5th Generation machining

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by Mary Scianna

96-year-old shop serving energy market still going strong

Running a machine shop in the competitive energy sector in British Columbia is a challenge. Running it successfully through five generations is a milestone, one that Ideal Gear and Machine Works can attest to.

Zoe and Alexander Ahnert are the fifth generation now involved in the business. Zoe oversees administration operations, while her brother, currently enrolled in an apprenticeship program at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT), works in the machine shop.

“Ray Anhert is my grandfather and he’s now the director of the company. When my father Kevin, Ray’s son, joined the business, Ray and his wife Wendy, who had been running the business, passed on their knowledge to my father and he ran the company for about ten years and took us to a whole new level of business,” explains Zoe.

$20 million investments
Kevin Ahnert’s strategy to succeed was simple: invest in the latest machining technologies. Indeed, daughter Zoe jokingly called his strategy “an aggressive monopoly approach to conquering the world.” Within five years, Ideal Gear and Machine Works spent $20 million investing in new machine tools, including three Okuma’s (L400 H lathe, LB45 lathe, and a five axis Multus B750), purchased in 2013 from long-time supplier Thomas Skinner & Son, Richmond, BC.

Brett Ahnert, Kevin’s brother and gear shop manager, who is also a BCIT trained machinist, says the most recent machine tool purchases helped to position the machine shop more competitively. “We wanted to set up a shop with more capacity and we also wanted to bring out-sourced work in-house. A lot of turning used to be outsourced and by bringing it in-house it helps us to increase our manufacturing facilities. Our turning operations support the machining of gear blanks for our gear work but we also do a lot of outside general machine work now too.”

Zoe Ahnert, left, beside her brother Alexander, middle, with their uncle, Brett Ahnert, gear shop manager.The recent slowdown in the oil and gas industry, the company’s main market, means the company’s aggressive approach to investing in new machining and cutting tool technologies has become more conservative, says Jim Mantei, but the company still expects to invest in new equipment in the future, especially as it continues to grow in other energy related markets, such as mining and wind.

“We’re primarily a supplier to the oil and gas industry and with the downturn in that industry, we’re going back to our roots in forestry and doing a fair bit of work in that area, as well as in mining and wind energy. We’re looking at new opportunities with new customers and with our existing customers. We’re known for gears, but we’re also a machine shop that offers machining services and we’re working to promote this more.”

In the wind market, Brett Ahnert adds the company is currently involved with work on gear boxes. “There are a lot of gear boxes on wind mills in BC that need rebuilding. They’re supposed to be built for 20-year life cycles, but many are now failing and need rebuilding after seven years or so, so there’s potential growth in this market for our shop.”

Managing challenges
In the midst of the company’s transformation into a bigger player in the market, tragedy struck the company when president Kevin Ahnert died suddenly in 2013. Ray Ahnert came out of retirement for one year to manage the business until a new president came on board, Jim Mantei. With the shifts in the oil and gas industry, Mantei says a key strategy is to transition from being known as a gear shop serving regional customers to a world class manufacturer.

Ideal Gear and Machine Works has been in business since 1919 and continues to grow.“We’ve created Vision, Mission and Quality statements which outline our five to ten year plan to become a world class manufacturer within North America and to spread further globally. “

To do that, Mantei says Ideal Gear and Machine Works is focusing on people.

“We’re in the people business and if we have motivated people who are satisfied with their positions and allowed growth in an environment where they collaborate with others, we can tap into ideas that can make our business stronger. When everyone works collectively, you’re using more brain power and coming up with better ideas to succeed.”

Reducing machining cycles
When it comes to improving machine shop efficiencies, the company’s philosophy is straightforward: purchase tooling and machining technology at the best price and implement programs to maintain that efficiency.

While it uses a number of different cutting tools, Iscar has been a supplier of choice for many years. Ideal Gear uses Iscar tooling for turning, milling and gear gashing. The company also uses the Matrix inventory management system, purchased from distributor A.C.T. Equipment Sales, Burnaby, BC.

The cutting tools have served the company well, says Brett Ahnert. By way of example he cites an example of a gear the company machines.

“Our gears are machined mostly from 4320 steel, machined in a soft state, hardened with heat treatment and then final finishing and grinding of gear teeth. With one gear for a large offshore platform that rotates a crane, it used to take us three weeks to finish that part but now with the Iscar tooling, we’re cutting that part in 22 hours complete and that’s saving us a lot of machining time.”

In addition to the 2013 Okuma machine tool investments, the company also purchased a Gleason Pfauter gear grinding machine. The shop’s floor space is now at capacity and Brett Ahnert says they’ll have to replace machines with new ones in the future, if the need for new equipment arises. Indeed, the company is considering investing in another Gleason Pfauter large gear cutting machine.

“We’re not interested in retrofitting machines. If a machine doesn’t work, we’ll replace with it with something new.”

An important strategy for Ideal Gear and Machine Work’s long-term success is continuous improvement and utilizing manufacturing programs, such as ERP, Lean and ISO. The company already operates with Lean tools and has integrated an ERP system.

“Ideal prides itself on its quality management system covering ISO 9001-2008 requirements and works closely to AGMA (American Gear Manufacturers Association) standards. There’s a lot of groundwork to cover, but it’s so justifiable,” says Zoe Ahnert. SMT

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