Gearsets and gearmotors are more customized than ever, following a general trend toward application-specific machine builds. Increasingly common are tailored versions of standard gear offerings featuring engineered metal and plastic subsections in an array of ratios and flange geometries, as well as bearing and housing options to right-size reducer builds.
“General trends in machine design are focused toward increasing throughput while eliminating unnecessary components and reducing costs,” said Mike Parzych, technical marketing and product management at GAM. “For gearboxes, the flange output design is a great example of how engineers can improve designs … as the flange-output design allows direct connection to the machine or other power transmission element—such as a rack-and-pinion drive, for example. This reduces the number of components required for assembly and boosts rigidity,” he added.
Another trend in custom gearboxes bought in smaller volumes is for OEMs to order from manufacturers doing in-house manufacturing. Here, more software tools, automation and machine-tool flexibility make such approaches to OEM component procurement more cost-effective. Reduced shipping costs and turnkey setup offset the technical service and support needed for custom gear orders. Case in point: Harmonic Drive has expanded a line of servomotor-driven electric actuators with various options for input voltage, drives, encoders and cabling. Engineers then just load drives with motor parameters for simple onsite installation, according to Robert Mullins, VP of sales at Harmonic Drive.
“We supply metric-dimensioned gears, and with newer products being designed for global use, we see an ever-increasing demand for our offerings.” — Brian Dengel of KHK USA
“Designs are becoming more complex, requiring customization and creative thinking, and we accommodate requirements for smaller, stronger and more cost-effective gear drives,” said Brien Shirey, VP of engineering at CGI Inc.
Modular designs leverage the benefits of standardization—verified gear setups with acceptable price-to-performance ratio. What’s more, small quantities of custom gearboxes are easier to get thanks to 3D modeling to take models into machine tools for post-processing work. That also makes precision gearboxes less costly to manufacture than before.
Improved materials and higher-performing gearboxes with today’s gear-cutting machines continue to output high quality at ever-lower cost. “Now we can optimize gear-tooth forms for noise reduction, high strength, improved life, and more,” said Shirey. New materials and coatings are boosting performance of smaller gearsets as well.
Lightwieghting of gearing is perhaps most apparent in positioning machines. Here, harmonic gearing is one option to boost torque-to-size ratios. Such gearing is more compact than that from a decade ago, which saves OEMs from engineering smaller actuators.
Several industries—medical, semiconductor and electronics, aerospace and defense, automotive, and machinery manufacturing—are spurring changes in today’s gearing in different ways.
“All industries have unique requirements, which are often reflected in the component design throughout a machine assembly,” said Parzych. “For example, the medical, food and beverage, and packaging industries have stimulated many changes in material specification.” From epoxy coatings to treatments such as anodization or electroless-nickel plating to complete stainless-steel materials, myriad material specifications are based on industry-specific machine requirements, added Parzych. These changes are typically the result of stricter sanitation guidelines for processing machinery, which is ultimately a good thing, as the products are produced for consumption.
Packaging industry leads the charge
Elsewhere, the sheer volume of component use dictates which industries lead technology trends. “We find that the packaging-equipment industry is the largest consumer of power transmission and motion control components,” said Brian Dengel, general manager at KHK USA Inc.
Packaging is becoming an integral component of most products today. “When a product is properly packaged, it is not only tamper-proof but it can be shipped anywhere in the world and be sold as-is. The retailer can display the item in the original packaging at the point of sale,” added Dengel. To produce these packaged products, OEMs are developing more unique machinery to envelop product in retail-ready, tamper-proof packaging.
Large-scale adoption of IoT still a ways off
In the 2015 edition of Design World’s Motion Trends issue, none in the industry saw cloud-enabling technologies (such as sensor feedback and IoT capabilities) in gearing components. There’s been little change in overall IoT connectivity in gear components since.
“For a few years now, gearbox manufacturers have applied sensor technology to provide feedback on temperature, torque, force and vibration to monitor the overall operating condition and internal state of components such as gears, bearings and lubrication,” said Parzych.
“However, in most cases, it is difficult to justify the use of such technology based on the cost as it can often be as expensive as the gearbox unit itself. There is absolutely the need to better monitor and optimize machine performance; however, I do not think
the use of sensor and data feedback technology is commercially practical at this point just yet.”
In addition to the high costs of the equipment, IT integration and security are the other related issues with the technology right now. In machine design as it relates to gearboxes and couplings, engineers are looking for ways to improve designs while eliminating unnecessary components to drive down cost. According to Parzych, this technology is still in the early stages of adoption, and the benefits of using the data cannot be realized based on cost for the majority of applications.
“As the technology becomes more economical, it will be more common to monitor certain machine functions; however, until then, those applications will be handled on a case-by-case basis or on more critical components where monitoring is mandatory,” he said. So, companies should continue to learn about the technology and explore how it can work in real-world applications and scale commercially.
Final words on gear efficiency and customization
Consider the effect of globalization on metric standardization. Although the U.S. Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act in 1975, the U.S. is one of only three countries (as of 2015) that has not adopted the metric system as their official system of weights and measures. “With the globalization of trade, and more specifically the production of foreign branded automobiles in the U.S., there’s increasing demand for metric-dimensioned products,” said Dengel. “KHK is a supplier of metric dimensioned products, and with newer products being designed for global use, we see an ever-increasing demand for our offerings.”
The trend toward mass customization and personalization in consumer products is one that GAM has been close to for many years, according to Parzych. While it may seem like an easy concept (and many companies claim to accommodate custom designs), actual execution is difficult from a manufacturing standpoint. That’s because newly introduced custom products or features can disrupt entire production flows. Maintaining quality and repeatability in this scenario is difficult, according to Parzych. So, systems and processes must be designed from the ground up to support the concept.
“GAM has been setup this way for years and continues to refine systems and processes required to support this concept efficiently and economically for gearboxes and couplings,” added Parzych.
Trends in power-transmission design for 2016
Changes in motion and power-transmission design over the last decade have mainly been to eliminate components and reduce costs, while maintaining quality and improving performance … essentially doing more with less. “That trend will continue to be a driving force in the industry, and manufacturers will most likely try to accommodate this through new products innovations or product redesigns and improvements,” said Parzych.
There are challenges in implementing the latest technologies. “Power transmission components are greatly misunderstood by the general populace,” said Dengel. “Gearing in most engineering schools is discussed as a single lecture in one course over four-year mechanical engineering education.” What’s more, many of today’s design engineers are working in three or more disciplines, for which it is assumed that they have expertise in each.
“We have many instances were a designer comes to us with a concept and needs a solution,” said Dengel. “Without experience in designing with gears, their selection can be significantly undersized or conversely they might find that a gearing solution that would support their mechanical needs is too large for the design envelope.”
Gearing relative to overall automation trend
People always look for ways to do things more efficiently, economically and precisely, and automation leads in these areas as it takes repetitive motion and replaces it with mechanical motion. “Given the current economic climate and competitive global market, the need for automation will grow for the foreseeable future, inherently bringing more jobs relating to the designing, programming, installing and maintaining of automation systems,” said Parzych.
So especially with manufacturing automation surging, gear products continue to proliferate. “For our business, increased automation is a net positive, as our products are consumables in many industrial-automation applications,” said Dengel.
“With increased automation, we expect increased demand for our products and expertise.” KHK’s own facilities have been automated for many years.