From the August 2022 print edition
A common component in the manufacturing and industrial applications is bearings. These steel powerhouses play important roles in operating of machinery, like reducing friction, maintaining alignment or supporting loads. They come in several sizes, from massive spheres used in wind turbines to smaller versions for conveyor systems on production lines or distribution centres.
Bearings have evolved the last 20 years in composition, technological functionality and sustainability. Another growing product option is the hybrid bearing. It combines a steel ring with rolling ceramic components. This format can be interchanged with traditional all-steel bearings for improved reliability and excellent electrical insulation properties. Hybrid bearings have a higher speed capability and are more resistant to abrasive particles. This means a longer life than all-steel bearings.
Plastic bearings made from polymer-based materials like Nylon and Teflon have grown in popularity due to their benefits in less demanding applications where stresses like temperatures are less frequent. Plastic bearings are stronger, more corrosion resistant, need lubrication less often and last longer.
Nylon is common in applications needing quieter operations and higher-than-average abrasion resistance. Nylon bearings offer better wear resistance, making them good alternatives to all-steel bearings. Teflon or PTFE bearings offer the advantages of a low-friction material plus higher-than-average self-lubrication. Teflon bearings are often used in applications with high exposure levels to water or chemicals. But they can be more expensive then metal-based bearings.
An increasingly common bearing material is phenolics, which provides strength and shock resistance to acid and water, making them ideal for demanding applications in water turbines, ship engines or electrical switchgear. Lastly, Delrin, used in automotive and industrial applications where water resistance at low cost makes it an alternative to steel.
The growing interest in incorporating technology into static devices like bearings is shifting towards mass industrial adoption. While new, including IOT (internet of things) in bearings lets users monitor bearing performance and conditions, for example vibration analysis, loads, speeds and temperatures. This technology can help with maintenance, as many systems provide real-time data to track performance and keep maintenance on schedule.
Select industries are adopting IOT in bearings, including agriculture and wind energy. This will continue, especially as the automotive industry embraces it. With the growth of electric vehicles, the time is near for multi-purpose bearings such as IOT enabled bearings, as EVs have fewer moving parts than combustion-engine powered cars, requiring fewer bearings. However, the limited number of bearings now in the car demands more functionality for greater energy efficiency and reduced fuel consumption. Remote monitoring, while beneficial for some applications, isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach across industries and the technology is still limited.
Advances in lubricants
The related bearing lubricant category has also evolved and there’s an increased focus on sustainability. Examples of this include biodegradable grease, water lubricated bearings and the correct processing of lubricant waste. Biodegradable grease and water lubricated bearings provide “greener” choices, as these options are less harmful to the environment and employees. As with any hazardous waste, there is more scrutiny when processing oil-based products. It’s essential to use licensed waste management companies to collect and dispose of used lubricants due to the growing customer interest in sustainability and the strict regulatory guidelines and associated fines.
For bearings and lubricant purchasers, align the application with the material. As demonstrated above, each material provides a different level of load applications, temperature tolerances and durability that can impact its overall performance.
Additional best practices include development of a lubrication program and having a proper storage system. For a lubrication program, identifying each component’s unique needs is paramount. These can include types of greases versus oils, along with how often bearings are lubricated. In addition, ensuring that training is included in the program is critical so that correct procedures are followed for maintenance, usage and inspection.
All of this contributes to equipment longevity and employee safety. Too much or too little lubrication can impact friction levels, which can cause excess wear and tear or accumulation of dirt and debris, leading to higher temperatures.
There is a balance to identifying correct lubrication levels and frequency. A well-organized and labelled storage system is critical in ensuring the correct lubricants are used, especially when bulk lubricants are packaged in similar formats, confusing users that don’t reviewing the labelling carefully.
Organization and labelling can also help inventory management, as properly labelled inventory can be easily identified and accounted for instead of ordering unnecessary inventory due to poor storage practices. Adequate storage space is key in a lubrication program. This can include criteria such as indoor versus outdoor space or covered versus uncovered spaces. These can help maintain lubricant performance due to temperature changes, water exposure or contact with light.
The bearing and lubrication industry is not immune to the global supply chain issues started by the COVID-19 pandemic. Like others, the industry faced raw material and labor shortages, since early on they were directed to produce more urgently needed products like PPE or other healthcare and medical devices. These shortages, coupled with escalating freight costs, drove not only massive price increases but exasperated the situation as organizations would order more than they needed to hedge against any future supply chain issues. This caused a demand cycle that outpaced supply.
There are possible alternatives to mitigate supply chain challenges, including researching substitutions. Pivoting between different suppliers or products offers flexibility to smooth out price swings as well as mitigating product shortages, which is critical in many JIT industries like automotive.
Bearings and lubricants have progressed in performance and material structure, in part due to performance requirements and changing customer expectations, as well as partially due to long-term supply chain concerns. Although a relatively simple component of a much larger system, the bearing and its associated lubricants remain vital to many industries, from energy to automotive to warehousing and most everything in between. They will continue to adapt as market demands shift and new technologies arise.