Plastic bearings are real and millions of them are in use doing heavy-duty jobs we used to think only metals could do. So are plastic bushings, chain cables, and chain carriers, all from Germany-based igus. Some of them are traveling around the world as functional parts in a car to demonstrate what they can do.
I was boggled when I discovered the iglide bearing products used in a student-designed concept car. When I visited the company's booth at the Pacific Design & Manufacturing Show, I felt like a kid in a candy store. Lots of easy-to-grasp displays and graphics showed the full range of what these products can do, plus a couple of demos customized for me by Michael Hardy, the company's marketing specialist.
I don't often get enthusiatic about specific products or their manufacturers, but igus is one of the exceptions. It's not just the bearings and bushings, it's the ingenious materials technology that dispenses with the need for lubricants. It's also the foresight that constructed those materials, and all the stuff you can build from them.
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To celebrate the 30th anniversary of its self-lubricating, plastic iglide bearings, igus has replaced components of this car with the bearings, and is sending it on a nine-month, 20-country worldwide tour that starts in India and ends in the US. (Source: igus)
Basically, igus's tribopolymer technology does away with lubricants by integrating them into the plastic. These are not a coating, but solid lubricants integrated throughout the thermoplastic matrix in microscopic particles, which dispense in tiny amounts in response to friction. The tribological properties of the plastics made from this basic material design mean they are optimized for resisting friction and wear in harsh environments. No lubricant also means bearings and other parts are dirt-free, and no metal means they're free of corrosion. They also operate silently, require far less maintenance, and last longer than their metal counterparts. The range of types and uses is extremely wide: from inexpensive, general-purpose bearings; to those used underwater; or in high-temperature environments such as cars or aircraft; or for applications that require FDA compliance.
To demonstrate how tough these products are, and celebrate the 30-year anniversary of the first iglide plastic bearings, the company has retrofitted a small car with 56 different ones. These are located throughout, including in the convertible top, gearshift, pedals, alternator, chassis, engine compartment, door hinges, gearbox, and window regulators. These same plastic parts are already used in several million cars each year. Starting in February, the car will travel by boat across the oceans and be driven across the continents during nine months, visiting 20 different countries. By July, the car is expected to arrive in Alaska, where it will then be driven to the east coast. You can find out more about the car's bearings on this page, and follow the car's progress on a blog here.
igus's products include plain spherical and linear bearings, linear guides, lead screws, belt-drive systems, and robotic joints. You can get their materials in plate or bar stock versions for making your own prototypes and custom components. The company's website has white papers, design guides, and other resources, and you can request free samples with no minimum. The dry-tech sample box lets you easily figure out which bearings you need. You can request one of those here.
TJ, I saw that sample box in the booth and said "is that what I think it is?" and when the igus marketing fellow said "yes" I knew a lot of our readers would want one. What an ingeniously designed, very complete sample kit! Glad you are happy with it.
I requested a dry-tech sample box the night I read Ann's article, the evening of 3/3 on the west coast.
I just received my sample box, noon on 3/5. That's good customer service!
The box contains 48 (!) different bearing samples, and includes a set of screens which show only those bearings which meet the screen's specification. There's a screen for high temperature, one for chemical resistance, one for food grade, etc.
I've used Igus bearings for nearly my whole professional career, and I wish I'd had this when I started.
That's really interesting, bob from maine, thanks for the info. The loads can definitely be significant. I can see how plastic, assuming it's strong enough, would be a possible alternative in the corrosive salt water environment, too. I've heard of lignum vitae but it was ages ago so had forgotten it--thanks also for that reminder.
Ann; plastic ball bearings are used in the Marine environment and have been for years. Headstay furlers, winches, blocks all use plastic bearings extensively and they often are under significant (although low speed) loads. Also the concept of impregnated lubricant in a porous carrier material has been used in Oilite Bronze since (I think) the 1920's; friction tended to heat the bushing which released oil. A wood with natural oil lubricant has been used for hundreds of years in marine and underwater uses (water turbine bearings, marine stuffing boxes to support and lubricate the propellor shaft in larger vessels), the wood is called Lignum Vitae (sp?), and though it is now protected, is still used for that purpose. Good article though - I look forward to this being a successful demonstration for Igus.
I am extremely skeptical. I would be extremely reluctant to buy a car that I knew had plastic bearings in it, particularly in the wheels. The article mentions a built-in solid lubricant that comes out in response to friction. Is this lubricant reabsorbed into the plastic? Does this lubricant eventually get lost, causing failure of the bearing? I am an electrical engineer, not a mechanical one, so I'm not familiar with all the details.
Thank you Ann! That states it better than I did. Plastic bushings will let you know much faster than a traditional bronze bushing that you've exceeded the material's capability. Both types will fail sooner than they should if overloaded, but plastic gives up much faster (melts, or the bore eggs out).
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