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.
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.