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Bearings with Insight

Bearings with Insight

Intelligent bearing technology can give real-time updates on bearing status, which will revolutionise the process of condition monitoring, says Donald Howieson of SKF.

The notion of an intelligent bearing seems an odd one, conjuring up images of a fast-moving steel ball with a tiny brain inside. But this image is actually not too far from reality. Instead of a tiny brain, the bearing has some kind of sensor capability, allowing it to monitor its own condition and communicate this back to a central point. This allows maintenance engineers to keep a constant watch on the bearing, for possible damage, and take corrective action in the case of malfunction. It takes condition monitoring beyond what is normally possible.

Imbuing a bearing with self-diagnosis, and the ability to cmmunicate its status, gives machine builders the scope to design better, more intelligent machines. At the same time, maintenance engineers will be able to banish catastrophic machine failure from the factory floor by spotting malfunctions long before they become serious. This ensures that expensive, disruptive failures are avoided, reducing the total cost of asset ownership and lengthening machine operating life.

Of course, condition monitoring is becoming far more prevalent and powerful. By fitting an array of sensors to a machine, maintenance engineers can measure a range of conditions such as excessive bearing vibration. So does this make intelligent bearing technology redundant? In a word, no, because there are limits to what conventional condition monitoring can achieve. Intelligent bearing technology will take things to the next level: it can be used right in the heart of a machine, where it would normally be impossible to embed sensors.

This is a huge step forward in condition based monitoring, providing much more detail of the operating environment. Having such a deep understanding of operating conditions in real time could even make it possible to uprate a machine, extending its life or power rating beyond its initial specification.

There are other examples of how intelligent bearing technology helps engineers achieve things that were previously impossible. For example, the wireless technology used to broadcast the process information means it can work where traditional Wi-Fi cannot function properly. It also means that bearings can be configured in smart networks, which communicate via wireless gateways, allowing huge connectivity across a factory and potentially further afield.

In one recent application, smart bearings were used to monitor key parameters in steel manufacturing. The bearings were embedded with self-powered wireless sensors, and used in a continuous caster - an environment that would have been too hostile for cables or external sensors.

Intelligent bearing technology also will be critical in applications where bearing replacement or repair is difficult or expensive. A prime example is in offshore wind energy, where the cost of maintenance is astronomical. In some offshore wind applications, changing the main bearing on a wind turbine is so expensive that it undermines the business case for building the turbine in the first place. Used here, intelligent bearings could monitor loads and lubrication conditions in service, giving plenty of time to prevent the development of damaging process conditions.

SKF Insight is a commercial ex-ample of intelligent bearing tech-nology. It can measure critical parameters that can lead to early bearing failure, such as lubricant contamination or excessive load and temperature. Miniature electronic circuits, embedded in the bearing and self-powered, transmit this data via a wireless link. It has started to find practical use in a number of applications, including wind turbines, where it is monitoring bearing speed, vibration, temperature, load and lubrication. Most importantly, these smart bearings can be retro-fitted, so could enhance the operational potential of both new and existing turbines.

SKF Insight was developed because SKF knew that bearings rarely fail in service under normal operating conditions. Instead, the usual cause of failure is misuse: insufficient lubrication, for example, or running the bearing under conditions outside those originally specified. Condition monitoring usually picks up the tiny vibrations caused by changes on the bearing's surface, by which time damage has already begun to occur. SKF's system detects the conditions that cause the damage, so treats the problem at an earlier stage of the process.

Bearings are critical to machine performance. Imbuing them with intelligence pinpoints bearing malfunction before it happens, to extend machine lifetimes - and ensure that more time is spent on productive uptime, rather than idle downtime.

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