Director of Manufacturing Operations at Forest City Gear
How do you win a contract to produce gears for the Mars Rover program? It starts with an almost unheard-of investment in technology and people. The strategy has been working for Forest City Gear since 1955. As proof the company's strategy works, FCG operates with a scrap rate of 2.2% of sales, which is well beyond world class.
Manufacturing Gears for Mars and Beyond
Sending a gear to Mars may be the highlight of Jared Lyford's career thus far, but there's still plenty of space – literally – to grow. Lyford, director of manufacturing operations at Forest City Gear, Roscoe, Ill., helped produce several of the unique gears for the Mars Curiosity Rover and is infinitely proud of its success.
To hold a gear going to Mars and to be a part of the team that made it is one of the things of which I'm most proud,” says Lyford. “To watch the Rover land feels like you're watching one of your children leave the house. You hold your breath until it touches down, and you know you are partially responsible for its success.”
Gears for space exploration exemplify the low-volume, high-mix, high-precision custom manufacturing at Forest City Gear (FCG), as does its aerospace and military defense work. FCG also makes gears in higher volumes for the transportation, medical and dental, off-highway, recreational, food and packaging, and robotics industries.
We're heavily diversified, says Lyford.
If one industry goes down, one comes back up.
FCG employs about 115 people and has 350 to 400 active customers in any given year. About 75 of those companies have in-house gear-cutting capabilities but turn to Forest City Gear for its advanced capabilities, which include gear shaping, grinding and hobbing, CNC machining, and thread grinding, as well as secondary operations that include ID/OD grinding, lapping, honing, and inspection at the work cell and in an expansive metrology lab.
Forest City Gear differentiates itself through vertical integration, technology, and investment in our people, says Lyford.
Being able to measure what we produce gives us an advantage because it allows us to satisfy sophisticated, high-end, and demanding customers.
For one part for the Mars Curiosity Rover program, FCG needed to hold an AGMA (American Gear Manufacturing Association) quality number of Class 13 to 14, which translates to a tooth-to-tooth composite tolerance of 0.0002 in. The gear tooth form was very specific, so the company needed to buy the appropriate grinding wheels to obtain the proper relief and spacing. The part also had light-weighting features that required special processing, and it required drilling, tapping, and countersinking.
Not only do we need to be able to produce all these features, but we also need to be able to inspect them and then prove we can repeat it, says Lyford.
This isn't a situation where the gear can go into service with a deviation against specification, and it's the same way for all the gears produced within the train.
Lyford emphasizes that while the Mars Rover work may be special, it is typical of the work flowing through FCG on any given day.
An Aggressive IMTS Strategy
A tour of FCG is a condensed visit through the IMTS Technology Sectors, with technology from the Gear Generation, Abrasive Machining, Quality Assurance, Metal Removal, and Machine Components/Cleaning Sectors well represented.
Core equipment at FCG includes four gear shaping systems from Gleason, gear hobbers from Mitsubishi, grinding systems from Kellenberger and Usach (both Hardinge brands), gear profile grinding machines from KAPP NILES, vertical honing systems from Sunnen, gear measuring and grinding equipment from Klingelnberg/ HÃ–FLER, a bridge-type CMM from Zeiss, optical comparators from Keyence and automated aqueous cleaning systems from Jenfab.
Our strategy at Forest City Gear is to stay ahead of our competition on the technology curve,” says Lyford. “As designs change and as designers become more sophisticated, requirements become more difficult. You cannot play catch-up, especially because our company adds value through problem-solving and design-for-manufacturability improvements.”
To stay ahead of the competition, FCG reinvests an almost unheard of amount in its technology and people, averaging 10 to 25% of gross sales (and up to 40% historically). As proof the company's strategy works, FCG operates with a scrap rate of 2.2% of sales – and any scrap rate of less than 5% approaches what many would consider a clean, world-class operation. Planned production yield (set-up loss) is even included in this calculation, making that 2.2% even more impressive.
IMTS is our go-to, one-stop shop to look at ways to keep our scrap rate low and improve our lead time,” says Lyford. “IMTS is a great place to find equipment where you can see technology that will allow you to combine two or three steps of your operation. It might be a capital outlay, but it reduces cost if you've lowered your lead time.”
As an example, he points out hobbing machines from Helios Gear Products (formerly Koepfer, equipped with automated load/unload capabilities, as well as an Okuma lathe equipped with a FANUC arm for automated load/unload. At IMTS, Lyford wants to understand how cobots could help automate running machines with an intermediate parts volume, learn how additive manufacturing could consolidate operations, and search for cylindrical OD/ID grinding systems with non-round capabilities in one machine.
Consolidation of operations is important because it allows you to reduce lead time and further leverage the efficiency of your human capital, says Lyford.
The cost savings on the back end will outweigh the upfront CapEx spend. You boost productivity without adding people, and that further drives you to further invest in technology. We find IMTS to be the perfect place to look for a solution such as that.