Gem Chain Bar Focused on Innovation

by | Jun 5, 2024 | 2024, May/June 2024, Supplier Newsline, TimberWest Magazine

GRANGEVILLE, IDAHO – From a little town in Idaho, a small company with family roots manufactures a product that is sought after by loggers and logging equipment manufacturers around the world.

Gem Chain Bar owner Kim Peterson

Gem Chain Bar supplies global customers with harvester bars, replacement tips, sprockets, chain, and chain loops. The company is based in Grangeville, which is located in the lower half of the Idaho panhandle, just below the southeast corner of the Nez Perce Reservation. Gem Chain Bar employs 30 people working in two buildings with about 10,000 square feet under roof. Annual sales are in the range of multi-millions.

The company is led by owner Kim Peterson. The business was started by her late husband, Rick, and his father, ‘Pete’ Peterson, also deceased. The elder Peterson was a logger and also operated a shop, selling and repairing chainsaws. Rick earned a welding certificate from Lewis-Clark State College and then worked briefly at the Hanford nuclear site before going to work in logging.

A logger friend of Pete had one of the very first mechanical harvesters in the region. He asked Pete if they could repair the harvester saw bar, which Rick did. A few weeks later Rick was asked if he could make a new replacement bar for the harvester, and – with his expertise in welding, metal fabrication and blue prints – he started Gem Chain Bar and made a couple.

The harvester was manufactured by Wisconsin-based Timbco, at the time owned by founder Pat Crawford. On a visit to Idaho, Crawford noticed the different harvester bar and asked who had made it. That led to Gem Chain Bar manufacturing harvester bars for Timbco.

“It kind of ballooned from there,” recalled Peterson, as the growing business also began manufacturing harvester bars for other companies, such as Pierce Pacific and Waratah, makers of forestry attachments.

Her husband began working full-time in the business in 1991. Father and son worked in the business together for a few years before growth prompted them to begin hiring employees. Originally located in Kooskia, they relocated about 30-some miles south to Grangeville in 2005.

“When we first started, everything was done manually,” recalled Peterson. Bars were cut out with a torch and put through a grinding process to form the groove for the chain. The bar rails were heat-treated to temper and strengthen them. All of it was done by hand.

“It’s progressed a lot,” noted Peterson.

Cutting sheets of specialized through-hardened steel with water jet technology. Gem Chain Bar can manufacture harvester bars with the strongest material in the industry while maintaining hardness without any heat-affected zone.

 

 

Today the company uses advanced machinery and automation in its manufacturing processes. Gem Chain Bar purchased its first waterjet, a machine that uses high-pressure water and garnet to cut material, in 2007 and added its first milling machine in 2008. The investments in industrial equipment were a “game changer,” said Peterson. Gem Chain Bar now has 11 CNC milling machines, five of which are enhanced with robots that feed material.

In addition, the company uses a harder, more durable raw material that does not require heat-treating.

“We’ve done a lot of research, development and engineering,” said Peterson, “as well as creating and implementing automated processes.” The advanced technology and operations are “a far cry from what we started out with,” she acknowledged.

Harvester bars and sprockets for harvesters are the company’s primary products. Gem Chain Bar supplies bars and sprockets to 38 original equipment manufacturers around the world. Originally selling to loggers and equipment dealers in the Northwest, as the company grew it set up dealers throughout the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere. Its products now are exported to 16 countries on six continents, and it continues to sell through a global dealer network.

Gem Chain Bar buys steel from American mills, and all its milling equipment is American-made.

“Everything is made here in our shop,” noted Peterson. “It comes in as a raw material and goes out as a finished product. We don’t outsource any manufacturing processes.”

Gem Chain Bar is equipped with five robots for automated sprocket manufacturing – two Versabuilt/ABB robotic systems, two Universal Robot Systems, and one utilizing Midaco pallet changers.

“We’ve been told by numerous customers that being a solely in-house, made in the U.S.A. manufacturer is something to be proud of.”

Gem Chain Bar launched a new product line this year, its WearXtreme line of bars, which were in development for several years. The new bars were developed at the prodding of original equipment manufacturers and local customers who desired bars with even longer wear life. The bars are made from ballistic grade steel. They have a bigger sprocket in the tip, a more streamlined profile, more rivets in the bar/tip connection point and other features for improved durability and extended life.

The company initially worked with two original equipment manufacturers in the WearXtreme product development process, initially only supplying them to those customers, then began marketing them to other customers. The WearXtreme line is now publicly available to all customers in both ¾ and .404 bars.

Products are quality checked multiple times during each step of the manufacturing process, including machine laser probes, repeat bench specification testing, visual inspections, and thorough performance testing. The quality control team includes design staff, quality control technicians, and senior management.

Gem Chain Bar used to also provide repair of saw bars but discontinued that segment of the business in recent years. “It’s very time consuming,” noted Peterson. “Our main focus needs to be manufacturing.” Requests for repairs are referred to a local business partner.

Having strong relationships with customers has been an important factor in the company’s growth and success. “We build relationships,” said Peterson. “It’s more about how can we work with them, listen to what they’re saying, and improve the product to make it better.”

“It is a strong balance of: how is the business relationship best for them, and how is it best for us? Staying in regular contact and soliciting feedback makes a world of difference.”

On a recent new vendor conference call, the customer told Peterson, ‘I think this is the best vendor call I’ve ever had.’ Numerous customers have been with Gem for 20-30 years. And in some cases, those business relationships have become personal friendships.

Many original equipment manufacturers have their brand name on the Gem harvester bars. “We’re happy to brand our products for our customers,” said Peterson, “flattered that they trust our quality enough to have us put their name on our products.”

“We are a company that is willing to work with our customers to create something that works for them,” said Peterson, “a product they’re going to sell, something they can be proud of, that will be reliable and work well for them.”

“Having those solid relationships with our customers has been huge for us. They’re not just a number out there that we’re trying to make money off. We want it to be a two-way street of mutual benefit.”

The employee culture at Gem Chain Bar is one of collaboration.

“A lot of past and present employees comment on our business culture,” said Peterson. “We’re not a huge corporation. We empower our employees to be part of the product design and manufacturing process. We come to a decision as a group about the best course of action. We work together as a company and a true team. We strive to foster that collaboration with both our internal (employees) and external customers.”

(For more information about Gem Chain Bar products, visit www.gemchainbar.com.)

Tim Cox

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