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‘Smart’ bearings warn as they wear, avoiding breakdowns

19 February, 2024

The German engineering plastics specialist igus is developing a new generation of flange bearings with built-in miniature wireless sensors that allow their state of wear to be monitored and predictive maintenance to be implemented to help prevent machine breakdowns.

The abrasion sensors in the lubrication-free igubal spherical plain bearings consist of a thin circuit board with a battery supply that avoids the need for cables, and allows the bearing to move freely for spherical compensation.

As the bearing becomes worn, tracks on the board are interrupted. When the signal from a track is lost, an electronic monitor knows that the wear has reached a certain level. The sensor emits a digital signal via an efficient LoRa (Long Range) wireless network. This signal is received by an i.Cee control cabinet module, which evaluates the data. Software calculates the level of abrasion.

Over time, as the sensor’s layers wear, parallel to the bearing’s running surface, they emit signals that allows the controller to calculate the bearing’s condition. Users can monitor the remaining service life and when maintenance is due, on smart devices anywhere in the world.

An app could, for example, notify a conveyor belt maintenance engineer that a flange bearing is approaching its wear limit. Previously this may have gone undetected, leading to a costly system failure, but now the technician can spot the issue and replace the bearing during a break in production.

“This scenario is no longer science fiction,” says igus UK dry-tech director, Rob Dumayne. “As part of our smart plastics range, we are gradually equipping plain bearings made of high-performance plastic with networked sensors. Our two- and four-hole flange bearings of the igubal series can now also enable condition monitoring and predictive maintenance to avoid unforeseen damage."

The new bearings are still at the prototype stage. The first pilot user is Luxembourg's state-owned railway company, Société National des Chemins de Fer Luxembourgeois (CFL), which is testing the sensors in a 200m-long facility that it uses to wash trains. In the past, repeated gearbox malfunctions led to costly failures  in the facility.

igus is developing “smart” versions of its igubal flange bearings with built-in abrasion sensors that detect when the bearings are wearing away, allowing them to be replaced before they fail

CFL therefore abandoned lubricated standard ball bearings and instead installed cross-linked spherical bearings in UC housings. The corrosion-free, chemical-resistant bearings have integrated solid lubricants, enabling low-friction, maintenance-free dry running.

“The other bearings needed to be lubricated every few weeks, which was time-consuming,” reports CFL maintenance manager, Mike Feinen. “So we've now ticked off this maintenance snag."

Dumayne adds: “The networking of these smart bearings is the icing on the cake. Thanks to continuous condition monitoring, CFL can prevent failures, plan maintenance interventions and make full use of the service life of the polymer bearings.”

igus:  Twitter

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