Bearings play an integral role in extending the operational lifespan of machines across an array of industries while also reducing downtime and maintenance costs. They accomplish this action by limiting motion and reducing friction between two surfaces or adjacent components. With numerous variations in design, it is critical to choose a bearing with the capacity to handle the project in question. Moreover, the bearing material also plays a significant role in the assembly's utility. In this blog, we will discuss the several bearing materials that may be encountered in a commercial setting while also highlighting the best practices for how to choose one for a given application.
Before discussing a material-choice strategy, it is first important to review some standard bearing designs which are likely to be encountered. Plain bearings represent the majority of the assemblies purchased due to their inexpensive nature and inherently high load-carrying capacity. Rolling element bearings, which encompass both roller and ball bearings, come at a close second in terms of frequency and utility. Although their overall load capacity is smaller than plain bearings, rolling element bearings are capable of tolerating both axial and radial loads. Both of the elements so far implement strictly mechanical components to support a load, but the unique fluid bearing makes use of a thin layer of gas or liquid for support. Since the fluid or gas chosen for these devices is resistant to vibration, they may be used in high-speed or high-precision machinery.
Although not all-encompassing, the list below highlights the most common bearing materials that may be chosen for industrial applications.
Stainless Steel Bearings
Stainless steel has a long history of being a durable, corrosion-resistant material with a broad range of operating temperatures. Additionally, stainless steel is generally non-reactive, making these bearings an ideal choice for demanding environments such as an engine assembly. However, stainless steel adds a non-negligible amount of mass to the overall machine and costs more on average than other options listed.
The highly specialized ceramic bearings are commonly composed of silicon nitride, which is a material displaying tremendous strength, fracture resistance, chemical stability, and unmatched thermal shock resistance. This translates to a significant reduction in weight, increase in durability, and even load distribution across the entire bearing. Despite the numerous benefits that ceramic and ceramic-hybrid bearings pose over their stainless steel counterparts, they are hardly ever chosen for routine applications due to their high costs.
One of the most popular material choices for bearings of all designs, chrome steel provides higher load capacity than stainless steel and, on average, contributes to a much longer lifespan for regular heat applications. They are also more affordable and produce a quieter operating environment when compared to other types of steel. Despite these benefits, chrome steel is not corrosion or chemical-resistant, and these components also require more lubrication to run effectively.
Polymer Plastic Bearings
Many are surprised to learn that polymer-based plastics and other non-metallic materials can be used to create high-quality lightweight bearings. Commonly implementing constituent materials such as nylon, silicone nitrate, and PTFE, plastic-based bearings can operate with ease over a wide range of operating temperatures, and most require little to no lubrication. Without a metallic outer layer, they are also naturally resistant to corrosion and most chemicals.
Carbon Steel Bearings
Widely considered to be the workhorse of the bearing materials, carbon steel contains roughly 2.1% carbon by weight, which increases its durability. However, the excess carbon leads to low weldability and melting point. As such, carbon steel should only be chosen for projects not exposed to consistently high temperatures.
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