Stace-Allen Chucks has been designing and manufacturing chucks for more than 70 years, but the company is so much more than that.
“We are a highly specialized workholding company,” said Phil Grimes, president of Stace-Allen Chucks. “We have an engineering department, and we design specialty workholding. We still do our chucks; we still do our collets, whatever it is that you need, we still do that, but we also design these specifically for the customer. When they have something that’s not round or not balanced, or they need specialty locating or air sensing or any number of special designs, we’ll design and build it specifically for them.”
As the company’s work pertains to the gear industry, Stace-Allen Chucks is heavily involved in workholding applications, specifically the rotative applications where a company would be doing turning on a gear component using a CNC lathe, according to Lucas Emmert, engineering manager at Stace-Allen Chucks.
“For the most part, our focus has been the rotative, subtractive manufacturing side of the industry,” he said.
Chucks and more
But the workholding side of the company is only its latest achievement. Chucks are still very much a staple.
“Traditionally, when we’ve done work with gear manufacturers, a lot of times the challenge was always if you could buy an off-the-shelf chuck, you would, but when that off-the-shelf solution doesn’t work, that’s when people would call Stace-Allen,” Emmert said. “We come up with solutions for some of workholding’s most difficult challenges.”
Often times that off-the-shelf approach is a solution, but being able to design and manufacture a product that, in the long run, is better and more efficient is where Stace-Allen shines, according to Emmert.
“We get it all the time,” he said. “If they can just buy something out of a catalog, they will. They don’t call us until it needs to be specially designed from the ground up, or there’s a particular part of the application that the off-the-shelf solution just can’t really handle.”
Grimes stressed that the company’s specialty is its hands-on ability to help its customers.
“We do the engineering of the workholding, the manufacturing, and the troubleshooting,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t get the right information, and sometimes it’s best to have somebody on site to see how it can be done better, and since we engineer it and make it, we have a better insight on how we can get it to work better when it gets on the machine.”
Although each customer situation can be unique, Emmert said his team of engineers are flexible enough to meet just about any challenge thrown at them.
“We do a lot of work in the automotive industry, and that runs a whole gamut of personalities and even structure types in companies,” he said.
Sometimes a customer will have their entire process mapped out, according to Emmert.
“They’ll know their takt times; they’ll know exactly where they need to grip and locate with full machining parameters,” he said. “I’ve basically got all the data that I need to make my pitch right out of the gate, and then I do that. On the other end of the spectrum, I do have customers that’ll come to me with a part, and they’ll say, ‘I need to turn it into this, but I have no idea how to get there.’ That’s when they really leverage our experience with manufacturing and previous applications, and I’ll work with them to review their part print, GD&T requirements, how it’s coming in, how it’s going out, processes going downstream, cutting tools, I’ve got a lot of knowledge that I can leverage to make a proposal that would really suit their end goal.”
When it comes to that specialty workholding, there is a lot of interaction, according to Emmert.
“It’s a lot of back and forth,” he said. “I don’t get the benefit of just being able to have one perfect solution to a job. A lot of times, I have to weigh out different pros and cons. There’s a consequential level to every approach, and just figuring out which is going to be the best way to move forward on the project is a big challenge, but it’s also why people come to us.”
Keeping an eye on changes
Part of keeping in step with technological changes involves automation, according to Emmert.
“Something that we’ve developed that’s been really successful is a means of radially orienting components based on their gear form, very accurately, and in a spring-loaded mechanism rather than an automated mechanism,” he said. “It’s essentially a snap-in radial orientation device that doesn’t leave any marks on the part, and that has been really successful. We’ve won a bid on a few jobs where we’ve been able to pitch it, so it’s something we’ve taken some pride in, specifically related to the gear industry. It’s probably also worth noting, too, spline and gear profile gripping. We’ve got a solution where people have stolen the ideas. I’d say that’s a pretty good sign you’re doing something right.”
In business 70-plus years
“Something right” is definitely an understatement for a company with the lengthy history that Stace-Allen Chucks has.
The company was founded in 1946 by Grimes’ grandfather, Joseph Allen, and Allen’s friend, Walter Stace. The idea that sparked the company was for a precision chuck to help with the bombsights on B1 bombers, according to Grimes. Allen asked his wife, Mary, for $400 to buy a lathe and began building the chucks in his garage in Indianapolis, Indiana — three blocks from Stace-Allen Chucks’ current location. Grimes’ mother, Marcia, later took over as company president.
Grimes’ father, Larry, was a rocket scientist who graduated as an engineer from Rose Hulman and worked on the Atlas rocket. He designed, with the help of other engineers, a power chuck that allowed for material to be removed quickly due to the high clamping forces.
“They patented and sold those for 20 or 30 years,” Grimes said. “And from there, when machining got to be more high speed, we started designing specialty collets for people to be able to counteract the centrifugal force. We did that all through the late ’80s, early ’90s, and now, we are a highly specialized workholding company.”
Stace-Allen Chucks has seen many milestone moments over its history.
Jim Timmons, vice president of sales and a veteran of the company and industry, recently retired in March after 52 years with Stace-Allen. Timmons was hired in 1967 as a machinist in training by company founder Allen. Timmons learned the trade and the product on the shop floor in the “hands-on method” of the times. He was appointed vice president of sales in 2004. During his time with the company, he has witnessed many changes to the manufacturing industry, including the shift from manual machines to CNC. Timmons leaves Stace-Allen Chucks a better and more profitable place than when he started.
Emmert said Stace-Allen is constantly pursuing advancements in the manufacturing industry.
“We invented a power-chuck model, which had a 6-to-1 mechanical advantage as compared to the typical wedge chuck that was in the market that only had a 4-to-1,” he said. “When the speeds got even higher, we started making custom collet systems that wrapped right around the customers’ applications. It wasn’t just an off-the-shelf collet that might not be the right grip length or the right diameter that the customer would have to customize. We’re always chasing ‘What are the demands of the industry and how can we do just a little bit better than our competition?’”
Looking to the future
And where automation is concerned, Grimes and his team always have their ears to the ground in search of opportunities to complement industry advances and trends.
“I’d say the big thing is: Everybody’s talking about lights-out running,” Grimes said. “The problem with lights-out running is that you’ve got to know when the part is in position and when it’s in the right position. That’s one of the things we’re chasing right now: how to make sure that part is there, if it’s seated correctly, and if it is oriented into the workholding properly so the machine knows where it’s at.”
“Automation has been the big buzz word for the past decade now,” he said. “We’re just seeing more and more and more of it — less people, more robots. Having a device that is reliable and responsive is really important these days. They don’t have tool makers like they used to who are just waiting for something to do. They need their devices to continue working reliably.”
As far as what the future holds for Stace-Allen Chucks, Grimes said he sees opportunities as the industry moves more into 3D printing.
“The ability to 3D-print metal is going to be very important to the gear industry,” he said. “Where that leaves us is: There always has to be a finishing process, and if the workholding isn’t there to finish the process, no matter how good your 3D printer is, you’re not going to be able to get the product that you want in the end. As close as they can get in 3D printing, there’s still going to have to be a finishing process, and Stace-Allen Chucks should be part of that finishing process.”
Although Stace-Allen Chucks hasn’t had a big presence in the gear industry over the last few years, it’s still very much a part of the company, according to Grimes.
“We kind of floated away, but we’re really looking forward to getting back into the gear industry,” he said. “We think we have some products that could really help some people out, let alone our engineering knowledge of workholding that can solve some problems that people have had.”
Emmert expanded on that by saying Stace-Allen Chucks has been a smaller, fluid-adaptive business.
“We have to keep track of the industry trends, and what we’re seeing is this great wave in the automotive industry that everybody’s been writing about,” he said. “It’s not going away, but it is starting to plateau. For us, we’re not going to see a whole lot of new product introductions in the automotive side, and that’s where we really excel: helping customers introduce new products into their facilities. Branching out and knowing we have good solutions for gear applications, we would like to just get more involved in the different areas of the gear industry.”
There are other changes planned for Stace-Allen Chucks as well, and new salesman Ryan Strohm said he is ready to meet new challenges head on.
“We’re all taking full advantage of this transitional period to precipitate big changes internally,” he said. “We’ve got an aggressively ambitious vision for this company that puts us on the front end of the technological cutting edge. In manufacturing, we have 5-axis machining capability coupled with 3D CAM (Computer Aided Manufacturing) software. This allows our engineers to design the best possible solutions, uninhibited by the design limitations of less sophisticated, antiquated machining processes. In research and development, we’re currently testing (both internally and in the field) a variety of new materials, coatings, and treatments to offer longer wear item and chuck lifespans and better performance. And we’ve got more service and installation technicians than ever before. There’s a new sales and marketing directive at Stace-Allen spearheaded by youth and backed by years of experience. We are rapidly modernizing in manufacturing, research and development, customer service, and engineering through strong goal-oriented organization. Stace-Allen has been rock-solid for a long time, but now, it’s our opportunity to evolve and excel.”