Forging has long been used to manufacture gears, particularly in the production of gear blanks, which often uses open-die forging, closed-die forging, and hot upset forging. Other gear forging processes include normalizing, gear shaving, grinding machining, turning machining, hobbing on shaper machines, and heat treatment.
High-energy rate forging is also used to manufacture near- or net-shape gears by precision forging. With the high-energy rate forging process, a closed-die hot or cold procedure in which the work metal is deformed at unusually high velocities, the forging’s final configuration is developed in one blow, or a few blows. The ram’s velocity, not its mass, generates most of the forging force.
Nevertheless, in the gear-forging industry today, the recent economic slump, disruption of the international supply chain, and consolidation among forge operations have created a potential opportunity for domestic operators to pick up new business.
However, gear forgers must be poised to satisfy demand, as well as take advantage of additional business that gets re-shored as North American manufacturers look to shorten lead times and the supply chain with domestic suppliers.
So, gear forgers looking to rebound would be wise to consider the proverb, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” With this in mind, many forgers are now wisely taking this time to prepare for opportunity. This means re-evaluating their processes and seeking out new ways to improve production efficiency as part of their post-crisis rebound and recovery strategy.
To the extent funding is available, that includes finding fast, economical ways to repair or acquire equipment that will enable production at higher volumes. For the far sighted, it can also mean rebuilding or even remanufacturing equipment to take advantage of high-production, labor-saving automation.
Scheduling necessary repairs is the obvious first step for gear forgers to be ready to take advantage of the economic rebound.
“The most immediate and economical option is to repair existing or out-of-commission units to get them up and running to spec with greater efficiency,” said Ken Copeland, president of Ajax-CECO, a manufacturer of forging equipment since 1875. “This can be as simple as replacing parts that are worn, out-of-tolerance, or broken to bring the machinery back online.”
In recent years, the company has continued to expand into a one-stop, expedited domestic source for forging equipment with the acquisition of Erie Press Systems under parent company Park Ohio. As a result, the company is now the largest OEM forging equipment supplier in North America.
According to Copeland, the most needed repairs on gear forging equipment usually involve perishable items that are common to every machine, including friction plates and driving plates for presses and upsetters, or piston heads, rods, rings, and packings for hammers.
He said the parts for these most needed repairs should be in stock at reputable domestic suppliers.
“However, gear-forging operations can still get into trouble when a part they need to replace was built decades ago, and the forger doesn’t know if the OEM is in business or if a drawing of the part exists,” he said.
According to Copeland, when gear forgers end up sending parts to machine shops to be reverse-engineered and machined, problems occur. Machine shops often do not have access to critical specifications about high-wear parts, including the material grade of the steel, the heat-treating process used, and tolerances that all were engineered specifically for that piece of equipment.
“The result can be parts that prematurely wear or fail,” he said.
Instead, it is often a better choice to rely on OEMs like Ajax-CECO, which offer stocking programs for long lead time items such as eccentric shafts, rams, etc., that are usually not stocked by gear forgers due to the cost. In this type of program, the part is held in inventory for the forger. The gear forger pays a percentage of the cost and then the balance when they take possession of the part — even if it is years later.
According to Copeland, a custom stocking program with minimal up-front investment can eliminate months of down time due to long lead-time parts. Instead, multiple machines with parts of a similar size and design can have the parts manufactured to a semi-finished state in preparation for use with any of the machines. When needed, the exact dimensions for the down machine can be provided, so the part can be completed to spec, ready to install.
With the economy still down, however, most gear forgers are less comfortable with placing a purchase order for a new machine that may take one year to deliver. Instead, they want more economical options that can be brought online quickly.
In this way, a rebuild or remanufacture of existing gear-forging equipment are still feasible options. A plus to this approach is that high-productivity, labor-saving automation can be added.
Expedited Rebuild and Remanufacture
For gear forgers, when the scope of work goes beyond repair, a machine rebuild is an economical, accelerated option to bring additional equipment online.
“Depending on the scope of the work, equipment rebuilds are ideal because the process can take as little as a few months to be operational,” Copeland said. “In a rebuild, all high wear items such as bearings, bushings, seals, and liners should be replaced to get the machine in good working condition.”
Rebuilds can be performed on-site, or the unit can be shipped to the OEM’s manufacturing facility, which reduces the rebuild costs, according to Copeland. Once there, the machine is disassembled, cleaned, and inspected. Upon completion of the inspection, a report of findings is submitted to the customer that includes a list of missing components as compared to the “as-built” bill of material, findings of concern that might affect operation, and a description and pictures of the general condition of the parts. This comes along with a general scope of work and price estimated for the rebuild and re-commissioning of the machine.
If even more extensive work is required, remanufacturing the equipment can still save time over buying new.
“Remanufacturing basically means stripping down the machine to the cast frame and replacing all the internal parts,” Copeland said. “With a remanufacture, you save time having a new frame cast. Remanufacture can be completed faster than buying new at about 85 percent to 90 percent of the cost, and would usually carry a new machine warranty.”
One of the advantages of rebuilding or remanufacturing gear forging equipment is that the scope of work also can include adding significant automation upgrades.
Many of the tasks performed manually — such as moving heavy steel rods, pipe, and other stock in and out of equipment — can be automated. This could be with the mechanical “hand” of a robot or by integrating servos that can lift, insert, and deposit materials. Even tasks such as automated tooling changes can be completed with the push of a button.
Automation creates a safer environment for gear-forging operators and increases productivity.
“By automating forging operations to perform some of the tasks of a human operator, productivity can increase from several hundred pieces per hour up to 3,000, depending on the type of products being forged,” Copeland said. “At the same time, it gives the plant the ability to maintain recommended social distancing.”
Preparing for Opportunity
While gear forgers are preparing for an expected economic rebound, now is actually a good time to work with forging equipment OEMs.
One of the challenges gear-forging shops still face is shutting down the line for repairs for any length of time. However, equipment OEMs can work with forgers to develop a plan to minimize down time by reviewing the machine’s bill of materials, reviewing past repair orders, and manufacturing key components that will need to be replaced.
In addition, the OEM has the original design specifications, critical materials, and clearance specifications to jump on repairs or rebuilds and quickly get the work done. Information such as critical data on high-wear parts, the material grade of the steel, the heat-treating process that was used, and the required clearances that were used in the engineering of that particular forger are all needed for a quality repair, rebuild, or remanufacture.
For more information on Ajax-CECO, call 440-295-0244, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to www.ajax-ceco.com. For information on Erie Press Systems, call 814-455-3941, go to www.eriepress.com, or via mail at 1253 West 12th Street, Erie, Pennsylvania, 16512.