A unique but fledgling technology partnership involving U.S. gear manufacturers, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge Y-12 Plant—experienced in the production of high-precision metal parts for nuclear weapons—and Pennsylvania State University can now take off thanks to a recent $3 million grant from the Technology Reinvestment Project, a $472 million federal effort to help to integrate the defense and commercial sectors of the economy.
Organized by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the partners will use the three-year, industry-matched grant to establish a Center for Gear Metrology at the Y-12 Plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Through the advanced measurement services it will provide, the new center will help improve the manufacture and quality assurance of precision gears, which account for about 30 percent of all gear shipments and are critical components of products ranging from aircraft to office copiers.
The gear industry, with annual production totaling about $15 billion, employs about 20,000 workers. It faces stiff global competition; for example, foreign firms supply about one-fourth of the gears incorporated into U.S. military equipment.
Services now available primarily from foreign laboratories would be provided by the new centers, enabling U.S. gear manufacturers to assure the dimensional accuracy of their complex-shaped products. These services will provide a domestic link to the international standard of length, the global common denominator for dimensional measurements. In turn, gear manufacturers will be able to demonstrate that their in-house procedures for making precision measurements conform with the requirements of ISO 9000 and other international and national standards on quality assurance.
The new center will pay immediate and long-term dividends, according to William Bradley, technical division manager at the American Gear Manufacturers Association. "This important service," he said, "is a foundation for advanced research, testing and development of the high-performance gearing of the future, as well as for assuring product consistency in today's highly competitive global gear market."
In a series of meetings held over the past two years, industry representatives have elaborated on gear manufacturers' needs for a supporting infrastructure of measurement services. Of utmost concern was the prospect of losing customers and being excluded from markets because of difficulty in satisfying provisions of quality-assurance standards.
To achieve measurement "traceability" to the international length standard, some firms have used the services of foreign laboratories. But this option is time consuming and, for many of the small and medium-sized firms that make up over 95 percent of independent gear manufacturers, it is prohibitively expensive.
As a practical matter, services provided by the Center for Gear Metrology will help to ensure that U.S.-made precision gears will perform properly when incorporated into an automobile transmission or some other finished system or product. Because design and manufacturing tolerances are shrinking (driven by a trend toward smaller, stronger, quieter gears), even the smallest measurement inconsistencies increase the potential for problems.
Within industry, ASME and its newly formed Committee on Gear Metrology, which is chaired by the AGMA's Bradley, have spearheaded efforts to launch the new center. COGM developed the proposal for start-up funding to the Technology Reinvestment Project, and it will advise the center on the direction and content of its programs.
"This program typifies the role that ASME can play in forming partnerships to enhance U.S. industrial competitiveness in today's world markets," said Howard Clark, director of research for ASME's Center for Research and Technology Development.
For NIST and DOE, the collaboration makes the most efficient use of federal resources in addressing the needs of a key industry. As the nation's lead agency for developing standards and measurements to support U.S. commerce and industry, NIST possesses the technical expertise required to meet the gear industry's needs for high-accuracy, high-precision measurement services. However, it does not have the equipment, personnel or funds to become a high-volume provider of services to the gear industry, at least not within the short time frame requested by industry representatives.
Housing some of the most advanced measurement equipment in the world, the Y-12 Plant has the technological resources to fill this crucial gap almost immediately. With the end of the Cold War, the facility can now devote its advanced capabilities and excess capacity to addressing technology needs of commercial industry and those of its traditional customer, the Department of Energy.
"This center is another success story for DOE and the Y-12 Plant in which the capabilities and expertise developed in a half century of work for the national defense are being applied to the nation's economic competitiveness," said Y-12 Metrology Program Manager Rosanne Smith.
Within its National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program, NIST will soon establish a service to evaluate the qualifications of commercial and public laboratories that provide dimensional calibrations of master gears and other artifacts. Firms use these artifacts as references to check the accuracy of their measurement equipment, which is used in turn to check the performance of cutting tools and other production machinery.
The Y-12 Plant will seek accreditation under the new program, certifying that it meets all requirements of national consensus standards as well as the accreditation requirements of the International Organization for Standardization.
Breaking with tradition, NIST will permit certain NIST- certified calibrations (which occupy the initial link in a descending national chain of measurement traceability) to be performed at Y-12. Since its founding in 1901 as the National Bureau of Standards, NIST has been the nation's ultimate authority on measurements. All agency-certified calibrations and special tests have been conducted solely under its auspices.
Under the supervision of senior NIST personnel, Y-12 staff will perform NIST-certified calibrations and tests that are requested in volumes or for certain sizes of artifacts that exceed NIST's in-house capabilities. These services will be available to industry and government agencies.
"Y-12 has unique equipment that, under NIST's direction, can be used to meet industry needs," explains Dennis Swyt, head of Precision Engineering at NIST. "Through this collaboration we are leveraging the capabilities of two agencies in support of a $15 billion U.S. industry."
In addition to providing calibration and testing services, the Center for Gear Metrology will perform special measurements on request, conduct research, and offer training and education programs. The Penn State Applied Research Laboratory, the other major partner in the collaboration, will participate through its recently established National Center for Advanced Gear Manufacturing Technologies.
A non-regulatory agency in the Commerce Department's Technology Administration, NIST promotes economic growth by working with industry to develop and apply technology, measurements and standards.