Are bearings really such a bad investment?

Explosive growth in the offshore wind sector and aggressive renewables targets in India are expected to drive a ten-year CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) of 12.2% in Asia Pacific. Here, Chris Johnson of bearing supplier SMB Bearings explains why, quite frankly, you should set no store in this information whatsoever.

The dental chair market is expected to grow at 5% CAGR over the next five years. Meanwhile the electric toothbrush market is looking at 7.4%. The global refrigeration oil market is expecting a disappointing 4.2%, but expanded polystyrene is looking a bit healthier, at 5.2%.

Based on this data, it’s clear we should be investing our hard-earned cash in electric toothbrushes in the short term and Asian wind energy over a longer period. Sounds daft, doesn’t it? The trouble is, those are exactly the kind of nonsensical decisions we make in the manufacturing sector all too regularly.

The bearings market

The word ‘Barings’ has terrified investors for more than twenty years, but recently the word ‘bearings’ has also become a red flag to a bear market. For instance, Swedish manufacturer SKF has, despite delivering record profits, lowering costs and cutting debt in half, had a ‘sell’ rating applied by most analysts.

"I'm not doubting that a bearing is a highly engineered, mission critical device, but the technology has worked against them, in that it's become available to everyone," Andre Kukhnin of Credit Suisse Group AG told Bloomberg recently.

"To me, when the stock really works is on the inflection points, when demand has been bad and is about to improve," he argued.

While this has been happening, Germany’s Schaeffler AG has abandoned its profit targets and even lithe players in low employment-cost areas have struggled with share prices. For example, India’s Menon Bearings has also seen bearish momentum.

Miniature bearings

I’m not suggesting British industry is lost in a cloud of data from the stock market, negatively influencing our decisions about investment in manufacturing. Rather, it’s all too easy to get lost in the process of holistic business planning and forget the short and long-term benefits of doing the basics correctly to minimise downtime in a real-world manufacturing plant.

Should you be interested, the global miniature bearings market is set to rise by a CAGR of 7.62% by 2023. However, there are several good reasons why most people aren’t interested, the biggest being a lack of relevance to their actual jobs.

For instance, you might wish to join me in cheerfully admitting you too have no idea what a good CAGR for a global market is. Miniature bearings are clearly better than dental chairs, but not as good as Asian offshore wind energy, despite both of the latter being strong markets for the former.

Real world manufacturing

Most manufacturing plants cannot credibly argue they are more than 85% efficient. So, that 15% inefficiency becomes a margin that we can control.

Put simply, when the financial world is uncertain, making your own processes more efficient and effective is a sure-fire way of positively affecting your bottom line, no matter what is going on outside your factory doors.

Bearings basics

Despite the stock market being indecisive about bearings, there are four very clear steps you can take to ensure that, whether you are manufacturing food, pharmaceuticals or fishing reels, you can reduce downtime and improve efficiency on your own lines.

The first is to create a clear plan for bearing lubrication and replacement. You should ensure that, where bearings can be lubricated, you understand the correct amount and type of lubrication required for the specific application.

Too much grease can reduce the lifespan of the bearing, create seal failures and cause overheating as well as increased torque. Similarly, if too little grease is used, particularly in high-speed applications, the bearing will generate excess frictional heat and become damaged. A good rule is, most fill rates are 25% to 35% of the available space, but the best advice is to contact your bearing supplier, who will be able to advise on the exact requirements.

Our second step, regular inspection, will allow you to spot bearing failure before it occurs and can be timed to coincide with planned downtime or changeovers. Scheduled, predictive replacement as part of this process can yield impressive results and allow you to dodge potential failures. This is especially relevant in challenging environmental conditions, such as extremely high or low temperatures or highly corrosive environments.

Our friends in the Asian offshore wind power market should be particularly aware of predictive maintenance. Wind turbines provide a perfect example of an application that combines both highly corrosive atmospheric conditions and hard to access geography.

Early failure

Regular inspection can also allow for step three; early identification of the initial stages of bearing failure. Identifying future failures can allow plant managers and maintenance teams to easily save both time and money later.

For instance, a simple technique to identify if a mounted bearing is coming loose can reduce the risk of future downtime and, doesn’t have to cost more than an enamel marker pen. All you have to do is mark the inner side of the bearing and the shaft with a bright colour, separating the marks by between 90 and 180°.

When the machine is switched off, visual inspection will identify if the marks have started to move away from each other, suggesting maintenance is needed on a bearing that is coming loose. (The CAGR of the enamel marker pen market was unavailable at the time of writing — sorry.)

Getting it right first time

Naturally, one of the best methods for avoiding bearing failure is choosing the right bearings in the first instance. Working with the design team and systems integrator to ensure they select the right bearing can be the key to long term machine profitability. The same is true when the MRO team re-specifies a bearing, making bearing selection our fourth step.

The primary benefit is predictability; if you choose the right product first time round, it’s easy to estimate its lifetime, performance and lubrication needs. The wrong bearing can be like a bucking bronco, offering wildly different performance and making it almost impossible to integrate into a predictive maintenance plan.

There’s a lot to consider when selecting a bearing, but material should be your first specification. Stainless steel, for instance, is ideal for use in applications where there is a risk of corrosion, such as food, chemical or pharmaceutical processing, and 316 grade stainless steel can operate at very high temperatures.

However, if the application requires reduced friction and weight, ceramic bearings can be used, thanks to their ability to function in harsh environments even more effectively than stainless steel. However, their high price point means they should be used only where the application truly demands it.

Plastic bearings can be perfect for light loads, low speeds and low temperatures, where resistance to moisture and corrosion is an advantage, such as washdown applications.

As well as material, shaft size, lubrication, environment, access and friction are other core issues to consider during specification. It pays to build your own library of bearing FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) so that, when you are talking to a bearing specialist who is helping with specification process, you will be speaking the same language.

A bad investment?

The inevitable conclusion one must draw, based on the potential for reduced downtime, increased production and higher profits, is that improved bearing specification and maintenance is the ideal investment for anyone concerned with manufacturing efficiency.

This remains true, despite the nervous market and a range of predicted CAGRs so baffling, that you might need to go back to school to CUWTA (Catch Up With The Acronyms). The answers to our productivity problems can, as always, be found on the shop floor, not the trading floor.