The Role Of Small Part Innovation

Research & 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 aeroplanes. Small parts--such as bearings and tolerance rings--can make...

Research & 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 aeroplanes.

Small parts--such as bearings and tolerance rings--can make a big difference to successful product development and should be recognised for 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 2012 Global Innovation 1000 study conducted by global management consulting firm Booz & Company, corporate spending among the top 1,000 R&D spenders reached an all-time high of $603 billion, an increase of 9.6 per cent from the previous year.

Statistics show that the recovery in R&D expenditure following the worst recession in generations is much faster than it was after the financial crash, sparked by the collapse of dot-com companies, at the beginning of the century. Although companies are still feeling the lingering financial effects of the global economic downturn, many seem to recognise the long-term value associated with R&D investment.

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 aluminium, 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 engineering of the polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) liner with various compounds, such as graphite or glass fibre, to offer consistent controlled friction at the level needed in a specific application. The combination of material composition and design of the composite bearings results in smoother movements and higher wear resistance, which in turn ensures long life of mechanisms. These unique properties are essential in composite bearings used in a wide range of applications, including those in the automotive, bicycle, industrial pumps, and solar industries.

Let’s look more closely at the applications of composite bearings in the solar industry, for example, in the construction of the parabolic troughs found in Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) plants. Here, it’s fair to say that composite bearings have a significant impact on CSP plant productivity.

Parabolic trough collectors represent the most advanced technology for collecting and converting sunlight into electricity. Composite 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 composite bearings. These composite bearings are designed with a unique fluoropolymer to be non-corrosive, self-lubricating, and 100 per cent weather-proof.

Able to withstand extreme temperatures, the composite bearings are extremely 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, optimising energy output. The added durability also reduces maintenance for an overall more efficient CSP operation and ensures the long life of the CSP plant.

Tolerance rings provide another example of small parts that can make a big difference to the performance of 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 optimise the join between mating components, but also reduce friction, vibration, and harshness resulting in a noise-free mechanism performance.

This enhances product quality in a way that is noticeable to end-users and consumers. In addition, the use of tolerance rings enables manufacturers to enhance the smart design of their mechanisms by utilising less components and achieving weight and space savings. For example, tolerance rings can replace heavier counterparts, such as spring clips, in the collapsible steering columns offering a compact and lightweight solution.

RENCOL tolerance rings can be used to mount the actuator arm around the pivot in the HDD. Their split-ring design combined with customised wave-like protrusions along the circumference, allows tolerance rings to act like a spring when compressed, helping to control the movement of the arm and retain it firmly in place.

During mechanism operation, the protrusions of tolerance rings compensate for thermal expansion of mating components and cushion the read head from judder caused by neighbouring mechanisms, ensuring a constant perfect fit to optimise HDD performance for the end user. By reducing resonance and vibration, tolerance rings ensure noise-free performance of the device.

The unique wave structure and material thickness also minimises the force required during assembly and eliminates the need for time-consuming adhesive, enhancing production line efficiency and lowering manufacturing costs. The reduced assembly force protects the delicate components from damage, promoting the long life of the HDD.

Two Heads are Better than One

Partnering with component providers that offer extensive R&D capabilities can help manufacturers develop a better product faster and with greater efficiency. This is crucial for companies across industries that aim to reduce costs and gain the competitive edge. And the testing doesn’t stop once the component becomes available on the market.

Additional R&D work is required for the supplier to take an existing solution that meets 99 per cent of a customer’s needs and turn it into an exact fit. Collaborative application testing involving the parts supplier and the product manufacturer can produce an even more perfectly engineered piece to the puzzle. Through continuous collaboration, a strong partner can develop new solutions to new problems and applications for even further product benefits. 

Saint-Gobain utilised this approach in working with Cane Creek Cycling Components (Fletcher, NC, US) to achieve the world’s lightest headset--a component that connects a bicycle’s forks to its frame. Headsets provide a rotatable interface between the bicycle fork and the frame. Bearings, most commonly ball bearings, are applied between these two moving parts to decrease friction, increase performance and reduce the energy output of the cyclist. However, traditional bearings were too heavy for the ultra lightweight headset desired by Cane Creek and its loyal cyclist fans.

Leveraging its global resources, Saint-Gobain’s team worked closely with Cane Creek to develop the NORGLIDE X2 composite bearing, a new version of its existing NORGLIDE® composite bearing. Being less than one-fourth of the weight of alternatives on the market, the composite bearing contributed to the smart design of the new headset.

The companies worked closely to create the X2 material at the Willich, Germany, R&D facility of Saint-Gobain before measuring the appropriate quantities of the X2 material for the application and finalising the composite bearing design with the application engineers in Wayne, New Jersey.

The step-by-step R&D collaboration resulted in Cane Creek’s first generation of AER® family of superlight headsets--each approximately half the average weight of comparable products on the market. The most recent generation of the AER headsets utilises NORGLIDE T composite bearings, offering greater rigidity.

Getting the Right Support

In short, a good R&D partner must possess the ability to test and trouble-shoot challenges at various stages of component development alongside the product manufacturer through to implementation. This helps manufacturers get over hurdles and get on with business.

Manufacturers looking for not just a supplier but an R&D partner should make sure that candidates offer the following:

  • Global Projects/Analytics (The ability to connect projects across multiple facilities and apply previously learned concepts to new applications)
  • Product Development
  • Technology Transfer
  • Manufacturing Support
  • Application-Driven Customer Support
  • Extensive Capabilities in:
    • Materials Formulation
    • Design Control
    • Solutions Testing

Additional capabilities may include structural analysis and mapping of material microstructures and their components, as well as chemistry characterisations, to better understand materials and modelling for applications. With these tools, suppliers can minimise time spent on physical testing and potential material waste.

The ability to develop customised approaches to achieving effective solutions is also a crucial characteristic of a potential R&D partner. Just because a process typically works one way doesn’t mean it cannot and should not be changed. The component should be tested both inside and outside the application under different variables to ensure it will remain effective even in the most challenging environments.

For example, when an automotive manufacturer requires a solution to enhance the steering feel of the car, the R&D partner should be able to adapt the application testing process to find the right solution. 

In automobiles, RENCOL tolerance rings can be applied within steering systems with hollow steel steering columns. The rings are designed to comply with European Union (EU) and Chinese anti-theft regulations which require steering locks to withstand forces of 100Nm applied through the steering wheel.

Tolerance rings provide a cost-effective manufacturing solution that preserves the integrity of the steering system even in attempts of theft. The alternative is a manually welded lock collar to the steering column. However, the lock cannot provide the same level of reliability.

It can result in either a weak locking pin in the steering column breaking due to excessive force and the vehicle being stolen or the thief causing significant damage to the steering wheel without succeeding in stealing the vehicle. In light of this, tolerance rings are the preferred fastener for European automotive manufacturers.

What makes a RENCOL tolerance ring adaptable to a given application is its shape, size, number of radial protrusions, and its thickness and hardness. These factors help to absorb the tolerances between mating components, thus, providing a perfect fit. However, the parameters depend on the components used in the car’s steering shaft, and manufacturers should seek a solution customised for their operations. A column comprised of soft steel components calls for a tolerance ring tailor-designed for that material.

Chances that an automotive manufacturer will find a one-size-fits-all solution are slim. To get a precise match, the company may have to work with its supplier to conduct a series of application tests reflecting numerous scenarios. The testing process will likely differ between different types of vehicle manufacturers based in different regions. For the supplier to be a true R&D partner, the company must demonstrate enough flexibility to adjust the process again and again.

Such attention to detail is rigorous but necessary to produce the most effective components for a given application. But manufacturers from the automotive, bicycle, HDD, industrial pumps, and solar markets don’t have to go it alone. By pairing with component suppliers that offer extensive R&D capabilities and support collaborative application testing, they can find or help create their own “unsung heroes” to enhance product performance and build brand equity.