Cone Drive: Making It in Northern Michigan

Traverse City-based gear manufacturer Cone Drive is in an enviable position. Purchased in 2018 by global bearings and power transmission-products giant Timken, Cone Drive – founded in 1925 – now has the resources to invest in its future.

Cone Drive’s reputation will continue to rest heavily on producing worm gearing, says President Kurt Gamelin.

“It’s still our flagship product,” he said.

Significant corporate investments in the past few years have made it possible to add a new line: harmonic gearing.

“We have a very good relationship with Timken,” Gamelin said. “We operate fairly autonomously, but still follow Timken’s guidance and requirements. They’ve invested in us and we’ve given Timken good return on their investments. In fact, we anticipate those investments will increase.”

Gamelin and leaders at Timken say they think that strategy will pay off.

Both type of gears convert rotating speed elements into torque. The advantage of harmonic gears is that they adapt well to many newer manufacturing areas such as medical devices, satellite communications, machining, camera positioners, airplanes and, importantly, robotics.

“Robotics and high tech manufacturing are growing worldwide,” Gamelin said. “Harmonic gears are state-of-the art technology that fits into that growth.”

Having two main product lines instead of one enhances Cone Drive’s competitive position, he says.

“It creates a sound business model,” he said. “Both are proven, unique technologies and differentiators for us. They also present high barriers to entry for potential competitors.  It would be difficult to find something better at the same cost.”

Historically, many Cone Drive employees have spent their careers with the company. But with the new production line comes the need for updated manufacturing processes and expertise, and it’s a competitive labor market these days.

Over the past five years, Cone Drive has hired numerous mechanical engineers and CAD designers. The Traverse City facility and smaller production site in Ludington now have a total of 220 employees.

Gamelin says he plans to hire more help.

“We’ll probably need 15 to 20 more people over the next 12 months,” he said.

Like most area manufacturers, he understands that might not be easy.

“To recruit and retain employees, we have to offer good salaries and benefits, of course, but we also need challenging and interesting work and an environment that challenges individuals to come up with new ideas,” he said. “So far, we’re doing pretty well on the short-term challenge of finding skilled workers.”

He attributes Cone Drive’s current labor state to two elements.

“Granted, that doesn’t happen without a lot of hard work and marketing,” he said. “It’s not as easy as it used to be. The business and region used to sell itself.”

Gamelin’s bigger concern these days is with supply chain bottlenecks and rising prices for raw materials such as bronze, steel and iron. He also keeps his eye on foreign competition.

“Cone Drive sells mostly to domestic companies,” he said, “but many of our gears go into equipment those customers send around the world.”

The Grand Traverse Area Manufacturing Council (GTAMC) sponsors this column. Its mission is to support a sustainable and globally competitive manufacturing sector for a stronger economy;