Introduction: Making a 2-Speed Custom Gearbox

This tutorial will show how I created a custom 2-speed shifting gearbox.  As a student in the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC), I became heavily involved with designing and building my team’s drivetrain and chassis.  Though the chassis was custom designed and fabricated, we always used commercially produced gearboxes due to time and resource constraints.  As I looked at some other teams’ robots, I was amazed by their beautiful custom gearboxes that perfectly fulfilled their design goals.  Seeing these other designs inspired me to try making one of my own, even though producing it would be impractical for my team during the actual build season.
This project was really just me having fun before I graduated from my high school, where I had access to the machining equipment necessary to complete the project.  Unfortunately, I did not have enough time to finish all of the parts.  However, I do have enough to give a very clear idea of what it will look like.  Though the gearbox was designed to be used on a FRC robot, it will probably never see use.

This tutorial was made through the Autodesk FIRST High School Intern program.
Aluminum Plate
Aluminum Tube
Aluminum Hex Bar
The PDF attached to this step is a complete Bill of Materials for this project.  It includes information such as the quantity, cost, material type, and vendor for many of the required parts.
CNC Mill
Band Saw
3D Printer
Socket Wrench
Hex Wrench

Step 1: Designing the Gearbox

The design of this gearbox was heavily inspired by other FRC teams who posted pictures or full 3D models of their designs.  Admittedly, I am not the most creative designer (steal from the best, invent the rest, right?), so the inspiration is fairly obvious.  In particular, the design was inspired by Team 254 and Team 973, who have been gracious enough to share their designs.
I designed my gearbox entirely in Autodesk Inventor before purchasing a single part.  I started by choosing a gear ratio (which you can learn more about here), and then ensured that there would be no clearance issues between the rotating parts using the sketch shown in the second picture.  This sketch also helped me define the exact shape of the gearbox plates.  From there, I designed the rest of the gearbox, part by part.  Throughout the design process, I had to ensure that I could make each part that I designed on the tools available to me.

Step 2: Milled Parts

There were a total of four parts that needed to be milled, each of which was distinct.  Using a CNC mill to machine the parts requires the creation of G-code to control the tool.  I did this by taking the 3D models I created in Inventor and importing them into the Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM) program MasterCAM.  After defining how I wanted the mill to machine my parts, I set them up on the CNC mill in the first picture.  The next four pictures are of the parts I made using the mill.  Finally, the sixth picture is of a workholding jig I printed out on a 3D printer to hold one of the parts while it was being machined.

Step 3: Lathed Parts

Next I had to make several parts on a lathe.  These parts were the spacers that separate the gearbox and the axles that the gears spin on.  I used the small bench top lathe pictured to machine all of these parts.

Photo Credit:

Step 4: 3D Printed Parts

The final set of parts were made using a 3D printer.  This manufacturing method was chosen because the parts would not experience high loads and because they may have been tricky to machine using traditional methods.

Photo Credit:

Step 5: Purchased Parts

These two pictures are of all of the parts I purchased, instead of machined, to make this gearbox.  The three suppliers I purchased parts from are McMaster Carr, AndyMark, and WestCoast Products.

Now, we can begin assembling the gearbox.

Step 6: Motor Assembly

First, we must assemble the motor.  The second picture shows how to place the plastic spacer on the shaft and insert the key into the motor shaft's keyway.  Now, the 12 tooth pinion gear can be slid on, followed by pressing on the retainer ring using a 3/8" socket wrench, as shown in pictures three through five.  Repeat this process for each of the CIM motors.

Step 7: Motor and Bearing Installation

Next, we install the motors on the aluminum plate.  Simply insert the motors into their holes, line up the screw holes, and tighten a self locking 10-32x.5" screw into each of the holes, as shown in the first three pictures.

We also have to press several 3/8" bearings into place.  Pictures four through six show the three locations where these bearings are installed.

Step 8: Output Shaft Assembly

Now we will assemble the output shaft and place it in the gearbox.  First, we must install the e-clip ring in the center of the shaft.  I did this by pressing down on the ring with the shaft against a hard surface, as shown in the first picture.  Pictures two and three show how I slid the dog shifting gear, 45 tooth dog gear, and small 3D printed spacer onto one end of the shaft.  Next, I slid the output shaft into the lower bearing on the previously assembly plate, as shown in picture four.  Finally, pictures five through seven show how to install the 60 tooth dog gear and 16 tooth sprockets on the 1/2" hex shaft.

Step 9: Case Assembly

In this step, we will assemble the rest of the gearbox case.  First, I pressed the final 3/8" bearing into the center top hole shown in the first picture.  In the second and third pictures, I placed the aluminum spacers in their holes on the first plate and then aligned the second plate with the spacers.  The gearbox plates have shoulders for the spacers to ensure that the plates are aligned.  Next, I slid the four 3.5" 10-32 screws through the four holes shown in the fourth picture.  In the fifth picture, I used a 5/32 hex wrench to tighten the bolts that screwed into the motors.  Then, I used a socket wrench to install nylock nuts on the remaining two bolts.  This setup and its result are shown in the sixth and seventh pictures.

Step 10: Bearing Block Assembly

Now we will install the bearing block, which will support the output shaft and would be used in connecting the gearbox on a robot.  I first slid the large 3D printed spacer on the hex shaft, as shown in picture one.  Next, I slid the bearing block into the milled shoulder on the front gearbox plate.  I then inserted and tightened down the two 1.5" 10-32 countersunk screws using a 1/8" hex wrench, as shown in the third picture.  Finally, I installed the 1/2" hex bearing by sliding it onto the shaft and into the the bearing raceway on the bearing block.  This process is shown in the fourth and fifth pictures.

Step 11: Final Assembly

In this final step, we will install the wheel and several snap rings.  First, I pressed on the 3/8" snap ring at the end of the output shaft shown in the first picture by pressing down on it with a flat bladed screwdriver, as shown in the second picture.  I then slid the 4" aluminum wheel onto the output shaft as seen in the third picture.  Finally, I installed the 1/2" snap ring at the front of the output shaft. I did this by first placing it on the grove as in picture four and then pressing down on it with a flat object, such as a screwdriver.

The installation of the 1/2" snap ring is as close to completion of the gearbox as this tutorial can go.  Unfortunately, I ran out of time to manufacture several of the necessary parts, leaving the gearbox in an incomplete state.

Step 12: Finished Product, Lessons Learned

The pictures above show my gearbox as it exists currently.  There are still two major sections missing: the top shaft, where all the gear reduction occurs, and the shifting mechanism, which shifts gears by alternating which gear on the bottom shaft is transmitting torque.  I plan to finish these the parts for these two sections when I have access to the necessary materials and machine tools.

Here are some lessons I learned from making this gearbox:
  • Ensure that you have sized holes properly for bolts and motors - I ended up having to modify the holes the CIMs are mounted in by manually sanding them down.
  • Control tool chatter when milling parts - resulted in a few parts with bad surface finishes and even caused some parts to be over-sized
  • When used properly, CAD is an incredibly powerful tool.  Because of it, I didn't have to redo a single part for reasons other than manufacturing errors.
Even though it is not yet finished, I am quite pleased with how my gearbox has turned out.


liuwei made it!(author)2014-10-09


mmmdieselfumes made it!(author)2012-08-16

Are you required to use DC motors? Just curious, because although I've always been interested in building robots, I've never built one (directed my free-time to things of a combustible nature lol).

I'm asking because my company manufactures high torque (in the hundreds of ft/lbs) AC brush-less motors of comparable size, that I can envision being quite effective in applications such as this, especially with torque multiplication.

snowluck2345 made it!(author)2013-12-27

The motors and speed controllers you are allowed to use are very limited. Most of those brushless hobby motors are infact DC.

Abarth15 made it!(author)2013-06-23

Is the role of the 3D printed spacer in the output shaft bearing block just to ensure that it is concentric to the shaft?

simonrafferty made it!(author)2012-08-21

You've done a very nice job of implementing this gearbox - it looks beautiful!

A technology woth looking at for the gear-shift is a 'ball clutch' which can be engaged & disengaged / gear change while moving.

They are used in sequential shift gearboxes - but are very simple to make. You leave all the gears engaged all the time - and just select which one to take the drive from. They require little force to change gear - well within the range of an RC servo for example.

Just a thought!


-chase- made it!(author)2012-08-18

Now that i just might need... hmmm... (thinking)

thanx for sharing.

- chase -

majus00 made it!(author)2012-08-16

Hi, ever thought of using a planetary gear to connect both motors to the wheel so you dont need to switch between them ?

mmmdieselfumes made it!(author)2012-08-16

Great "ible" by the way!

FIRSTIntern made it!(author)2012-08-16

No, I actually hadn't. The biggest problem with planetary gear-trains is that they are generally less efficient than traditional spur gears.
It's also not the motors that I'm switching between, but instead gears. It's just like changing gears in a car - as you shift up, your car is able to go faster, but doesn't have as much torque.

thinkdunson made it!(author)2012-08-16

Good lord, if the school I mentored had those tools we would have done much better. About all we had was a drill press and various power tools. The crap any Joe Schmo might have at home. It was so bad, I actually bought a cordless dremel and various attachments for them to use.

However, having said that, you're certainly head and shoulders above what any of them were capable of. Just please don't let the absence of tools discourage you.

steveastrouk made it!(author)2012-08-16

Why have you used two motors ?

FIRSTIntern made it!(author)2012-08-16

Using two motors doubles the gearbox's torque output. This allows the robot it drives to accelerate faster and push harder.
In the FIRST Robotics Competition, teams are allowed to use four of this type of the motor. Since it is the most powerful motor allowed, teams generally dedicate all four to driving the robot, where the power is needed.

steveastrouk made it!(author)2012-08-16

There are power limits on your motors then ?

Are you going to shift it, or use EM clutches ? Done on the high speed size, EM clutches would easily shift the torques you will get from those motors.

FIRSTIntern made it!(author)2012-08-16

Yeah, we're essentially given a list of motors we are allowed to use for the competition.

This design uses a pneumatic piston to shift between a high torque, low speed gear and a high speed, low torque gear. I don't think an EM clutch (had to look them up) would be appropriate for the application - it seems like they either transfer full torque or no torque.

steveastrouk made it!(author)2012-08-16

That's right, thereby shifting power from the motor through one gear train or the other. Sure, you'd need two, but they are very compact, and you wouldn't have any chance of wrenching teeth off your gears, since your pickup would be relatively gradual.

streak70 made it!(author)2012-08-16

Outstanding! Best of luck with your studies in college. We have experienced problems with young graduate engineers who test well but probably have never built a doghouse or model airplane, You should be head and shoulders above them.

Blacksedan47 made it!(author)2012-08-16

Kid, you are amazing, did you stay back 30 years or something, i applaud you, your parents and your school system. We couldnt even get supplies in auto shop and our machine shop was left overs from the Civil war. How you can be so smart and have skills to pull off close tolerenes on a lathe is amazing. Let us know when you develop the first cyborg. keep up the great work

Mr+Williams made it!(author)2012-08-14

Thank you so much for posting an Instructable associated with FIRST! This makes me incredibly happy. I'm with team 1332 in Collbran, Colorado.

Although I don't think it would be legal to use this exact gearbox on a robot, since it was designed during the offseason. It would have to be modified and build during a season for it to be legally used on a robot...but no one follows those rules anyway! Thanks for the design!

FIRSTIntern made it!(author)2012-08-14

I'm glad you thought it was cool!
As for using the design, I believe that would be allowed, since it is now publicly available. Definitely can't use the actual thing, but I think the design (or a modified version of it) could be used.

lewisb42 made it!(author)2012-08-14

I'm 37 years old and have never designed nor built a gear box. Well done! The engineering and science departments at every university should be clamoring for you.

FIRSTIntern made it!(author)2012-08-14

Thank you for your compliments! I am glad that you find my writing understandable - it's a skill that I've been working to improve the past couple of years.
As for designing a gearbox yourself, it is a fun challenge that I would recommend trying if you're interested in mechanical design. I learned a lot by looking at gearboxes that other people designed.

lewisb42 made it!(author)2012-08-14

If I may further heap praise, you write very well for someone your age. This is priceless in any profession, but especially so in STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, math).

rimar2000 made it!(author)2012-08-13

Your work is impressive, congratulations!

I don't understand why you don't use an electronic volts-amps controller to vary the speed and power of the DC motor.

Radioactive_Legos made it!(author)2012-08-13

An electronic speed controller is in fact used to control these motors on the robots in the FIRST Robotics Competition, but often times a 2-speed gearbox is a good solution for more torque in the event of a brief pushing match. Similarly, it's good to be able to get into a higher gear if your robot needs to get from one side of the playing field to another (54 feet).

rimar2000 made it!(author)2012-08-14

OK, thanks for the axplanation.

FIRSTIntern made it!(author)2012-08-14

Radioactive_Legos hit the nail on the head - you use H-Bridge motor controllers to control the DC motors and then use the shifting to alternate between high torque and and high speed.
For this gearbox, low gear is about 6 ft/s while high gear is about 15 ft/s. However, low gear can push about 2.5 times harder before blowing the circuit breakers that regulate current to the motors.

Radioactive_Legos made it!(author)2012-08-13

Very nice! What team were you on? I'm currently a member of Team 100

FIRSTIntern made it!(author)2012-08-14

Thanks, I was a member of Team 2374 up here in Oregon, but since I've graduated I haven't really been associated with a team. I'm planning to mentor one of the teams near my college if I have time.

sredamama made it!(author)2012-08-14

oh, its interesting!

About This Instructable




Bio: This summer I am working with Autodesk to make Instructables about the FIRST Robotics Competition. I will be studying mechanical engineering at Oregon State University ... More »
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