What gets a small gear shop in Roscoe, Ill., into some of the most significant work in the galaxy? It comes down to high standards, tackling tough jobs and verifying the work at this world-class manufacturer.
Fred Young believes the success of his family’s business boils down to three major themes: quality, precision and documentation. He believes it’s his family’s relentless commitment to high standards, difficult jobs, and the verification thereof that has given Forest City Gear, 11715 Main St., Roscoe, Ill., a solid reputation that’s known around the world.
Since its founding in 1955, the company has counted among its clients the world’s leaders in aerospace, medical and dental devices, off-highway equipment, defense and robotics. Even NASA has called upon the Youngs.
“I’m quite happy and proud that we’ve been able to deliver on a number of new manufacturing challenges, and the word has spread far and wide that this little company in northern Illinois is able to complete some pretty heavy requirements,” says Young.
From massive gears almost two feet in diameter to pieces of less than 1/64th of an inch, Forest City Gear handles a wide range of capabilities, all related to gear production. Its specialties include gear grinding, hobbing and shaping; thread grinding; high-volume production; engineering and inspection.
Every piece that’s manufactured here is built with quality in mind. And just to ensure those high standards, once a piece is engineered and a sample is manufactured it’s sent to the inspection lab for a full analysis. Inside this specially climate-controlled space, a pair of CMM programmers run some of the world’s most cutting-edge inspection tools. These computer-driven machines blip and poke, then spit out a dizzying array of charts for the engineers.
“We’ve got a little crowning going on here,” one inspector comments as he reviews the print-outs. That imperfection may look imperceptible to the human eye, but it means everything in this lab.
“We’ve had a drive to always have the best-quality manufacturing capabilities in all of the areas we’ve served,” says Young. “That has allowed us not only to produce the very highest quality but to document that quality level down to millionths of an inch increments.”
That deep level of analysis is particularly important to Forest City Gear’s clients, many of whom operate in fields where failure and imprecision are no option.
“You’ve got to be able to show people the quality you’re capable of delivering on a continual basis and be able to document it and inspect it beyond the normal expectations of what people look for,” says Young. “So, our inspection is some of the best in the nation.”
Forest City Gear is so well-known for its work that other manufacturers turn to its expertise in manufacturing and inspection. “They come to us because we have capabilities that exceed their own in-house abilities,” says Young.
It’s that commitment to quality and precision that drives Young to reinvest a whopping 25 to 40% of gross sales every year in new equipment. And it’s made that commitment for decades, says Young. The results are apparent on the shop floor, where new machines are constantly being added.
“We get challenged all the time with new machining requests for form, fit and finish,” says Young. “And by reinvesting in our machining and inspection equipment we’re able to show people we not only can deliver what they want but we can usually exceed the quality they’re requesting.”
The constant investment in technology enables Forest City Gear to land ever more challenging projects. Lately, there’s been a growing demand for unique applications and exotic materials that are “quite demanding on their own merits,” says Young.
And what can be more demanding than the harsh environs of outer space, where you’ll also find Forest City Gear’s work in action? The firm has contributed parts to the International Space Station and several Mars rovers – including Perseverance, which is scheduled to touch down Feb. 18.
That he’s been working with NASA so long seems to Young like the natural effect of quality work. “Of course, NASA wouldn’t come to you unless they were looking for somebody with the best qualifications,” he says.
NASA’s not the only one.
“People like Northrop Grumman and others are aware of our work, and many have been here in our facility,” Young says. “It’s really quite apparent to them that we not only do what we say we can do but we can document it with inspection that will verify we’ve met or exceeded their demands.”
Forest City Gear has come a long way since Young’s parents, Stetler and Evelyn, launched a modest gear shop. Young, who was 12 at the time, took an early interest in the business and spent his childhood pitching in. He often ran machines and made things like basketball hoop winches and home ice cream makers. He served in the Navy a few years but had little doubt where he was going in life. At the age of 25, he headed back to Roscoe and began working his way through every part of the family business.
“I was the only child of some people who happened to have started a gear business,” he says. “I grew up with it and knew it quite intimately. I cared about our employees and the allies we’d built up over the years.”
The business continues to be a family affair. Young’s wife, Wendy, is currently president and CEO. All three of their daughters remain active, as well. Kika is director of corporate management, while Mindy and Appy assist with marketing.
The Youngs remain active in the Roscoe community, throwing their support behind a number of charitable causes. They’ve supported the Blackhawk Chapter of Trout Unlimited, the American Gear Manufacturers Association, Rockford Rescue Mission, Rock Valley College, Discovery Center Museum, Heartland Church and Rockford University, while also supporting summer internships for local high school and college students.
“We think it’s a duty and a privilege to be able to help assist our community and the requirements of people who are not as fortunate as we,” says Young. “And we want to be able to give back to our community and help make this a really good area in which to work.”
Behind the family, producing between 3,000 and 5,000 unique components, and 750,000 parts, every year for some 300 global customers, is a highly skilled team of about 115 people. They’re the other secret to success, says Young.
“We’ve challenged them to do some of the most difficult machining and inspection that’s being done in North America’s gear industry,” he adds.
Recruiting skilled workers isn’t always easy – competition is fierce with larger manufacturers, Young says – but Forest City Gear does a good deal of continuing training and enjoys low turnover.
Word-of-mouth continues to be an important marketing tool, and Young says it’s not unusual for new clients to say they were referred by competitors and other connections who’ve worked with Forest City Gear in the past.
“We’re a relatively small company, but our reputation really goes way beyond that, because we’ve been challenged by some very quality-demanding applications and jobs,” says Young. “We’ve been tested and have delivered on time while, perhaps, largely exceeding the demands that were placed before us.”
Young’s parents saw only a glimpse of Forest City Gear as it exists today – but the incredible progress they did see left them proud.
“My father was a tool and die maker, and I learned a lot from him,” says Young. “But we’ve gone way beyond what state-of-the-art manufacturing was when he was working on it. He got to see some of it, as we grew, and I’m exceedingly proud that he and my mom were able to witness the growth in our capabilities that attracted people from all over the world.”