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Gearing Up For Curiosity

Thu, 11/15/2012 - 9:40am
Joel Hans, Managing Editor, Manufacturing.net

Forest City Gear (FCG), currently based in Roscoe, Illinois, was founded in 1955, but was recently tasked with one of its most important missions to date: building the gears for critical mechanical functions in the Mars Curiosity rover. The company has always shown a strong commitment to high-quality and high-technology gear cutting, but its current CEO, Fred Young, admits that the contract was a high-pressure situation. He says, “A billion-dollar vehicle, only one shot, and if it fails, who knows when you’re going to get money for another project. It’s got to be right, and it’s critical — you just have to do it right.”

Now that Curiosity has landed successfully on Mars, and it’s trekking its way around the dusty surface — which means that FCG’s products in the Sky Crane and wheel assembles have, and continue, to function — Young is in a position to think back on how the mission changed his company for the better.

FCG is one of the most accomplished gear manufacturers in the world already, with gears in countless applications, such as in Boeing and Airbus jets, telescopes, dental tools and even on critical winches onboard the International Space Station. Young has continued the investment philosophies established by his father — who founded the company — which equates to equipment that is, on average, between seven and eight years old, while other American gear manufacturers are working on equipment between 20 and 40 years old. The plant floor is filled with state-of-the-art machining tools and inspection equipment, and a major expansion is currently underway.

Young says the Curiosity project was difficult, to say the least, although it wasn’t the company’s first space-related project. FCG was contacted years ago, when the Spirit and Opportunity rovers were being built. When other gear manufacturers didn’t have the equipment necessary to cut the wheel drive gears, FCG was brought onboard by Allied Devices and one of their subcontractors — now Aeroflex — which was responsible for designing the rovers’ actuators. Due to a conflict on cutter design, Young made a recommendation for some changes in the gear design, which happened to make them lighter. Young would later hear that it cost $100,000 to get a single ounce of material onto Mars, which bode well for future partnerships.

When Aeroflex had similar problems with its original gear partners for work on the Curiosity rover, they turned to FCG straightaway. Young says the order called for roughly 75 different gears, but there were often multiples of each, ballooning the final count to somewhere between 150 and 200. Even then, the company made a full round of the gears in titanium, only to find significant problems with the machining process, not to mention galling and seizing when they were put into testing. Young eventually suggested a new material for the gears — Vascomax 300 — which meant that his employees had to re-cut the gears in a metal they were less familiar with.

Jeff Hallberg, the manufacturing director of gear grinding at FCG, says that the work was daunting in terms of its importance. The company was still learning how to machine the Vascomax 300 material in a reliable and high-quality way, even on their state-of-the-art automated equipment. While the company took an enormous amount of pride in the quality of its everyday work, Hallberg says the Curiosity gears were the most complex jobs they had ever come across.

Jared Lyford, the production manager at FCG, says during the nine months it took to complete the project, many of the gears were hand-delivered from one process to another, and that there was a heightened level of visibility around the gears that could potentially end up on Mars. On top of the additional pressure, he says that the complexity of many gears was beyond anything the company had attempted before, presenting a plethora of challenges.

On top of the challenge of producing the highest quality gears, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory — the organization responsible for assembling the rover — asked for an incredible amount of quality control. Every dimension on every tooth on every gear needed to be verified. And even though FCG claims it has the best-equipped gear laboratory in the U.S., the work started to get overwhelming. Young says, “When we were heavily engaged in the project, we were quite busy with other stuff at the time, but we knew we had to attach a high priority to getting this stuff done. They wanted 100 percent inspection of all the dimensions on all of the parts. We were finally at the point where we said, ‘We don’t have enough people in our inspection lab to do that. We need help.’”

Ultimately, NASA sent its own quality assurance expert to stay at FCG for a number of months in order to process the exacting quality standards that Curiosity required. Even then, Amy  Sovina, in the inspection department, felt the additional pressure of having the final OK on every gear that the company had produced before it was shipped off and destined for the rover. She says her department had to expand its knowledge of non-gear inspections, and oftentimes act as a liaison between various other JPL contractors.

That incredible need for quality, Young says, was a primary driver in what he sees to be a period of growth in the company’s skillset. After all, being pushed to one’s limits and taking away valuable learning experiences from that struggle is a fundamental component of what makes FCG successful.

Young offers a metaphor for the kind of work that was expected of his company during the project. He says that when he was in college, he boated on whitewater rapids, and did slalom races, as one might see during the Olympics. According to Young, this act of racing challenges one by placing pressure on areas that they might not practice otherwise, all with the looming element of time. This area of discomfort is where true, valuable education occurs.

And where education thrives, a breakthrough is not close behind. In many ways, the nine-month effort to build gears for Curiosity was a race for FCG and its staff. Young says, “The same [rule] applies to manufacturing. And by trying to teach those skills to other people, you learn more about it yourself because you’re studying the kinematics of how things go together. All of that I think is related to these manufacturing challenges. The more difficult parts you attempt, the better you become at it. That translates into delivering better parts for all of your customers.”

An example gear from Forest City Gear's front office. One of the many high-tech machining centers on Forest City Gear's plant floor.

The successful launch and landing of the rover has become a source of pride and morale for the company as well. Young says that he was awake on the night of the Curiosity landing, watching the live video from JPL. Considering that his company’s gears were critical to the Sky Crane, which lowered the rover down to the surface of Mars, it must have been both a thrilling and worrying moment. But the gears pulled through, and continue to do so as the rover explores the surface of Mars and collects scientific data.

That feeling of being part of something greater ran deeply through the company’s strong effort to provide the best products possible. Hallberg says that he has even brought that sense of pride home, to his three young sons, who now know that their father has built something that is now on Mars. To him, that was the perfect motivator to keep pushing himself and his colleagues to provide the highest quality gears for every project. And Young says a similar sense has permeated the company as a whole — they feel as though they’re making something important, which goes a long way toward improving morale and keeping quality high.

And this kind of high-technology work is exactly the kind that Young says our country needs to embrace if we’re to keep manufacturing alive as a primary motivator of the economy. He says, “

I’m a firm believer that the United States has to do these high-tech projects. It’s very difficult with our wage level and living standards to compete on down-and-dirty stuff. But we can compete on high technology.” He argues that the dollars invested — in this case, by JPL via NASA — make the country stronger not only on the “raw research,” but also the “manufacturing research” that pushes various industries into new methods of production.

That vision has greater significance to Young. It’s why he has continued to invest in the company throughout the Great Recession and the recovery. He says, “I think the true wealth of a nation is, in a large part, measured by our ability to manufacture things that others can’t do, or can’t do as well, and have them desirous of buying that from the United States. As long as we preserve that attitude, that we can build it here, and that we can build it the best in the world, I think that will serve us well in the long run.”

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