TRAVERSE CITY — Some of the largest, most complex solar- power installations on the planet are being built with components manufactured in Traverse City.
Precision gears manufactured in Traverse City by Cone Drive, 240 E. 12th St., will drive 300,000 computer-controlled mirrors in the Ivanpah thermal power system in the California desert. Cone Drive gears synchronize 150,000 mirrors at the Ashalim power station in Israel. They’re also integral to the design of the world’s largest Concentrated Solar Power plant, now under construction in Dubai.
CSP plants use thousands of mirrors to gather solar rays and aim them at a collector that generates steam, in turn used to drive a turbine to generate electricity. Key to the process is aligning all those mirrors.
Cone Drive workers in Traverse City create a specialized type of gear set that plays an essential role in aiming all those computer-controlled mirrors.
“It’s a very complex geometry of the gear teeth that takes very high-end mathematics to design,” said Kurt Gamelin, Cone Drive president.
“Our competitors have not been able to master the mathematical design of the geometry. We’ve been able to not only master the design, but we’ve been able to automate the manufacturing process for the design. It’s very high-technology, high-end engineering and mathematics, here in Traverse City.”
Cone Drive’s solar business expanded rapidly.
“It has grown so much over the past five years, it is now 50 percent of our revenue,” Gamelin said.
Cone Drive, a division of The Timken Company, employs 166 people in Traverse City. The Cone Drive factory in Ludington employs 36. A team of 10 sales people work across North America. Cone Drive operates two factories in China.
The Cone Drive component helping drive the global solar power industry is called the “double-enveloping worm gear set.”
A worm gear is similar to a screw or bolt — it has threads wrapped around a shaft. Those threads mesh with a “worm wheel,” a disk-shaped gear.
The nature of the worm drive allows very precise motion control, but it has only a small patch of metal-to-metal contact, so wear and tear can be a problem. Cone Drive came up with their solution in 2009.
“The screw has an hourglass shape to it, so it wraps around the gear. The gear wraps around the worm as well,” Gamelin said, hence the term double-enveloping, and a big advantage over competing worm drives.
“There’s more surface area in the contact of the teeth, which means that the load that’s put through the gear set is spread out through more surface area. We can carry a much higher load compared to our competitors.”
Cone Drive’s design holds another benefit that makes it ideal for use in CSP installations.
“It’s a great fit, because of the precision we can achieve with the double-enveloping,” Gamelin said. “The mirrors on the concentrating side of the market need the high precision. A second reason is, it’s very torsionally stiff, so it doesn’t have a lot of play in it. If the wind blows and catches a mirror, the mirror doesn’t move.”
“We see the market continuing to grow. Most reports that we see show 20 percent year-on-year growth out to 2023,” he said.
Cone Drive also has seen growth in other motion-control markets it serves, including defense applications, aerospace, satellite communications and mining. It is poised to dive deep in the robotics market with a technology called harmonic drive, which can deliver ultra-precise motion.
“We’ve invested a lot of money and a lot of capital into the project,” Gamelin said. “We see a high growth curve coming.”
The harmonic drive products are being built in Traverse City.
“It’s a high-barrier-to-entry product,” said Gamelin. “There aren’t many companies out there that make this product, because it’s so difficult to design and manufacture.”
The Timken Co. in 2018 bought Cone Drive from Scottish industrial investment company Clyde Blowers Capital, which had owned Cone Drive for a decade.
“It’s a very complex geometry of the gear teeth that takes very high-end mathematics to design.” Kurt Gamelin, Cone Drive president