With globalization, traditional perceptions of what is a good bearing and what is not has become clouded. In addition, counterfeiters go the extra distance to replicate bearings leaving end-users with ever more concerns about what’s real and what’s fake. So how do you know whether it’s a good bearing?
In the North American industrial market 50 years ago, the main bearing companies produced bearings in Western Europe and the United States. As Japanese manufacturers entered the market a “standard” sales argument (made by traditional manufacturers) was that they were “low quality” and why would anyone consider buying “one of those?” Today, while a number of the Western European manufacturers and U.S. manufacturers have faded away and have been swallowed up, the once maligned Japanese manufactures are generally recognized as being among the top.
Today there is prejudice against bearings made in China and India. I was recently involved in an investigation in which a slewing bearing had failed. My inspection suggested an uneven loading on the races. The mechanical design of the surface that supported the bearing did not meet published guidelines. However, it was also noted that the bearing was made in China. A metallurgist reviewed the material and said that it did not exactly meet the required specification. That being said, the damage to the bearing was not reflective of poor material. However, the user was very happy that they had an easy answer – “just change the bearing and all will be good.” Although enough time has not passed for this quick judgement to prove itself or not, it is an example of how a perception can overcome rational thought.
At the first company that I worked for, I was told about the company’s great high-tech manufacturing. However, when I went to work in one of the pants, I noticed that the machinery cutting the rings had the World War II U.S. government tags on them from 45 years before. The second company I worked for had purchased a Korean bearing manufacturer. I know that there was significant capital expenditure in this plant to “bring it up to speed,” while the U.S. plant received limited investment in new technologies. In that company, the Korean production was not “branded” with the parent company’s name until all the quality standards had been met. There are probably more modern machines in Asian plants of the well-known bearing manufacturers than in plants in the traditional bearing-making countries.
No globally recognized company would jeopardize its name by allowing sub-standard product to carry its branding. So what is of more importance is the name on the bearing ring. That is, the assurance of a quality product. Because Brand “ABC” makes a bearing in China, does it mean Chinese production is good? No, but what it does mean is that since brand “ABC” is on the bearing, it will meet the same standards as the product made in Europe or the USA.
With the rapid expansion of the market in Asia, all bearing manufacturers have been investing in their plants in China and neighbouring countries. While we do not regularly see this product in North America, it does turn up on occasion. Most Asian production from the leading bearings manufacturers does end up in the home country, freeing up the traditional production for the traditional markets.
Internationally recognized standards for quality bearings are laid out by: ISO (International Standards Organization), AFBMA (Anti-Friction Bearing Manufacturers Association), DIN (German) and JIS (Japan). Generally, all bearings in the market meet these standards.
However, for a number of years the market leaders have worked (independently) to set a higher standard or at least demonstrate that their product achieves a higher standard. The leading manufactures have invested in cleaner steel (reduced oxygen content), more accurate dimensional tolerances (of details not governed by ISO, such as roller-to-roller dimensions within the bearing) and cage design, to name a few improvements.
Browse the websites of the leading companies and you’ll see branding names, such as “Explorer,” “X-Life,” “HPS” or “Ultra-Class.” These tags indicate that the company has identified properties that exceed the international bearing standards to make a product that they believe will provide extended performance. This performance goes beyond the bearing “dynamic capacity,” and are intended to address the application conditions that reduce bearing life that is not accounted for by simply the highest “dynamic capacity.”
Bottom line: you do get a better bearing from a top manufacturer than from one that just meets the ISO standards.
One reality out there is counterfeit bearings. The problem is rife and prompting some manufacturers to add a QR Code directly on the face of the bearing ring that can be read using a smartphone app published by the manufacturer to confirm authenticity.
The most dependable way to avoid buying a counterfeit bearing would be to purchase from a recognized or authorized distributor. The best source for finding an authorized distributor is from the manufacturer’s website. Most have a search function to find a local authorized distributor. But beware of a distributor “product line sheet.” These often list brands they “know where to buy that brand” as opposed to being “authorized by the manufacturer.”
I would not buy online unless it is from an authorized distributor.
So how does one decide?
Look at the manufacturer and their reputation, not the country of origin.
Buy from an authorized distributor of that manufacturer, not just any place that displays the brand name you want.
If a “premium bearing” costs $500 and a “no-name bearing” costs $400, how much longer does the “premium bearing” need to run to earn back the extra cost?
If your cost of production (cost of lost production) is:
$1,000 per hour>> the bearing would need to run 10 minutes longer to return the extra cost
$5,000 per hour >> the bearing would need to run 1.2 minutes longer to return the extra cost
$10,000 per hour >> about 36 seconds to return the $100 investment
As the old saying goes, penny wise, pound (£) foolish.
Douglas Martin is a heavy-duty machinery engineer based in Vancouver. He specializes in the design of rotating equipment, failure analysis and lubrication. Reach him by email at email@example.com.
This article is published in the April 2017 issue of Machinery and Equipment MRO magazine.