Gears Turning in My Head

New ways to produce gears are creating opportunities for users of CNC machining centers as well as sparking reasons to think differently about current developments in machining technology.

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I’m doing a lot of thinking about gears lately because I’m preparing content for the Gear Production supplement that will be released with our September issue. Although it’s a figure of speech, I can say that “the gears are turning in my head” with an unusual level of literalness. I’ve found that gears are complex, interesting objects that reward the attention of a curious mind. Pondering the changes that are transforming how gears are designed, tested, manufactured and inspected has been engaging and enlightening. I’m starting to understand how these developments are about to mesh to create new opportunities, especially for users of multitasking machining centers.

So far, I’ve learned that these developments include the appearance of multitasking machines with configurations that lend themselves to gear production. In particular, these configurations involve B-axis and Y-axis capability and four- or five-axis simultaneous operation to generate the required cutting tool maneuvers.

Specially designed cutter bodies enable standard indexable insert styles to be used to mill spur and helical gears. These cutters can be used for a range of gear sizes and modules, depending on the programmed gear-cutting routine executed in the CNC. This makes it unnecessary to have gear hobs or dedicated milling cutters that can produce only one size gear.

CAM software is likely to offer programming features for gear production on machining centers using disc cutters or hobs, although customized, proprietary software will be required for the most advanced cutter designs that leverage the capability of high-level multitasking machines.

Gears and workpieces with gear-like features are increasingly requisitioned in low volumes or small batch sizes for specialized applications and prototyping. This places a premium on responsive, flexible machining technology that also provides adequate precision and economy.

R&D in gear design is on an upswing. Engineers are experimenting with gear profiles to reduce noise, shed weight, resist wear and boost operational efficiency. Likewise, they are developing component geometry that incorporates gear-like features in one-piece designs to reduce part count and assembly steps.

When developments such as these converge, it usually means some historic shift is underway. Fifteen years ago, the adoption of high speed machining followed a similar chain of interrelated breakthroughs to overcome longstanding process barriers. Now we see gear manufacturing moving into broad, new settings where fresh entrants are being attracted to the field, even as traditional gear production methods are being revitalized.

Whether or not your shop or plant is positioned to follow along, paying attention to changes in gear production will be a good way to evaluate some of the most important trends in machining technology. It’s already changing my thinking.

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