To get the longest working life out of a linear bearing, keep it clean and well lubricated. This common-sense advice may sound easy enough to follow. Yet in the real world of round-the-clock, high-cycle manufacturing operations, bearings do get dirty and dry. And when either of these conditions happens, linear bearings will wear prematurely. In the worst-case scenarios, contamination and inadequate lubrication can create metal-on-metal contact between the bearing’s rolling elements and raceway. This can cause excessive wear in the form of denting, pitting, or galling results.
This warning about contaminants and the importance of lubrication will not come as news to anyone who has designed or worked around industrial machines. When using linear guides on medical, food, packaging, semiconductor, or other sensitive equipment, machine builders often take extraordinary measures to keep the contaminants out and the oil in. They may add expensive bellows to cover the guides, or they may opt for a pricey automatic greasing system.
Yet in their zeal to keep linear motion systems running smoothly, machine builders can overlook less expensive design solutions to contamination and lubrication issues.
Contamination comes in many forms, with some more aggressive than others. Metal chips from machining operations, for example, qualify as one of the biggest offenders from a wear perspective. Silicon dust produced during semiconductor manufacturing can also be tough on linear bearing surfaces. Modern manufacturing processes can throw off a long list of other abrasive, wear-inducing contaminants.
Less aggressive contaminants can pose problems, too. Even soft contaminants — such as those found in food processing — can gum up linear bearings. This kind of debris is not necessarily a wear issue, but it can keep the linear motion systems from functioning smoothly. Consequently, this can have a negative impact on positioning accuracy and product quality. If a linear bearing gets gummed up to the point that it stops working, then there are also potential maintenance and downtime costs.
Keep in mind, too, that contamination is a two-way street. In addition to worrying about contamination from the product interfering with the linear motion system, machine builders also worry about stray lubrication or particulate from the linear bearing contaminating the product. This type of machine-to-product contamination is a cause for concern in contamination-sensitive industries such as medical, semiconductor, and electronics.
To combat contamination, machine builders will often supplement the linear bearing’s built-in seals with bellows or other types of covers. Though these can substantially add cost to a machine and add to the maintenance burden, they do have their place. Some cleanroom environments, for example, may require some physical barrier between the product and the machine elements. And inside machining centers, it is crucial to physically protect any motion systems from metal chips.
But there are many less severe contamination scenarios. And in these cases, machine builders should consider bearing styles that are less affected by contamination and less prone to generate any of their own. Bearings with large, sealed rolling elements fall into this category.
With conventional linear guides, the tiny recirculating balls in a raceway have very little clearance. So even relatively small pieces of debris can interfere with the balls. Bearings based on larger-diameter rollers, by contrast, can roll right over relatively large contaminants. Think of it as the difference between a skateboard and monster truck hitting a speed bump in the road.
Large rollers are also more damagetolerant than smaller rolling elements. Even if a contaminant does happen to mar the roller or the rail surfaces, the large rolling element can usually keep on running.