Harmonic Solutions: Leveling Up Precision Motion Control
A Conversation with Kurt Gamelin, President, Cone Drive
As President of Cone Drive by Timken, Kurt Gamelin lives and breathes business innovation, supporting his team in identifying hot markets and then getting behind the new technologies that will usher those highly engineered products into the mainstream.
A few years ago, it was slewing drives and bearings for the solar power industry. Gamelin led Cone Drive in growing that part of the business more than 8x in a matter of five years.
Today, he’s working on harmonic solutions, the precision gears that make robotic surgeries and satellite communications possible, among other things. We spoke to him about why harmonic is such a big deal, and what it’s like to engineer a product line from scratch.
Q: What are harmonic solutions, and how do they differ from Cone Drive’s flagship product, the double-enveloping worm drive?
Gamelin: Our worm drive customer base is extremely diverse; we track revenue against just about every industrial market. There’s a power transmission side, where customers want a high-torque, high power speed reducer to move, say, aggregate onto a cargo ship. Then there’s a motion control side, where customers are looking for precision for machines that paint your favorite soda or beer cans, for example. Sprayer positioning must be very precise, so you don’t get blurriness.
Harmonic solutions provide an even higher degree of precision in a compact space. Robot manufacturers use them in wrist and elbow axes, and satellite manufacturers use them to delicately manipulate antennae or solar panels.
You also see harmonic gears on exoskeletons in the ergonomic market. Workers on an auto assembly line might strap them on to help lift heavy parts overhead. The medical industry also uses harmonic applications in everything from imaging machines to the tools used in robotic surgeries.
Harmonic gearing provides high transmission accuracy and can support a high ratio reduction in a single stage with lower inertia. The highly accurate, torque dense design makes harmonic gears a great solution for robotic and positioning applications.
How does your experience developing new products for the solar market compare to your work on harmonic solutions?
Gamelin: With solar, we already had the core technology in our double-enveloping worm drive. We rolled that into the slewing product and brought them together to serve the market.
We had to transition to high-volume manufacturing to meet the needs of the solar market, which was a cultural shift for us. After we hired and trained those additional people and made that first set of shipments, we felt like we could enter the market and run it right, so then we secured more contracts and quickly gained a foothold.
On the harmonic side, we identified the potential in robotics and other motion control markets, but we didn’t have a product for them, and there weren’t other manufacturers to acquire. We decided to develop those solutions in-house, leveraging our design and manufacturing expertise.
What goes into developing complex products from scratch?
Gamelin: It’s all about the people you have working on it. Our team here enjoys the challenge of working on complex engineering problems, and they take great pride and ownership in the business. For harmonic solutions, we hired additional engineers who are incredibly sharp. They helped us analyze and develop the technology.
Developing the harmonic technology was not only about designing the product itself. Much of the intellectual properties Cone Drive has developed relate to product testing capabilities, measurement systems, work holding and materials analysis.
Additionally, when we became a Timken business, we gained access to more R&D tools, and to engineers with intimate knowledge of bearings and materials science, which helped us address harmonic bearing challenges. The level of testing equipment and capabilities available to us since the acquisition is world class.
We invested several million dollars in capital to get us where we are now. This includes not only human capital, but also facility upgrades, production equipment, measurement systems and testing capabilities.
Why do customers choose Cone Drive Harmonic Solutions over competitor products?
Gamelin: Customers appreciate our customer-centric approach — the ease with which we collaborate with them and to do engineered special products. Our fast lead times are also key, whether it’s prototypes or serial production. Many customers also value the fact that we’ve been able to mostly avoid supply chain issues because our materials are sourced domestically.
What inspires you and your team every day, to get up and solve tough motion control problems?
Gamelin: It’s inspiring to work with these high-tech, evolving technologies, and we’re proud to help change people’s lives for the better. Robotic hip replacements, for example, are less intrusive, so people have shorter recovery times with less chance of infection. And our work with satellite companies means that internet access will soon be available anywhere in the world. That’s going to be transformational.
Learn more about the macrotrends driving R&D investments at Timken.