In today’s competitive gear manufacturing market, to be considered local — whether that’s North America, Europe, or China — is a good way to get left behind.
That’s why Star SU LLC has gone to great lengths over the years to expand its presence on a global scale, offering its machines, cutting tools, and services to companies all over the world.
“We set up globally,” said David Goodfellow, president of Star SU. “We have service centers for the refurbishment of gear tools in Michigan, Illinois, Mexico, Brazil, Italy, China, and Korea. And in all of these places, we make sure that the technology that we utilize around the world is baselined off the latest, greatest way to regrind tools and recoat them, to maximize the tool, and to validate that the tool will perform the same way in its first use as a brand-new tool as it will in its 10th regrind.”
Big product line
Star SU’s product line is quite extensive. It includes machine tools for grinding, hobbing, gear-shaping, chamfer/deburring, tool sharpening, vertical turning, gear cutting tools, gundrills, carbide drills and reamers, PCD tooling, and carbide blanks and preforms.
“We make machines and tools that manufacture gears,” Goodfellow said. “Our philosophy, basically, is to bring to market the technology, innovation, and complete surrounding service support to be vertically integrated with selling the machine to our customers and then servicing, installing, and integrating them with automation, material handling, in-house maintenance and service and support, as well as preventive maintenance.”
In the cutting tool arena, Star SU strives to be one of the top competitors offering perishable tools while bringing the latest innovation, quality, and technology to the marketplace, according to Goodfellow.
“You have companies that sell gear-cutting machines, and they don’t sell tools,” he said. “And then you have companies that sell tools but no gear-cutting machines. And then you have some that sell tools, but don’t have complete, integrated service centers globally to support those tools.”
Part of that sales necessity comes from how Star SU’s customers have altered the way they approach their tooling needs, according to Goodfellow.
“Today, unlike what they did in the past 50 or 100 years, companies reground their own tools and maintained their own tools, but they didn’t achieve the highest potential of productivity that they could because they didn’t recoat them; they didn’t sharpen them properly,” he said. “For example, we’ve have customers say, ‘how come a hob gets a certain degree of tool life, but after a couple of sharpenings, it doesn’t get the same tool life?’ And our answer to that is: if you let us regrind it and recoat it, you will get the same tool life and accuracy from the first use of that tool to the last use of that tool.”
That led Star SU to take a holistic approach to its products while vertically integrating them, according to Goodfellow.
“We make machine tools; we service the machine tools that make gears; we have CNC tool and cutter grinders that are used to sharpen those tools,” he said.
Maintaining that product line requires a lot of state-of-the-art CNC grinding equipment and edge preparation while using more exotic materials such as MC 90 and carbide, along with state-of-the-art wear-resistant coatings, according to Goodfellow.
“A lot of people just aren’t able to regrind and support those kinds of tools on older equipment, so we’ve made significant investments in capital equipment to make sure we can grind to the accuracies needed,” he said. “Today, we have to grind tools to within 4- to 5-micron tolerances, where as 10 to 20 years ago, you ground it to 40 or 50 microns. So, if you want to become a significant player in the global market of high technology gear manufacturing, you have to have high precision machine tools to cut the gears, high precision cutting tools to cut the tolerance and the accuracy and the quantity of gears produced, and you have to be able to refurbish that tool back to its original new tool tolerances.”
A market leader
That flexibility and quality has helped make Star SU a marketplace leader, according to Goodfellow.
“If you do all those things, then you can become one of the leaders in the marketplace,” he said. “And in the gear arena, there’s only a handful of real serious competitors that are capable of doing such things. And so, our philosophy really has been to take to the market this holistic approach to have a dedicated group of sales and sales engineering people, product managers, and technical support technicians to be able to help support customers in the state-of-the-art manufacturing of gear technology.”
Star SU also works with its customers to make sure they are getting the equipment that they truly need.
“The easiest solution is to say: What are you using now, and I’ll quote it to you,” Goodfellow said. “What we try to do is turn that around and say, ‘OK, we can sell you what you’re buying, but maybe we ought to take a look at that tool or machine, service upgrade you a little on new coating technology, new substrate materials, or look at what kind of productivity is needed and if we can reduce the number of machines that you are using.’”
Star SU has used that approach for some of its biggest customers in automotive manufacturing.
“We do a tremendous amount of work with the automotive industry, which in North America and globally is the largest gear cutting customer around the world,” Goodfellow said. “More gears are made for the major automotive manufacturers than any place else.”
He said, for example, a major automotive customer might request 10 machines for a line; it’s not uncommon for Star SU to go back and tell them that if they use carbide and a high-speed spindle and a certain type of coating, then that same production can be accomplished with only eight machines.
In order to do that, high alloy and high precision tools will be needed, according to Goodfellow.
“For the most part, these larger manufacturers don’t want to do any in-house service and maintenance of the gear tools, because they’re too complicated, too expensive, and require stripping and recoating several times throughout their life,” he said. “They get used 10 to 20 times in their lifetime. In other words, 10 to 20 resharpenings depending on the design. So, we have to make sure the tool is designed around the fact that, if the first use of that tool gets 10,000 pieces per sharpening, then after sharpening number 10, it still gets 10,000 pieces.”
It’s not just about selling a machine, it’s about maintaining the same level of production, according to Goodfellow.
“So if I can buy two less machines, and an average machine is a half a million to a million dollars a piece, that’s a million to 2 million dollars,” he said. “That’s kind of how we enter the automotive industry. We’ve sold several hundred machines in the last 10 years to the Big Three.”
Star SU provides its customers with a high degree of technical solutions and costs savings, especially now that many companies often no longer have employees that specialize in certain areas, according to Goodfellow.
“Where the old gear engineering manager knew everything about gears, the new guys know everything about the transmission and the gear product, but they don’t know all the new ways to make a modern gear with high technology speeds and quality,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is take on that role to support our customers with technology, because there’s been an erosion of talent in the OEM manufacturing sector for specialty products like gears.”
Star SU continues to move into the global market, which was the catalyst for the original partnership of Star Cutter, SU America, and SAMP S.p.A. in 2000. Now, the company is seeing an enterprise in excess of $200 million in cutting tool and machine tool product revenue, according to Goodfellow.
Star SU’s North American operation employs more than 650 people, and a total of 1,000 worldwide.
“Globally we’re reaching out,” Goodfellow said. “A lot of our customers will order machines and say these machines are going to one location, and they end up in another country. At times, this doesn’t happen until the end of an order. So, you have to be set up to support them wherever they are doing business. That’s the global influence of what’s going on today.”
And in the future, Goodfellow said he expects new challenges and opportunities for Star SU and its place in the gear industry, although Goodfellow added with a laugh, that he may be retired by then.
“I would say we’ve increased the productivity of gear hobbing several-fold by the more prolific use of carbide tools, which people used to be afraid of because of their expense and fragility,” he said. “And advanced technology coatings allow us to run three and four times the speed that people would have run five years ago.”
Goodfellow also said he expects advances in automation, as well as the electric car, will continue to challenge the industry.
“Technology has changed vertically,” he said. “Grinding has been around for a long, long time. But grinding of automotive pinions and sun gears wasn’t even thought of 20 years ago. And now hundreds of gear grinders have been sold in the automotive industry to improve the life and performance of the automatic transmission powertrain.”
While looking to the future, Star SU has its sight squarely set on the present and continuing to make sure the world knows what it can offer when it comes to machines and gear-cutting tools.
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