Located in Gladstone, MI,Marble Armshas been manufacturing gun sights and other wares since 1892. Gun sights are the company’s most enduring product, but they also produce knives, axes, compasses, matchboxes and scopes.
marble arms
Marble Arms has been manufacturing gun sights and other wares since 1892. Photo courtesy Marble Arms

For more than a century, workers there made sights by hand. In 2010, Marble Arms decided to automate the process to increase productivity. The company turned to Lake Superior State University’s Product Development Center (LSSU-PDC) for help. Marble Arms had learned of LSSU-PDC through the Michigan Small Business and Technology Development Center (MiSBTDC).

Funding for the project came from two sources: the Michigan Initiative for Innovation and Entrepreneurism (MIIE) and Northern Initiatives. MIIE awarded a Product Commercialization and Manufacturing Center grant to the LSSU-PDC, which used a portion of the grant for this project.

Northern Initiatives is a private, nonprofit community development corporation that provides entrepreneurs with access to capital, information and markets. Marble Arms received funding from Northern Initiatives after submitting a business plan written in conjunction with MiSBTDC.

“Automating the assembly of flip-up gun sights was a complicated task requiring the handling of several small parts,” says Eric Becks, one of the center’s engineering project managers.

Becks and fellow manager David Leach led the automation project, which involved several steps. Initially, LSSU engineering students developed an animated functional design of gun-sight parts on computers using 3D CAD software. Next, the various parts were made using CNC equipment, and prototypes were printed on 3D printers.

The LSSU-PDC students then assembled the prototype parts using an industrial PLC, which receives information from various sensors to detect that the parts are where they should be in the assembly process. With the parts properly located, the PLC program drives motors, actuators and a rotary table to complete gun sight assembly. A touch screen display allows the operator to control the action.

“All of our parts are very small and tedious to work with,” says Craig Lauerman, president of Marble Arms. “Being able to automate our process has saved us labor costs, but also prevented potential carpal tunnel issues and fatigue.”

While some may cringe at the thought of losing jobs due to automation, this project had the opposite effect. No assemblers lost their jobs because this was a new project, says Lauerman. Rather, it has given Marble Arms the opportunity to expand its business and hire new employees in other supporting areas.

“The assembly machine has allowed us to price the part competitively,” says Lauerman. “So when we received the order, we were able to hire four other machine operators to machine the component parts.”

“This sort of project engages our engineering students in real-world
development while making an economic impact,” says Becks. “Our PDC student workers can graduate and point to a list of real engineering experiences that they’ve gained while completing their studies at LSSU.”

In 2011, Marble Arms worked with the LSSU-PDC to automate another high-volume part that mates two small components together. Lauerman says workers assemble 250,000 of these parts every year.

For more information on the LSSU-PDC, call 906-635-2738 or visit www.issu.edu.