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Hi. Can a CNC Swiss make these gear/round parts--if so, what do I need?

HikeKing21

Plastic
Joined
Oct 27, 2023
Hey all, neat community you have here. Hopefully this is the right place to start this discussion.

I've got a short history of doing traditional VMC machining, primarily aluminum, primarily *small* machines. Lets assume that I don't know much beyond basic VMC work.

I have a side project I want to work on making high quality and light tuning machines for guitars and mandolins. The flat work and building fixtures to get all of the flat pieces happy and working well is in my wheelhouse.

What isn't, are the gears, tuning posts, etc, that I need to be able to produce long-term in a reliable automated way. A mandolin builder friend of mine who also has a machine shop across the country from me has a manual swiss mill he makes these small round parts on reliably, but slowly. (See Photos)

What I'm hoping to gain from your infinite wisdom, is an idea of:

1. Aside from a VMC, what kind of machine(s) would I need to get my head and hands around to make these parts.

2. If I'm looking to make thousands of these pieces a year, and not millions, any suggestions on make/model/era that is good bang for buck, but also DIY maintainable over the next decade without being stuck in a parts desert, or with no way to DIY.

3. What else should I be asking or thinking about? My knowledge here is shallow.

Thanks!

-S
 

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A horizontal with powered indexer would do it. The trick will be finding a machine and then doing the math to get the right gear train and set-up. There are lots of horizontals out there with the hook-ups for powered indexing, but it seems very few have their original factory gear train and indexer. Often you can find an indexer to add to a machine, but the gear set-ups are rare on their own. Most guys will DIY the gear train because it isn't very complicated. It's essentially mounting a gear to the table lead screw, and gearing that to a PTO on the indexer (kinda like the gear train on a tool room lathe) so the indexer turns a certain amount as the table moves. You'll need a horizontal with a universal table, which swivels on the knee, but they're not uncommon. Finding the right angles and gears are most of the mathematical battle. It's not the fastest method, but I can't think of another way to do helical gears that can pass some level of precision and repeatability.

Before CNC methods, I think that's how most companies used to prototype and small batch stuff like that. Getting into dedicated gear manufacturing machines was the next step.

You might enquire with some clockmaker/Horologist guys. Little gears like those would be right up their ally. I think the process of making them is the same, but their industry might have smaller machines and set-ups than your typical American Iron Cincinnati and Kearney and Trecker horizontals.
 
^^^ I agree with Limy, but one thing to add.

It's common for guys to see a market flooded with inferior products because all of the "good" ones went overseas and sacrificed quality, and they think they can start making a higher quality product and take back the market.

Fantastic, lets do that. BUT, remember that most of the market isn't going to think like you. You will likely find that the $5 Chinese widget costs $50 or more to make yourself, and while yours is undoubtedly better, how are you going to convince the customer? Everyone wants the best of something, but everyone talks with their wallet. It takes a lot of work and resources to re-shore production, and that's compounded if you're the new guy on the block. It's the business side of machining that lots of guys miss. Just because you can make something and people want it, doesn't make money until you can convey that what you have is the "it" they are looking for, despite the added cost.

Even in a nitch market with low volume that you're doing as a side gig to your day job, it's still got to make at least enough money to break even. I've seen a lot of this happen in my side of business and usually if you lean heavy into things like "custom" and "bespoke" and "John Wayne Certified", people will pay a little more, but it's all in the marketing. You have to assume that there is a reason no one has done this before you, and solve that problem.
 
Two things

First--I am looking for the ability to CNC these, and I'm trying to figure out what kind of mill can take rod stock and chew on it to make my little parts. Maybe the gear stuff is harder than I imagine it being on a swiss mill, with the right cutters and programming?

Second--I've got no delusions about marketability, this really is something that is an excuse for me to go a little deeper with a cnc lathe than required for other small round parts that I need to churn out for products I make currently by hand on a manual lathe.

Trying to kill 2 birds with one stone, since the other work I do will happily pay off a used cnc lathe / swiss lathe / cheese lathe / etc, within a year.

Thanks!

P.S. My day job is the marketing and sales side of things... :)
 
Hi HikeKing21:
That suite of parts has a lot of different production processes wrapped up in it, so you can't just find the one gadget that'll do it all with production efficiency.

However, stuff like this is prototyped in the medical device industry all the time, and that's where I'd look first, for equipment that can be made to do the job when you don't care so much about making each part as efficiently as possible.

Probably the single best CNC machine to press into service for most of these parts is a live tooled Swiss preferably one with a B axis milling head.
Sadly, even used, these are multi hundred thousand dollar machines.

Here's a link:

This is how the guys who make high value, low volume parts that are turned parts with milled features do it.
A dental implant for example, is a good candidate part and costs maybe 500 bucks for the dentist to buy, but he resells it for 3 grand installed, so the money is there in the product, to allow a manufacturer to splash the cash to put one or several of these machines on the floor.

For milled parts with turned features, here's a link:

Similarly, if you're in a high value niche market and can differentiate yourself from your competition as "The Guy" you can do it too:
Here's someone who's done it in the knifemaking business:

People love him, people hate him but he has been able to build an impressive facility and he did it by having the balls to proclaim himself as the "best" and his knives sell for a corresponding price.

You may be able to do something similar in the musical instrument business, but you ain't never gonna do it supplying the occasional bits for someone else's mandolin build...they are shopping "good enough" and "price".
You want to be the guy whose instruments fetch a premium dollar...you need to be "Mr Stradivarius" of the 21st century.

Cheers

Marcus
www.implant-mechanix.com
www.vancouverwireedm.com
 
Hi HikeKing21:
That suite of parts has a lot of different production processes wrapped up in it, so you can't just find the one gadget that'll do it all with production efficiency.

However, stuff like this is prototyped in the medical device industry all the time, and that's where I'd look first, for equipment that can be made to do the job when you don't care so much about making each part as efficiently as possible.

Probably the single best CNC machine to press into service for most of these parts is a live tooled Swiss preferably one with a B axis milling head.
Sadly, even used, these are multi hundred thousand dollar machines.

Here's a link:

This is how the guys who make high value, low volume parts that are turned parts with milled features do it.
A dental implant for example, is a good candidate part and costs maybe 500 bucks for the dentist to buy, but he resells it for 3 grand installed, so the money is there in the product, to allow a manufacturer to splash the cash to put one or several of these machines on the floor.

For milled parts with turned features, here's a link:

Similarly, if you're in a high value niche market and can differentiate yourself from your competition as "The Guy" you can do it too:
Here's someone who's done it in the knifemaking business:

People love him, people hate him but he has been able to build an impressive facility and he did it by having the balls to proclaim himself as the "best" and his knives sell for a corresponding price.

You may be able to do something similar in the musical instrument business, but you ain't never gonna do it supplying the occasional bits for someone else's mandolin build...they are shopping "good enough" and "price".
You want to be the guy whose instruments fetch a premium dollar...you need to be "Mr Stradivarius" of the 21st century.

Cheers

Marcus
www.implant-mechanix.com
www.vancouverwireedm.com

Thanks, Marcus!

Really the gear, post, and tuning knob are the only things I can’t make on the mill. I’m just trying to figure out what is realistic.

Can something like a Citizen L series with the right options get me there?

If so, what options am I looking for?

Thanks!
 
Hi again HikeKing21:
With enough ingenuity, indifference to profitability and sheer stubbornness, you can make a VMC do all of those parts, including the turned parts.
You may have to trick it out with a 4th or even a 5 axis setup, but it's all possible if you're creative.

I ran for years doing some pretty elaborate prototyping for the dental and medical industry and did lots of plastic injection mold making with a manual lathe, a Haas Minimll and a home made surface grinder... younger machinists tend to forget how recently CNC on every machine was even a thing.
When I learned toolmaking, you could differentiate yourself by getting good at using a rotary table on a manual mill...I haven't touched mine in decades but it was state of the art in toolrooms in the 1970's when I grew up in the trade.
We built some pretty complex tools but it took a different kind of ingenuity than it does now.
No CAD, no CAM... slide rules and calculators and sine/cosine/tan tables were our friends along with pencil and paper.

So all depends on how much you want or need to spend to get more capable gear.
There isn't much I cannot build (within my size domain which is miniature and microminiature).
I now have two 3 axis VMC's, a sinker EDM, a wire EDM, a surface grinder, 4 cutter grinders of various kinds, a manual lathe and mill, a 2 axis CNC lathe with a C axis spindle, a laser welder and all the bits and bobs every machine shop has after 45 years.

All of it is basic, all of it is obsolescent, but I could make everything in your pictures and while I couldn't compete with TeachMePlease ( the guy on PM with the magnificent hair who runs Swiss machines for a living) on profitability and there are edge case parts he could make that I couldn't...most of what he can do with his bazillion dollar setup I can fake together too, but I can't make money at 20 cents a part where he can do well at that part price.

So all depends on your intent, but to cut to the chase, a good midrange Swiss, optioned well can do almost all of it, and one with a B axis could be made to do it all.
A Swiss guy is going to be far better able to recommend a specific machine...I've seen one in the wild, but I've never had my mitts on one...I lust quietly from afar. :D

Cheers

Marcus
www.implant-mechanix.com
www.vancouverwireedm.com
 
You need a gear hobber, not necessarily cnc. They are automatic machines. Atleast ones made in the past 40 years are.
 
Hi Garwood:
Yeah a little Mikron gear hobber would put the teeth on those tiny worm wheels or at least fake them adequately, but couldn't do anything else with just that one machine.
Obviously he still has to do the turning and the milling, so other machines for that.
He could get a little Hardinge HC chucker or even a CNC gang chucker like mine to turn all the blanks and he says he has a VMC.
Kinda old school compared to a nicely tricked out Swiss, but it would get him parts just fine.

Cheers

Marcus
www.implant-mechanix.com
www.vancouverwireedm.com
 
A Citizen L20 or L32 with gear hobbing attachment could do those parts easily. Given enough time and money, they could make every single pat you've got in those pictures. But they're not cheap unless you stumble on a good deal. A used, old machine with 12ft barfeeder and high pressure coolant pump/filter is going to run you around 100K minimum for a 20mm machine, likely more for the 32mm version. If you decided to just make the gears and small diameter stuff, a K16E w/ hobbing attachment would do everything but the large tuning posts, and could likely be had for a great deal less; I just saw one go at auction for like $8K last week here in Florida... They won't normally be THAT cheap though, budget at least 50K for one with all the goodies.
Citizen parts availability is good, you can still buy parts for 20+yr old machines. But you do pay for the more exotic stuff.

You may be better off finding a Swiss shop to outsource to at first.
 
If you don't have previous experience with swiss machining, it would be a bad idea to jump into something that complicated. They are fussy machines and require some special attention to keep working reliably. With some clever fixturing you can make those parts with a 5C indexer and you would still be in your wheelhouse of working with VMCs. Just performing that work alone will inform you on what you are going to need going forward.

You could at the same time start making relatively straightforward components in a swiss to cut your teeth. This will give you some time to learn and adapt while still being able to produce your end product. As mentioned above, you could outsource or you could see if you could have someone develop a turnkey solution and then train you how to keep the machine going etc.

Maybe just use the swiss for pumping out rough forms and then finish on the mill/indexer while you continue to tool up and figure out the swiss methods.

Most of those little gears are typically cast to near net and then finished in a machine or two. Depending on your volume that might be a more economical option. Get a small VMC with a rotary or trunnion and use it to finish the cast forms with minimal machining. Probe a little boss or something similar for alignment and then machine it off.
 
For what OP is doing he does not even need a Hobbing Attachment for the Swiss and certainly doesn't need a Hobbing Machine. His gear needs are among the most basic of power transmission and I'm betting he could get by just fine by using space cutter and threading cycles for the Worms and Wheels. This is more about making a widget move/rotate a little than it is about accurately generating Involutes for precision movement with accuracy and smoothness. A Swiss machine would make these any day. For the "bang for the buck" factor of a Small Shop Sam or Home Shop Harry, this is even keenly possible with a normal turning center and machining center. Nothing special going on that I can see with regards to the gearing requirements.
 
Better yet one of the Barber Colman Type S benchtop hobbers. Tying up a swiss while it single indexed gear teeth would be pretty slow- even for a hi zoot machine. A swiss could probably crank out 10 blanks in the time it would take to cut one gear- guess on my ignorant self / part though.
bc type s.jpg
 








 
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