Bal-tec in L.A. Business Journal

Helping make the world go round

Manufacturer's sphere of influence has become global, by Benjamin Mark Cole

Since 1952, at his factory in south Los Angeles, Gene Gleason has proved there is a living in making and selling balls - at least if the customer is roundly treated as king.

After nearly 40 years in the sphere trade, Gleason's company, Bal-tec Inc., has emerged as the Southland's leading manufacturer and purveyor of ball bearings and other specialty balls, servicing 6,000 accounts around the globe and chalking up about $1 million in annual sales.

Gleason's motto, which rolls off his tongue often: "Don't decide what kind of business you can do, find out what the customer wants and figure out a way to do it."

Pursuant to his creed, Gleason will sell one stainless steel ball with a 14 inch diameter, or satisfy an insistent demand for 6 billion yes, "b" as in billion titanium balls of 0.028 inch diameter, polished to a mirror finish to boot. At the demanded size, there were 45,552 balls in one cubic inch.

"It was a medical institution in Texas that wanted the titanium balls," recalls Gleason, 61. "When I asked what they wanted the balls for, they answered, 'None of your damn business.' You don't win customers snooping around."

New uses of balls are often a trade secret, says Gleason, although he notes that Swedish neurosurgeons have ordered similar titanium balls. "The balls had to be very smooth, so the body wouldn't reject, them," he says. (Local medical experts at UCLA hazarded guesses that the balls would be injected into brains and used to "obliterate abnormal blood vessels.") Standing in his warehouse, Gleason, 61, is happily encircled by his product, which seems never ending in its variety, within the constant of globularity.

There are balls made of cast iron, brass, bronze, aluminum (Gleason says he knows of nobody else domestically who makes aluminum balls), steel (more than 100 types), and titanium. Some balls have mirrored surfaces, some are grooved, and some are rough-surfaced.

There are also spheres of niobium (a superconducting metal, which carries electricity at 460 degrees below zero, Fahrenheit), alnico (a mix of aluminum, nickel and cobalt), and ceramics such as aluminum oxide or silicon nitride. Some balls are hollow.

A favorite of Gleason's is silicon carbide, a ceramic from which his machines produce lustrous dark grey marbles actually super hard, wear resistant bearings, used in precision engineering.

"When I finish making these, I feel more like a jeweler than a ball manufacturer," Gleason gushes. "I often take the balls home and look at them. I had a pair of earrings made for my wife out of silicon nitride, a black ceramic." Gleason wants more and more people to place orders with him.

A particular source of pride is his $15.00 minimum purchase. "There is a ball maker in Great Britain that told me they just don't fill orders for less than $125. They found it unprofitable." he sneers, his eyes rolling in his head. "I hate not to fill an order."

Gleason has carved out a niche in international ball markets by servicing the jobs nobody else wants, and delivering quickly, he says. By tackling the hard jobs with his staff of 24, his sphere of influence has become global, he says.

"People don't want to make aluminum balls. The metal is soft, they are hard to make. People don't like to make titanium balls. It has a hexagonal structure (the molecular make-up of the metal) and it tends to rip along the hexagonal planes. But I make balls out of any material not hazardous to my workers."

Among other oddball orders, Gleason struggled to make lithium balls for the Pasadena based Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Lithium is a metal that becomes highly volatile around even small amounts of moisture, such as humidity in the air. Balls were exploding under the grinding.

It looked like an order that couldn't be filled a real-life Myth of Sisyphus for Gleason to somehow make the balls.

"Then, around midnight, I got a stroke of genius. We sealed up our factory, and ran the air through our (industrial) air conditioners twice, reducing the humidity to 2 percent," recalls Gleason. "Otherwise, the balls were just flaring up when we worked on them."

At Gleason's Bal-tec plant on Slauson Boulevard, customer orders are entered into the company computer, and spit out on a label documenting the type and quantity of balls ordered. Bar codes are used, and about 70 orders were being serviced on a recent day.

Gleason's computers are programmed with information on the weight of various types of balls, meaning most orders can be filled by weighing, rather than counting, the balls. Working with a scale, Gleason's daughter Patricia can fill orders quickly, from stocks of balls stored in oil.

The smallest balls Gleason has made were 0.008 of an inch, roughly twice as thick as a human hair. "When balls are that small, static electricity plays havoc with them," comments Gleason. "If you try to pick them up with tweezers, under a microscope, they'll fly in every direction."

Those balls were made for industrial giant Westinghouse. where engineers wanted to know if they could measure, by X-ray, tiny voids within zirconium, a softish metal used to clad fuel rods in nuclear power plants.

Westinghouse took Gleason's tiny spheres and squeezed them in a zirconium sandwich. The 0.008" balls left spherical impressions, and X-rays were successfully used to measure the resulting voids, says Gleason.

Another source of pride to Gleason are his 100-plus ball grinding machines, many of German design, and most controlled by computer.

By careful use of man and machine, Gleason now logs 70 machine-hours of ball grinding for every one hour of paid labor. "Do you understand how important that is?" he implores. "We have Japanese asking us, 'How do you do it? How do you sell balls so cheap, and turn around orders so quickly?' "

All about Gleason's workshop is exotic looking equipment for measuring the perfectness of balls, which Gleason calls the balls' "sphericity."

One device rotates a measuring device around a ball and simultaneously draws a circle called a polar chart representing ball imperfections, magnified 20,000 times. The process is done three times along the ball's orthogonal axis.

Another device is so sensitive that it has a plastic shield in place to keep breath away from the ball undergoing measurement. "The heat from your breath will increase the size of the ball," explains Gleason.

Making a perfect ball is not so easy, advises Gleason. "There is the geometry or sphericity, measured by the orthogonal axis, then the waviness of the surface of a ball, and the roughness of the texture of the surface of a ball," explains Gleason, who earned an engineering degree from UCLA in 1952. "To truly comment on a ball, you have to know those three things, in addition to the size of the ball. its hardness and what it is made of."

Adds Gleason, "You know, sometimes I get so deeply into this work, that I think of nothing else. But I don't want you to think I am an oddball."

From The Los Angeles Business Journal, Vol 13, Number 12, March 25, 1991, reprinted with permission

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