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The Role of Small-Part Innovation, Part 1

At its most basic level, a bearing provides the interface between a rounded shaft and the housing in which it rotates, but there is much more to it than meets the eye.

Saint-GobainResearch and development (R&D) is critical to the creation of effective and innovative technologies in all industries. And it starts with the pieces. Terms like “innovative” and “well-engineered” shouldn’t be limited to referring only to iPads and airplanes. Small components — such as bearings and tolerance rings — are integral to successful product development and should be recognized for — and held to — high standards for performance and durability.

Ensuring that these unsung heroes perform under adverse conditions and contribute to the overall product benefits, such as sustainability, durability, noise reduction, cost cutting or enhanced performance, requires R&D investment.

According to the 2010 Global Innovation 1000 study conducted by global management consulting firm Booz & Co., the top 1,000 R&D spenders cut their investment by 3.5 percent in 2009 to $503 billion. The dip marks the first time in the 13 years of the annual study that this group of companies reduced spending on R&D activities.

Since then, many manufacturers have gingerly increased R&D investment — though rates vary between industries and regions. Despite the gradual efforts to rebound, companies must continue to improve product performance, sustainability and longevity in order to remain competitive. By partnering with solution providers that invest heavily in the R&D of the engineered components they supply, these manufacturers can share the workload in achieving a better product.

Small Parts: Big Innovation

In a broad sense, bearings are used to maintain separation and reduce friction between two moving parts. While a seemingly tiny part that is often overlooked, the technology behind bearings has advanced to reduce friction and noise through special finishes, and enhance sustainability by eliminating heavy metals — all thanks to R&D.

At its most basic level, a bearing provides the interface between a rounded shaft and the housing in which it rotates. Though they are often constructed from steel and aluminum, bearings are increasingly designed according to the application and can include various coatings for weather-proofing, heat protection and wear resistance. Over time, R&D has enabled the incorporation of polytetraflouroethylene (PTFE) compounds that feature the lowest coefficient of friction of all solid materials.

For example, the addition of proprietary PTFE compounds results in smoother movements and higher wear resistance. The properties are essential in bearings used in a wide range of products, including those in the appliance, automotive, bicycle and solar industries.

Let’s look more closely at the applications of bearings in solar applications, for example, in the construction of the parabolic troughs found in concentrated solar power (CSP) plants. Here, it’s fair to say that bearings have a significant impact on CSP plant productivity. Parabolic trough collectors represent the most advanced technology for collecting and converting sunlight into electricity. Bearings are applied at the pivot points of tracking systems on parabolic troughs. The troughs track the sun over the course of the day to collect light, which is later transferred to heat, then to electricity. Friction at the pivot points can impair the accuracy and efficiency of the parabolic troughs.

In search of a way to reduce friction levels in the motion of parabolic troughs, the R&D investment of Saint-Gobain led to the launch of its SOLGLIDE T and SOLGLIDE M families of bearings. These bearings are designed with a unique fluropolymer to be non-corrosive, self-lubricating and 100 percent weather-proof. Able to withstand extreme temperatures, the bearings are durable and provide 50 percent less friction than comparable models thanks to the addition of proprietary polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) based compounds. Over time, this reduction in the level of friction helps to maintain the accuracy of the troughs in tracking the sun, optimizing energy output. The added durability also reduces maintenance for an overall more efficient CSP operation.

Tolerance rings provide another example of small components that significantly affect larger devices. Again, at a basic level, a tolerance ring is essentially a flexible shim that fastens two cylindrical parts. However, with a strong dose of R&D, tolerance rings made from high-quality steel that are radially sprung become engineered fasteners that not only optimize the join between mating components, but reduce friction and noise to enhance product quality in a way that is noticeable to end-users and consumers.

Consider noise reduction in appliances. From refrigerators to vacuums, low output electric motors drive the appliances that we use every day. These low-output, or fractional horsepower, motors (FHPs) are capable of creating excessive noise, vibration and harshness (NVH), eroding consumer satisfaction and quality of life. R&D allowed a component as small as a tolerance ring to significantly reduce noise and vibration in a household appliance — a major consumer demand.

In FHP motors, press fit and adhesive solutions are the most commonly found bearing mounts and present different challenges. While press fits literally press the mating components together to create friction, adhesive solutions use unstable solvents to achieve the same join. Press fits rely on rigidity to fasten the bearing, while adhesive solutions depend on unstable chemical bonds, both of which can result in noise and vibration.

Through rigorous application testing, Saint-Gobain’s researchers worked to optimize its RENCOL tolerance rings for FHP motor applications. Because they lack rigidity, but provide a firm hold, the tolerance rings affect both transmissibility and structure modification — two of the major ways to reduce noise and vibration. The spring-like qualities of the ring, and the ability to perfect the thickness of material and geometry, allow manufacturers to alter the stiffness of the bearing mount to realize their optimum transmissibility ratio (ratios greater than one lead to amplification, while ratios less than one conclude in effective isolation).

Fine-tuning in this way enables manufacturers to decrease the ratio of vibration output to input in the system. And only through this rigorous application testing were researchers able to overcome this major challenge with an everyday household item — improving product quality for the consumer and helping the manufacturer build brand equity.

Please tune into tomorrow’s Chem.Insider Daily for part two of this two-part series. For more information, please visit