Bearings and beyond

Written by: Paul Fanning | Published:

What are the future technological directions for SKF? Paul Fanning asks Dr Alan Begg, the group's senior vice president, technology development & quality.

When someone is head of technology for one of the world's leading bearing companies, it comes as something of a surprise to hear them say: "When I was first approached for the job and I started thinking about bearings, I must admit that I thought 'Well surely there can't be very much technology in bearings?'" Naturally, this is not an attitude Dr Alan Begg, senior vice president group technology development & quality at SKF, still holds.

Indeed, he says: "The more you get into it, the more you realise how many really advanced technologies there are. The performance you have to get out of bearings is absolutely staggering – the quality of the steel we use, the quality of the surface finish, or the knowledge of the lubrication and surface conditions that we have."

That Dr Begg should find himself so enthused by the technology should not be surprising given his background. "I'm a techie guy through and through", he says and a brief glance at his CV would appear to bear this out. With a degree and a PhD in metallurgy from Cambridge, he spent much of his career in BP's research centre looking at the development of advanced materials, while in 2004, he set up 'The Automotive Academy' (since superseded by the National Skills Academy).

Since taking up his role with SKF in 2007, he has taken over responsibility for all of the central technical activities within the SKF Group and is indirectly responsible for all technological product development goes on throughout the divisions. He has direct responsibility for all the technology research ( largely done in a research centre in Holland) and for manufacturing process development in Gothenburg, Sweden. This role means that Dr Begg has had to assess SKF's technological needs with an eye to the future.

This has led him to explore increasing links with academia. This was an area in which he felt SKF's strategy offered room for improvement. "SKF has always spent quite a lot of money in universities to support its technical activities round the world," he says. "But we've always spent it in a slightly ad hoc way – supporting projects here and there or a PhD here and there in as many as 50 universities.

"When I joined SKF and I looked at the amount of money we were spending, I said I thought we should continue to do that to a certain extent, but in addition to that, I said we should focus some of our spend on some of the most critical areas for SKF. I said we should follow a model piloted by Rolls-Royce probably around 30 years ago now. I think they now have more than 20 university technical centres around the world."

This approach, Dr Begg believes, offered a number of advantages. He says: "If, rather than supporting one or two PhDs, you start supporting five or six people in a department, then first of all, you start getting the department's attention in a way that you don't if you're only supporting one or two people. Secondly, you get the opportunity – and Rolls-Royce has been brilliant at this – to leverage your funding by bringing in partners around this big activity that you've started. So you get EU funding or British government funding or funding from another partner.

Rolls-Royce has been absolutely brilliant at this and I'm pretty blatantly copying them – with their knowledge and approval, I might add!" The result of this approach has been the establishment of two 'University Technology Centres', which look at technologies that are key to SKF's business. The first of these is in Cambridge with the Cambridge University Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy to study steel and heat treatment.

The initial contract is for five years and will pioneer research, directed by SKF, on steels and heat treatment associated with advanced bearing technology.This came about in part because SKF had to sell its steel company (Ovako) for strategic reasons ("Basically, no other steel company in the world would work with us while we had our own steel company.

They just believed that all the information they gave us would go straight to them," says Dr Begg) and lost some expertise in the field as a consequence. The reasons for steel being so high on the agenda for SKF are fairly clear, says Begg: "The performance of the steel is absolutely critical to the performance of our products… And we're taking conscious steps to try and rebuild our knowledge within our research centre, but it also seemed that we needed more fundamental understanding."

More recently, SKF opened another Centre, this time at Imperial College London and devoted to research into tribology (the science of friction, wear and lubrication). Again, Dr Begg points out, this is an area of massive concern to SKF, concerning as it does the key question of how a bearing really performs at the point of contact.

This strategy will continue, according to Begg, who says: "What we're really trying to do is identify world-leading universities (and in any league table Cambridge and Imperial are in the top 10) So we're really trying to target world-leading departments in their field to give us that basic underpinning and knowledge that will be complementary with the work we do within that sphere. So it's ultimately about giving ourselves a competitive advantage. It's something we are looking to do more of. Certainly it's our intention in our five most critical technologies to have five University Technology Centres."

While it is not yet certain where these new Centres will be, the areas on which they will focus are more certain. "The next one will probably be in non-metallic materials, while we are also looking at sensorisation/condition monitoring-type things. We're looking at those at the moment and are looking at a number of universities, although we're probably still about six months away from announcing our next one," says Begg.

Another possible clue to SKF's future technological directions is offered by Dr Begg when he points out that SKF's expertise extends beyond bearings. He says: "Before I joined, for instance, I had absolutely no idea that SKF makes a significant proportion of the world's fly-by-wire systems. It's a little French company, but it's part of the SKF group. We do some really advanced electronic solutions. And I think that some of our future will lie in combining our very advanced mechanical and very advanced electronic solutions and creating intelligent products, like bearings that will undertake more complex functions such as giving you more information all the time about their condition."

Dr Begg has held senior technical positions in major multinational companies in the UK and USA. After spending much of his early career in BP, he has headed up the technology functions in: T&N as Managing Director of the Group Technical Centre; Federal-Mogul as Vice President for Technology; and Morgan Crucible as Group Director of Technology. He joined SKF from the Automotive Academy in Birmingham, UK, a groundbreaking government and industry skills partnership, where he is Chief Executive Officer. Dr Begg, 52, has a PhD in Metallurgy from Cambridge University. He is also Fellow Royal Academy of Engineering, an Honorary Professor at the University of Birmingham and a member of the UK Government's Technology Strategy Board.

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