Through strategic partnerships and higher product integration, bearing manufacturers, according to Leibensperger, are offering more value to customers.
Design News : How has technology changed the way Timken designs and manufactures products?
Leibenspenger: Electronics has had a big impact on our ability to precision-manufacture. In the 1960s, the space program gave us a lot of new analysis tools and with the microprocessor in the 1970s, electronics and computer controls let us make our products in a much more precise way. As a result, our smaller bearings today have seen a life performance improvement of 4 to 6 times and larger bearings 10 to 15 times, compared with bearings from 25 years ago. Most of that improvement has occurred in the last 10 years.
Q: Have CAD tools played a major role?
A: We have developed some very sophisticated computer design tools to predict the performance of our bearings in customer applications. In many ways the bearing industry has been much more progressive in developing these tools than, for example, the gear industry. We've done some work in the gear industry that shows that they may be 20 to 25 years behind in the development of their tools and use more "engineering fudge factors" compared with more realistic, science-based tools.
Q: Why is that?
A: It has to do with the fragmentation of the gear industry. In the bearing industry, there are six or eight competitors in the world that have been competing with each other over the years. There are many more companies manufacturing gears, and the market's not as consolidated.
Q: How has The Timken Company's use of technology affected its customers?
A: We have in one facility people who are focusing on understanding what it takes to make the best steel in the world and people who are experts in antifriction bearings. These people are looking at the total system that goes into power-train design--not only bearings, but what it takes to make good gears, what the impact of lubricant is on gears.
Q: How have bearing users been applying the concept of power density?
A: Power density is the ability to carry more load in a given space with less weight, more reliability, and more durability. The result is a reduction in cost. We have seen people take the very best bearings and use clean steel to improve the geometry and performance of their gears. They have basically taken power transaxles that were designed in the 1980s and upgraded the horsepower transmission through them by factors of 3. That's substantial. There are also designers who for the same horsepower have reduced the size of the power transmission unit. Some gearboxes a third their previous size are transmitting the same horsepower as they would have 20 or 30 years ago.
Q: How have technology im-provements changed the way Timken conducts business?
A: In the 1980s, there was tremendous pressure put on the supply base to reduce prices. In the 1990s, there's a tremendous emphasis on total value--the balance between cost and performance. Engineers want suppliers that can offer more than a product. More companies are focusing on their core competencies, and are taking advantage of outsourcing. Companies see that Timken is an expert in bearings and materials, and that they don't have to be. Successful companies will be those that develop strategic partnerships with their customers.
Q: What do engineers need to consider when designing bearings into an application
A: They have to understand the total system. It's no good to put in an application a bearing that is getting 6 to 15 times improvement in life if the gears will fall apart in a third of that time. Make sure that you define the performance you need in the application and then design to it--don't overdesign, don't underdesign.
Q: What are the next innovations in the bearing industry?
A: First, we are starting to forward-integrate; that is, attach more things to bearings. Bearings today are more than just round rings--they have flanges on them and sensors built into them. We are starting to include surrounding components in the bearing to simplify the assembly or design or take weight out of the application. Second, bearings are getting intelligent. We have a bearing today that automatically compensates for thermal growth.