The gearboxes produced in Columbus by Master Power Transmissions usually are hidden from view — but people rely on them daily, such as when they step on an escalator or hoist their belongings off an airport luggage carousel.
The word “transmission” in the company’s name refers to the transmission of power from an electric motor, through a speed reducer, to another piece of machinery.
Stephen R. Knott, human and technical resources manager, recently walked through the company’s manufacturing facility, at 3300 10th St., displaying one of the company’s gearboxes. It consisted of a circular metal housing, with a circular opening on one side and a shaft on the other. A rapidly spinning shaft powered by an electric motor is inserted into the circular opening in the gearbox, where the gears reduce the output speed. The model that Knott was holding allows it to slow by 240 times. It reduced the speed of a shaft spinning at 1,750 rpm to 7.29 rpm, Knott said. While the gearbox lowers the speed, it tremendously increases torque.
The gearboxes allow an electric motor’s application for baggage conveyors at airports, for example, which require very high torque — but very low speeds. Imagine the chaos at a luggage conveyor if it moved 20 times as fast as normal.
Knott said the company produces standard gearboxes but also designs them to customers’ specifications.
The operation at the 10th Street plant begins with raw materials — cast iron, steel, bronze and aluminum — and machinists bore, grind and heat treat the materials, creating gears to assemble into gear boxes.
Master PT has ties to one of Columbus’ oldest companies, Reeves Pulley Co., which opened in 1890. In its foyer, Master PT displays examples of its mechanical pedigree, including a wooden split pulley from the late 1800s and a transmission from the 1940s.
In the 1960s, the operations were acquired by Reliance Electric, which went through a series of owners including Exxon and Rockwell Automation. The Rockwell Automation Reeves plant, on Seventh Street, and Master plant (the current Master PT plant) consolidated in 2001, when the Reeves plant closed. In 2006, the operation was bought by Baldor Electric Co. At the time, the facility employed nearly 200.
It employs 56 today, but Michael Cinquemani, who formerly managed the Reeves plant and bought the operation from Baldor in 2009, is banking on the employees’ experience, dedication and ingenuity to produce a high-quality niche product and deliver it quickly.
He plans to invest about $3.6 million to renovate an additional 30,000 square feet and nearly double the workforce by 2016.
An engineer by training, Cinquemani joined the company in sales and marketing in 1986 before becoming plant manager and, after the Baldor acquisition, took executive positions and moved from Columbus to Greenville, S.C., where Master PT is based.
Cinquemani said that when Baldor decided to sell the Columbus operation, he saw an opportunity to fulfill a teenage dream to own a business.
“When I bought this business, half the people in the shop I knew,” he said.
The company’s small size, which he initially expected to be an obstacle, has turned out to be an advantage, he said.
“We come up with an idea in the morning ... and we’re pretty much doing it by the afternoon,” Cinquemani said.
The company focuses on statistical analyses, technology and expert employees to deliver the gearboxes quickly. In the beginning, delivery took up to two months. Today, Master PT delivers 70 percent of its products in less than 48 hours, he said.
Cinquemani chose Columbus for the expansion because the plant, at 220,000 square feet, has enough space and because of the support he has received from the state and the city.
The company’s customers are national and even international. Parts are distributed out of Nevada and Tennessee. Production occurs only in Columbus.
The company competes with much larger international gearbox manufacturers, but Cinquemani said that his international business assignments in Europe, Asia and South America have taught him that it makes sense to produce on the same continent as your customers to be able to respond quickly to their needs.
He said the experienced local employees form the basis for his optimism. Many of the employees have worked through the company’s various iterations for more than 20 years. Quite a few have worked there twice as long.
James B. White, 66, of Austin, will have worked at the plant for 40 years in November.
“It’s been a great job to me,” he said as he did some grinding work.
A few steps away, Marvin Anderson, a machinist from Columbus, was operating the Reishauer RGM worm gear grinder. Anderson will have worked at the plant 40 years this month.
Some parts produced at the local plant have tolerances of four thousandths of an inch. Others require precision to fifty thousandths of an inch.
In a separate room, Gordon Lambert, a Columbus native and Scipio resident, was running the heat treat operation. Heat treatment hardens the parts.
Orange and blue flames danced through the cracks of the door in the floor-to-ceiling apparatus that was heating parts to 1,600 degrees.
Components take nearly three hours to run through the machine on conveyor, said Lambert, who joined the company in 1976.
After heat treatment, the parts are dropped into oil for seven minutes, to lock in the hardness, Lambert said. Then they are drip-dried for 10 minutes and washed.
A lab in the plant checks the parts to make sure they comply with the required dimensions and hardness.
Columbus City Council recently approved a tax abatement on the Master PT investment, and Indiana Economic Development Corporation has agreed to provide the company up to $400,000 in tax credits and training grants so long as the company hires Hoosiers.
Cinquemani said he expects Master PT’s revenues to grow 20 percent or more in the next couple of years.
“It’s really exciting,” he said.
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