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History of Ball Bearings
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History of Ball Bearings

The invention of the rolling bearing, in the form of wooden rollers supporting, or bearing, an object being moved has been around for many years, and may even predate the invention of the wheel.

It is a widely held belief that this method was used to move the stones at Stonehenge and many other standing stone structures around the globe.

It is often claimed that the Egyptians used roller bearings in the form of tree trunks under sleds, this is nothing more than modern speculation. They are depicted in their own drawings in the tomb of one of their Pharoahs as moving massive stone blocks on sledges with liquid lubricated runners which would constitute a plain bearing. There are also Egyptian drawings of bearings used with hand drills.

The earliest recovered example of a rolling element bearing is a wooden ball bearing supporting a rotating table from the remains of the Roman Nemi ships in Lake Nemi, Italy. The wrecks were dated to around 40 BC.

Leonardo da Vinci is known to have incorporated drawings of ball bearings in his design for a helicopter around the year 1500. This is the first recorded use of bearings in any aerospace design. However, Agostino Ramelli is the first to have published sketches of roller and thrust bearings. An issue with ball and roller bearings is that the balls or rollers rub against each other causing additional friction which can be reduced by enclosing the balls or rollers within a cage. The caged ball bearing was originally described by Galileo in the 17th century.

The first practical caged roller bearing was invented in 1740 by John Harrison for his H3 marine timekeeper. This uses the bearing for a very limited oscillating motion but Harrison also used a similar bearing in a truly rotary application in a contemporaneous regulator clock.

Bearings during the industrial era

The first modern recorded patent on ball bearings was awarded to a British inventor and ironmaster who created the first design for a ball bearing in 1794. His was the first modern ball bearing design, with the ball running along a groove in the axle assembly.

Bearings played a major role in the Industrial Revolution, allowing the new industrial machinery to operate efficiently. They saw a use for holding wheel and axle to greatly reduce friction over that of dragging an object by making the friction act over a shorter distance as the wheel was turned.

The first plain and rolling element bearings were made from wood and were closely followed by bronze. Over their history bearings have been made of many materials including ceramic, sapphire, glass, steel, bronze, other metals and even plastic, the plastic bearings are all used today.

Watch makers produce jeweled watches using sapphire plain bearings to reduce friction thus allowing far more precise time keeping. These watches can attract high value owing to their jewels.

Even the most basic materials can have excellent durability. A fine example is that of wooden bearings that can still be seen today in old clocks or in water mills where the water provides them with a cooling and lubrication effect.

The first patent for a radial style ball bearing was awarded to a Parisian bicycle mechanic in 1869. The bearings were then fitted to the winning bicycle ridden by James Moore in the worlds first bicycle road race, namely the Paris to Rouen race that was held in 1869.

In 1883, the founder of FAG, developed an approach for milling and grinding balls of equal size and exact roundness by means of a suitable production machine and formed the foundation for creation of an independent bearing industry.

The modern day self aligning design of ball bearing is clearly linked to the SKF ball bearing manufacturing company, who in 1907, wwere awarded Swedish patent No. 25406 on that particular design.

Similarly, a 19th century innovator in carriage manufacturing, patented the tapered roller bearing in 1898. The following year he formed a company to produce his innovation. Over a hundred years the company grew to make bearings of all types, including specialty steel and a selection of related products and services.

Back in 1934 Erich Franke invented and patented the wire race bearing. His main focus was on a bearing design with a cross section as small as possible and which could be integrated into the enclosing design. After the Second World War he co-founded the company of Franke and Heydrich KG, which is known today as Franke GmbH, with Gerhard Heydrich. The aim was to push the development and production of wire race bearings.

Richard Stribecks research on ball bearing steels successfully identified the metallurgy of the commonly used 100Cr6 AISI 52100, showing coefficient of friction as a function of pressure.

Designed in 1968 and later patented in 1972, Bishop-Wisecarvers co-founder Bud Wisecarver created vee groove bearing guide wheels. This was a type of linear motion bearing consisting of both an external and internal ninety degree vee angle.

In the early 1980s, Pacific Bearings founder, Robert Schroeder, invented the first bi material plain bearing which was size interchangeable with linear ball bearings. This bearing had a metal shell made from aluminum, steel or stainless steel and a layer of Teflon based material connected by a very thin adhesive layer.

Currently ball and roller bearings are used in many applications which include a rotating component. Examples include ultra high speed bearings in dental drills, aerospace bearings, vehicle gearbox and wheel bearings, flexure bearings in optical alignment systems, bicycle wheel hubs, and air bearings used in Coordinate measuring machines.

Most common bearing

Certainly the most common bearing today is the plain bearing, a bearing which uses surfaces in rubbing contact, often with a lubricant such as oil or possibly graphite. A plain bearing may or may not be a discrete device. It may be nothing more than the bearing surface of a hole with a shaft passing through it, or of a planar surface that bears another; or it may be a layer of bearing metal either fused to the substrate or in the form of a separable sleeve. With suitable lubrication, plain bearings often give entirely acceptable accuracy, life, and friction at minimal cost. Therefore, these are very widely used.

There are many applications where a more suitable bearing can improve efficiency, accuracy, service intervals, reliability, speed of operation, size, weight, and costs of purchasing and operating machinery. Thus, there are many types of bearings, with varying shape, material, lubrication, principle of operation, and so on.

Types of bearings

There are at least six common types of bearing, each operate on different principles:

  • Plain bearing - These bearings consist of a shaft rotating in a hole. There are several specific styles of plain bearings: bushing, journal bearing, sleeve bearing, rifle bearing, composite bearing.
  • Ball bearing - The most common in which the rolling elements are spherical balls.
  • Jewel bearing - These are a plain bearing in which one of the bearing surfaces is made of an ultrahard glassy jewel material such as sapphire to reduce friction and wear.
  • Magnetic bearing - These bearings ensure that the load is supported by a magnetic field.
  • Flexure bearing - These bearings ensure that the motion is supported by a load element which bends.
  • Fluid bearing - This is a non contact bearing in which the load is supported by a gas or liquid.
  • Roller bearing - These bearings have rolling elements which are cylindrical rollers.
  • Rolling-element bearing - These bearings have rolling elements placed between the turning and stationary races to prevent sliding friction.

Some different types of bearings

There are many different types of bearings. Newer versions of more enabling designs are in development being tested, in which will reduce friction, increase bearing load, increase momentum build up, and speed.

Plain bearing

Description - Rubbing surfaces, usually with lubricant; some bearings use pumped lubrication and behave similarly to fluid bearings.

Friction - Depends on materials and construction, PTFE has coefficient of friction of approximately 0.05 - 0.35, depending upon fillers added.

Stiffness - Good, provided wear is low, but some slack is normally present.

Speed - Low to very high.

Life - Low to very high - depends upon application and lubrication.

Further observations - Widely used, relatively high friction, suffers from stiction in some applications. Depending upon the application, lifetime can be higher or lower than rolling element bearings.

Rolling element bearing

Description - Ball or rollers are used to prevent or minimise rubbing.

Friction - Rolling coefficient of friction with steel can be approximately 0.005 Adding resistance due to seals, packed grease, preload and misalignment can increase friction to as much as 0.125.

Stiffness - Good, but some slack is usually present.

Speed - Moderate to high and will often requires cooling.

Life - Moderate to high, but depends on lubrication, often requires maintenance.

Further observations - Used for higher moment loads than plain bearings with lower friction.

Jewel bearing

Description - Off center bearing rolls in seating.

Friction - Low.

Stiffness - Low due to flexing.

Speed - Low.

Life - Adequate but requires maintenance.

Further observations - Mainly used in low load, high precision work such as clocks. Jewel bearings may be very small.

Fluid bearing

Description - Fluid is forced between two faces and held in by edge seal.

Friction - Zero friction at zero speed, low.

Stiffness - Very high.

Speed - Very high, although usually limited to a few hundred feet per second at/by seal.

Life - Virtually infinite in some applications, may wear at startup / shutdown in some cases. Often negligible maintenance.

Further observations - Can fail quickly due to grit or dust or other contaminants. Maintenance free in continuous use. Can handle very large loads with low friction.

Magnetic bearing

Description - Faces of bearing are kept separate by magnets.

Friction - Zero friction at zero speed, but constant power for levitation, eddy currents are often induced when movement occurs, but may be negligible if magnetic field is quasi static.

Stiffness - Low.

Speed - No practical limit.

Life - Indefinite and maintenance free.

Further observations - Active magnetic bearings need considerable power. Electrodynamic bearings do not require external power.

Flexure bearing

Description - Material flexes to give and constrain movement.

Friction - Very low.

Stiffness - Low.

Speed - Very high.

Life - Very high or low depending on materials and strain in application. Usually maintenance free.

Further observations - Limited range of movement, no backlash, extremely smooth motion

Composite bearing

Description - Plain bearing shape with PTFE liner on the interface between bearing and shaft with a laminated metal backing. PTFE acts as a lubricant.

Friction - PTFE and use of filters to dial in friction as necessary for friction control.

Stiffness - Good depending on laminated metal backing.

Speed - Low to very high.

Life - Very high; PTFE and fillers ensure wear and corrosion resistance.

Further observations - Widely used, controls friction, reduces stick slip, PTFE reduces static friction.

Common motions of bearings

Common motions permitted by bearings are as follows:

  • Axial rotation - Such as shaft rotation.
  • Spherical rotation - Such as those found in ball and socket joints.
  • Hinge motion - Such as those found on door, elbow, knee joints.
  • Linear motion - Such as those found on drawer mechanisms.

The issue if friction in bearings

Reducing the friction in bearings is very important for efficiency, to reduce wear and to facilitate extended use at high speeds and to avoid overheating and premature failure of the bearing. Essentially, a bearing can reduce friction by virtue of its shape, by its material, or by introducing and containing a fluid between surfaces or by separating the surfaces with an electromagnetic field.

Ways to reduce friction in bearings

  • By shape - This method gains advantage usually by using spheres or rollers, or by forming flexure bearings.
  • By fluid - This method exploits the low viscosity of a layer of fluid, such as a lubricant or as a pressurized medium to keep the two solid parts from touching, or by reducing the normal force between them.
  • Air pressure - This method exploits air pressure to keep solid parts from touching.
  • By fields - This method exploits electromagnetic fields, such as magnetic fields, to keep solid parts from touching.
  • By material - This method exploits the nature of the bearing material used.

Combinations of the above methods can be employed within the same bearing. An example of this is where the cage is made of plastic, and it separates the rollers or balls, which reduce friction by their shape and finish.

Loads on bearings

Bearing design varies depending on the size and directions of the forces that they are required to support. Forces can be predominately radial, axial, as demonstrated by thrust bearings, or bending moments perpendicular to the main axis.

Operating speed limits of bearings

Different bearing types have different operating speed limits. Speed is typically specified as maximum relative surface speeds, often specified ft/s or m/s. Rotational bearings typically describe performance in terms of the product DN where D is the mean diameter, most commonly given in mm, of the bearing and N is the rotation rate in revolutions per minute.

There is considerable speed range overlap between bearing types. Plain bearings typically handle much lower speeds, rolling element bearings are often faster, followed by fluid bearings and finally magnetic bearings which are limited ultimately by centripetal force overcoming the material strength.

Play on bearings

Some applications apply bearing loads from varying directions and accept only limited play as the applied load changes. One source of motion is gaps or play in the bearing. For example, a 10 mm shaft in a 12 mm hole has exactly 2 mm of play.

Allowable play will vary depending on the use of the bearing. For example, a wheelbarrow wheel supports radial and axial loads. Axial loads may be hundreds of newtons force left or right, and it is acceptable for the wheel to wobble by as much as 10 mm under the varying load. In contrast, a lathe may position a cutting tool to within 0.02 mm using a ball lead screw held by rotating bearings. The bearings support axial loads of thousands of newtons in either direction, and must hold the ball lead screw to within 0.002 mm across that range of loads.

Bearing stiffness and elasticity

A second source of motion is elasticity in the bearing itself. The balls in a ball bearing are like stiff rubber, and under load deform from round to a slightly flattened shape. The race is also elastic and develops a slight dent where the ball presses on it. The stiffness of a bearing is how the distance between the parts which are separated by the bearing varies with applied load. With rolling element bearings this is due to the strain of the ball and race. With fluid bearings it is due to how the pressure of the fluid varies with the gap. As long as they are correctly loaded, fluid bearings are usually stiffer than rolling element bearings.

Service life of bearings

Fluid bearing and Magnetic bearings

Fluid and magnetic bearings can have a virtually indefinite life of service. In fact there are fluid bearings supporting high loads in hydroelectric plants that have been in nearly continuous service since about 1900 and to this day still show no signs of wear.

Life of the rolling element bearing

Rolling element bearing life is determined by load, temperature, maintenance, lubrication, material defects, contamination, handling, installation and other factors. These factors can all have a significant effect on bearing life. The service life of bearings in one application was extended dramatically by changing how the bearings were stored before installation and use, as vibrations during storage caused lubricant failure even when the only load on the bearing was its own weight; the resulting damage is often false brinelling. Bearing life is statistical: several samples of a given bearing will often exhibit a bell curve of service life, with a few samples showing significantly better or worse life. Bearing life varies because microscopic structure and contamination vary greatly even where macroscopically they seem identical.

B10 and L10 life of bearings

Bearings are often specified to give an L10 life, outside the United States of America, it may be referred to as B10 life. This is the life at which ten percent of the bearings in that application can be expected to have failed due to classical fatigue failure and not any other mode of failure like lubrication starvation or wrong mounting. Alternatively, the life at which ninety percent will still be operating. The L10 life of the bearing is theoretical life and may not represent service life of the bearing. Bearings are also rated using a C0, which is a static loading value. This is the basic load rating as a reference, and not an actual load value.

Life of plain bearings

Some materials of plain bearings give much longer life than others. Some of the John Harrison clocks still operate after hundreds of years because of the lignum vitae wood used in their construction, whereas his metal clocks are seldom run owing to the potential of excessivel wear.

Life of flexure bearings

Flexure bearings rely on elastic properties of material. Flexure bearings bend a piece of material over and over again. Some materials fail after repeated bending, even at low loads, but careful material selection and bearing design can make flexure bearings life indefinite.

Short life bearings

Although long bearing life is the most sought after result, it is sometimes not necessary. A bearing for a rocket motor oxygen pump that gave several hours life was described as far in excess of the several tens of minutes life it actually needed.

Life of composite bearings

Depending on the customized specifications, composite bearings can operate up to thirty years without any maintenance.

Oscillating bearings

For bearings which are used in oscillating applications, customized approaches to calculate L10 are used.

External factors that govern the life of bearings

The service life of a bearing is affected by many parameters that are not controlled by the bearing manufacturers. These could be, bearing mounting, temperature, exposure to external environment, lubricant cleanliness and electrical currents through bearings and so on. High frequency PWM inverters can induce currents in a bearing, which can be suppressed by use of ferrite chokes. The temperature and terrain of the micro surface will determine the amount of friction by the touching of solid parts.

Certain elements and fields reduce friction, while increasing speeds. Strength and mobility help determine the amount of load the bearing type can carry. Alignment factors can play a damaging role in wear and tear, yet overcome by computer aid signaling and non-rubbing bearing types, such as magnetic levitation or air field pressure.

Maintenance and lubrication of bearings

Most bearings require periodic maintenance to prevent premature failure, but others require little maintenance. The latter include various kinds of fluid and magnetic bearings, as well as rolling element bearings that are described with terms including sealed bearing and sealed for life. These contain seals to keep the dirt out and the grease in. They work successfully in many applications, providing maintenance free operation. Some applications cannot use them effectively.

Nonsealed bearings often have a grease fitting, for periodic lubrication with a grease gun, or an oil cup for periodic filling with oil. Before the 1970s, sealed bearings were not encountered on many items of machinery, and oiling and greasing were a more common activity than they are today. For example, automotive chassis used to require lubricating work carrying out nearly as often as engine oil changes, but todays car chassis are mostly sealed for life. From the late 1700s through mid 1900s, industry relied on many workers called oilers to lubricate machinery frequently with oil cans.

Factory machines today usually have lubrication systems, in which a central pump serves periodic charges of oil or grease from a reservoir through lube lines to the various lube points in the machines bearing surfaces, bearing journals, pillow blocks, and so on. The timing and number of such lube cycles is controlled by the machines computerised control, such as PLC or CNC, as well as by manual override functions when occasionally needed. This automated process is how all modern CNC machine tools and many other modern factory machines are lubricated. Similar lube systems are also used on nonautomated machines, in which case there is a hand pump that a machine operator is supposed to pump once daily for machines in constant use, or once weekly. These are called one shot systems from their chief selling point. Often one pull on one handle to lube the whole machine, instead of a dozen pumps of an alemite gun or oil can in a dozen different positions around the machine.

The oiling system inside a modern car or lorry engine is similar in concept to the lube systems mentioned above, except that oil is pumped continuously. Much of this oil flows through passages drilled or cast into the engine block and cylinder heads, escaping through ports directly onto bearings, and squirting elsewhere to provide an oil bath. The oil pump simply pumps constantly, and any excess pumped oil continuously escapes through a relief valve back into the sump.

Many bearings in high cycle industrial operations need periodic lubrication and cleaning, and many require occasional adjustment, such as pre load adjustment, to minimise the effects of wear.

Bearing life is often much better when the bearing is kept clean and well lubricated. However, many applications make good maintenance difficult. Bearings in the conveyor of a rock crusher are exposed continually to hard abrasive particles. Cleaning is of little use, because cleaning is expensive yet the bearing is contaminated again as soon as the conveyor resumes operation. Therefore, a good maintenance program might lubricate the bearings frequently but not include any disassembly for cleaning. The frequent lubrication, by its nature, provides a limited kind of cleaning action, by displacing older oil or grease with a fresh charge, which itself collects grit before being displaced by the next cycle.

Rolling element bearing outer race fault detection

Rolling element bearings are often used in industry today, and maintenance of these bearings becomes an important task for the maintenance professionals. The rolling element bearings wear out easily due to metal to metal contact, which creates faults in the outer race, inner race and ball. It is also the most vulnerable component of a machine because it is often under high load and high running speed conditions. Regular diagnostics of rolling element bearing faults is critical for industrial safety and operations of the machines along with reducing the maintenance costs or avoiding shutdown time. Among the outer race, inner race and ball, the outer race tends to be more vulnerable to faults and defects.

It is often argued whether the rolling element excites the natural frequencies of bearing component when it passes the fault on the outer race. Thus the need to identify the bearing outer race natural frequency and its harmonics. The bearing faults create impulses and results in strong harmonics of the fault frequencies in the spectrum of vibration signals. These fault frequencies are sometimes masked by adjacent frequencies in the spectra due to their little energy. Therefore, a very high spectral resolution is often needed to identify these frequencies during a FFT analysis. The natural frequencies of a rolling element bearing with the free boundary conditions are 3 kHz. Therefore, in order to use the bearing component resonance bandwidth method to detect the bearing fault at an initial stage a high frequency range accelerometer should be adopted, and data obtained from a long duration needs to be acquired. A fault characteristic frequency can only be identified when the fault extent is severe, such as that of a presence of a hole in the outer race. The harmonics of fault frequency is a more sensitive indicator of a bearing outer race fault. For a more serious detection of defected bearing faults waveform, spectrum and envelope techniques will help reveal these faults. However, if a high frequency demodulation is used in the envelope analysis in order to detect bearing fault characteristic frequencies, the maintenance professionals have to be more careful in the analysis because of resonance, as it may or may not contain fault frequency components.

Using spectral analysis as a tool to identify the faults in the bearings faces challenges due to issues like low energy, signal smearing and cyclostationarity among others. High resolution is often desired to differentiate the fault frequency components from the other high amplitude adjacent frequencies. Hence, when the signal is sampled for FFT analysis, the sample length should be large enough to give adequate frequency resolution in the spectrum. Also, keeping the computation time and memory within limits and avoiding unwanted aliasing may be demanding. However, a minimal frequency resolution required can be obtained by estimating the bearing fault frequencies and other vibration frequency components and its harmonics due to shaft speed, misalignment, line frequency, gearbox etc.

Grease packing of bearings

Some bearings use a thick grease for lubrication, which is pushed into the gaps between the bearing surfaces, this is also known as packing. The grease is held in place by a plastic, leather, or rubber gasket that covers the inside and outside edges of the bearing race to prevent the grease from escaping. Bearings may also be packed with other materials. Many years ago, the wheels on trains used sleeve bearings packed with waste or loose scraps of cotton or wool fiber soaked in oil, they later used solid pads of cotton.

Bearings with a ring oiler

Bearings can be lubricated by a metal ring that rides loosely on the central rotating shaft of the bearing. The ring hangs down into a chamber containing lubricating oil. As the bearing rotates, viscous adhesion draws oil up the ring and onto the shaft, where the oil migrates into the bearing to lubricate it. Excess oil is thrown off and collects in the pool again.

Bearings on machines that use splash lubrication

Some machines contain a pool of lubricant in the bottom, with gears partially immersed in the liquid, or crank rods that can swing down into the pool as the device operates. The spinning wheels fling oil into the air around them, while the crank rods slap at the surface of the oil, splashing it randomly on the interior surfaces of the engine. Some small internal combustion engines specifically contain special plastic flinger wheels which randomly scatter oil around the interior of the mechanism.

High power machines with bearings use pressure lubrication

For high speed and high power machines, a loss of lubricant can result in rapid bearing heating and damage due to friction. Also in dirty environments the oil can become contaminated with dust or debris that increases friction. In these applications, a fresh supply of lubricant can be continuously supplied to the bearing and all other contact surfaces, and the excess can be collected for filtration, cooling, and possibly reuse. Pressure oiling is commonly used in large and complex internal combustion engines in parts of the engine where directly splashed oil cannot reach, such as up into overhead valve assemblies. High speed turbochargers also typically require a pressurized oil system to cool the bearings and keep them from burning up due to the heat from the turbine.

Self lubricating composite bearings

Composite bearings are designed with a self lubricating polytetrafluroethylene, more commonly known as PTFE, liner with a laminated metal backing. The PTFE liner offers consistent, controlled friction as well as durability whilst the metal backing ensures the composite bearing is robust and capable of withstanding high loads and stresses throughout its long life. Its design also makes it lightweight and one tenth the weight of a traditional rolling element bearing.

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