings, or we’ll help them in any way we can in order to keep their machines running, keep making good parts, and keep them tooled.”