Some gear manufacturers churn out quantity, but for Southern Gear & Machine, its mission is to offer quality.
“The kind of gears we make are the parts nobody else makes,” said Karen Malin, president of Southern Gear & Machine. “They are very complex parts with extremely tight tolerances. Many of our gears go through 20 to 30 operations from the time they start manufacturing until they’re complete.”
Those “parts nobody else makes” are precision gears and gearboxes for industries ranging from aerospace and defense to medical, according to Malin.
“Definitely for us, each part is unique because we’re not the gear manufacturer who’s making 1 million of the same gear for the automobile industry,” she said. “We’re making one gear that goes into a prototype for a medical device that’s going to cut your cornea for a medical procedure — those kinds of things. It’s very specific, but our philosophy is really to jump in with both feet and, with our engineering department, help with manufacturability. That means finding out the issues we see with a potential prototype design, then helping to make the part more manufacturable.”
Gears from one millimeter to six feet
Those specialty gears have included gears ranging from the smallest at one millimeter, to the largest at six feet, according to Malin.
“The one-millimeter gear was the smallest gear we’ve ever made,” she said. “It had to have a special microscope to even look at it to inspect it. And that was for medical use. Our biggest gear that we’ve ever made is a 72-inch diameter — a six-foot — gear. But generally, our gears are smaller, precision instruments for aerospace and defense. We aren’t a stock shop, so we build custom gears to our customers’ prints.”
That means building small lots that many gear companies won’t do, according to Malin.
“We’re happy to do a one-piece lot up to hundreds of pieces,” she said. “If we get bigger than that, we’ll break the lots up, because generally we do smaller lots, precision gears for very specific customer needs.”
What helps make Southern Gear capable of turning around precision products for its customers is the company’s ability to perform all manufacturing in-house, according to Malin.
“We do everything from turning, milling, gear cutting, grinding, broaching, and more,” she said. “We do all of the manufacturing processes in-house in our facility, utilizing over 150 machines in our shop, which gives us a lot of control over both the timing and over the quality, making sure that part is right. The only outsourcing we do with parts is for plating and heat treating. If we say we’re going to make a part, we can physically make that part with our manufacturing abilities in-house.”
Being able to offer precision gears for delicate applications means Southern Gear needs to constantly stay a few steps ahead of the industry, according to Malin.
“Starting in 1957, most of the equipment that we made gears on in the beginning were manual machines, but now we manufacture with sophisticated CNC machines, even automating things now with automated loaders and that kind of thing,” she said. “We invest about a $1 million every year in new equipment. And we plan to continue to do so. We believe in staying on the cutting edge.”
Affordable, timely parts
That cutting edge is essential when working with aerospace, aviation, and defense, according to Malin.
“We must be able to make the parts our customers need in an affordable way, in a timely way,” she said. “And to do that, we feel it’s really important to stay up with the latest technology for engineering, scheduling, manufacturing, and inspection. Across the gamut, we are constantly doing continuous improvement and trying to stay at the forefront of whatever technology we can use to make better gears quicker and more efficiently.”
And making a better gear has been Southern Gear’s driving directive for almost 65 years, when the family-owned company opened its current location in Miami, Florida.
Whereas many gear companies have their headquarters in and around the New England area, the incentive that pushed Malin’s grandfather to start his business in Miami came down to one thing: the weather.
From Massachusetts to Miami
“My grandfather worked for a gear company in Massachusetts, and then left to open his own shop,” Malin said. “When my father went off to college, my grandparents decided they didn’t like New England weather anymore and moved to Fort Lauderdale. That is when my grandfather opened Southern Gear in Miami. When my dad completed his service in the Navy, he went to work for my grandfather at Southern Gear.”
In 1972, Southern Gear expanded into a new location, and about 20 years ago, the company opened its second facility. In January 2020, Malin’s father moved into a CEO position, paving the way for Malin to take over as company president.
Customer – and employee – focused
Over all that time, Southern Gear has never wavered in its goal to be the best gear company by focusing on its customers, as well as its employees, according to Malin.
“We’ve worked with many of our customers for decades, and our goal is to be able to solve whatever gearing need they have,” she said. “And we also focus on employees. We believe in having a company that people want to come to every day. It’s a family business, and we treat all of our employees like a family.”
Treating its employees well has been the key to much of Southern Gear’s success, according to Malin.
“That has led to our success in being able to make these complex gears because our employees stay with us for 20, 30, 40 years,” she said. “We have this vast amount of talent and knowledge that helps us solve the distinct challenges that come with manufacturing complex gears.”
That expertise has led to many of Southern Gear’s projects having quite an important history, according to Malin.
“We made gears for the Hubble telescope,” she said. “When the Hubble telescope first launched, it was sending back some blurry pictures, and it ‘needed some glasses.’ We were involved in helping with that repair. Our gears went up to the Hubble telescope, and it worked. And as you know, the Hubble telescope has been instrumental in breaking new ground in astrophysics. We are all proud to have been a part of such a historic scientific advancement.”
Southern Gear’s accomplishments hardly stop there. Malin added that the company has had gears on the space shuttle, satellites, and has been responsible for gears all across the aerospace, defense, and medical sectors through the decades.
“On a daily basis, I would say we’re very proud of the fundamental fact that we’re American manufacturers,” she said. “We are keeping that tradition alive, and the parts we make protect this country and protect our soldiers. They allow the United States to explore space and enable instant communication across the world. We’re very proud of making something in this country that is keeping us strong and allowing us to thrive.”
Malin stressed that Southern Gear’s unique qualities allow it to partner with its customers and its employees in order to transform intricate gear designs into reality.
“We work on everything as a team and make these very, very challenging parts that, at the end of the day, are works of art; they really are,” she said. “I think it’s pretty exciting, in this day and age, to go to a job where we have that opportunity to make something, to turn a piece of raw metal into a gear that makes a difference in our world.”