After more than 70 years of building and repairing heavy industrial gears like those that raise the Ballard and Fremont drawbridges, The Gear Works closed abruptly last week, laid off all its employees and sold its equipment to a neighboring machine shop.

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The Gear Works, a family-owned company in South Park that for more than 70 years built and repaired heavy industrial gears to drive equipment such as wind turbines and power generators, folded abruptly last week and sold its assets to a neighboring machine shop.

The company has a storied legacy of sophisticated skills. For instance, it rebuilt the ancient gearboxes that lift two of Seattle’s historic drawbridges. And for a 747 jumbo jet owned by NASA, it designed and built a gearbox that could in midflight reliably open and close a massive door in the fuselage through which a telescope could observe the stars.

Machinists Inc., located next door, bought all the machinery and gear-making equipment and has also leased the large Gear Works manufacturing building, which covers more than 100,000 square feet, more than doubling the Machinists Inc. manufacturing space.

The employees of Gear Works were terminated, and many are now applying for job openings newly posted at Machinists Inc. Gear Works was a union shop, with 61 shop-floor employees represented by District 160 of the International Association of Machinists (IAM).

Hugh LaBossier, president of Machinists Inc., said his company currently has about 135 employees and is interviewing for approximately 40 more.

Despite the similarity of the name, 76-year-old Machinists Inc. is nonunion.

Dan Morgan, directing business representative at IAM District 160, said Gear Works management did not inform its employees or the union before the closure.

The state Employment Security Department says it, too, was not informed, though the state’s Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act requires employers to provide 60 days’ notice to the state and the employees either when a plant closes or when more than a third of the workforce is laid off.

“They have obligations to their employees,” said Morgan. “We are actively pursuing the issue.”

Roland Ramberg, chief executive of The Gear Works and son of its founder, was on vacation and unavailable for comment.

His brother, Sterling Ramberg, Gear Works president, who has been appointed to spearhead sales of gearing equipment at Machinists Inc., said in an interview that the sudden closure and equipment sale weren’t done out of financial distress.

“We didn’t have some impending collapse,” he said. “It was just the right time for our family to turn the page, for the ages of the owners.”

He said the company recognizes that it must negotiate the effects of the closure with the union.

“You need to negotiate severance (pay),” Ramberg said. “And we intend to do that.”

Tools like this gear cutting device at left, cuts grooves into round cylinders of steel.  (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)
Tools like this gear cutting device at left, cuts grooves into round cylinders of steel. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)

Hands-on manufacturing

The two side-by-side companies, Machinists Inc. and Gear Works, now essentially combined into one, represent some of the most highly skilled metal-manufacturing work in this region.

Machinists Inc. — founded in 1941 by Ralph LaBossier, grandfather of the current president — designs and builds metal parts and complete manufacturing systems for the aerospace, energy, marine, research and transportation industries.

On a tour of its facilities on Friday, workers were machining a huge variety of complex metal parts for diverse customers.

Here were casings for Navy torpedoes.

There was equipment destined for Boeing’s Renton plant that will be used to move around the engine thrust reversers of the 737 MAX.

Here was a part for the new General Atomics electromagnetic launch and recovery system for catapulting jet fighters from aircraft carriers and arresting them on landing.

There was a piece of a tooling fixture for the BE-4 engine being developed by space exploration company Blue Origin.

And a large metal tube sat outside, destined to be turned into a dummy stand-in for a jet engine for when Boeing does the wing-bend test on its forthcoming 777X.

On Friday, Gear Works — founded in 1946 by Ingwald Ramberg — was quieter than Machinists Inc.

The dormant machines awaited new employees to come in and revive them.

All around the huge facility, enormous toothed disks and gearboxes sat as testament to the sophistication of the work.

There was a 5-ton, high-speed gear for a machine that compresses industrial gas, its teeth ground to a precision within ten-thousandths of an inch.

Here sat the truck-sized gearbox for one of the state’s Issaquah-class ferries. Originally built in Texas, this gearbox was rebuilt here in the late 1990s, its teeth reground with modern precision to make it much quieter. It’s back here now for inspection and maintenance.

There were the tree-trunklike shafts and the detached gearbox for a giant wind turbine from one of the wind farms that dot the landscape of the West.

Sterling Ramberg recalled some of the more memorable projects the company has undertaken over the years.

About 10 years ago, Gear Works designed and built a rack and pinion gear system that slid open a big door in the fuselage of a specially built 747 jumbo jet while in flight.

This was NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy — the SOFIA project — the largest airborne observatory in the world.

In the 2000s, Gear Works also retrofitted the four ancient gear boxes, each weighing 11 tons, that raised and lowered the drawbridges on both the Ballard and Fremont bridges.

“It took early 1900s technology and transformed it into the modern era,” Ramberg said.

Marketing director Jeff Tomson points out a compressor gear made by Machinist Inc. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)
Marketing director Jeff Tomson points out a compressor gear made by Machinist Inc. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)

LaBossier, of Machinists Inc., said his company will carry on that history, completing the customer contracts that were under way at Gear Works and seeking future work.

“Our goal is to grow dramatically,” LaBossier said.

In addition to all the specialized, multimillion-dollar gear-making equipment, the Gear Works inventory included large mills and lathes that can be used for multiple machining projects.

Jeff Tomson, head of marketing at Machinists Inc., said it hopes to use the new capacity to build manufacturing equipment for the Boeing 777X and “hopefully the 797.”

For now, though, the Gear Works legacy will continue while missing a slice of its shop-floor expertise. It’s expansion for Machinists Inc. but contraction for the Machinists union.