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Dave Biering

Dave Biering


Recent posts by Dave Biering

6 min read

History of Agriculture Equipment: Important Developments and Examples

By Dave Biering on December 21, 2020

History of Agriculture Equipment: Important Developments and Examples

The agriculture industry has a mission to keep the world fed. From hybridizing plants and animals to engineering new arable lands using irrigation (and even land reclaiming land from the sea), farmers have never stopped looking for new methods for increasing food production. More production means more nutrition and more food variety, all while keeping food prices as low as possible. For a concise overview of the agriculture industry, please see our blog here.

In this blog post, we focus on outlining the history of one of the most important ingredients to the agriculture industry’s millennia-long effort to increase food production: agriculture equipment. Equipment has always been vital to increasing yields while reducing agriculture’s dependence on manual labor.

While this post focuses on history, agriculture equipment exhibits continued innovation to this day. Click here for our article on key engineering challenges for agriculture equipment (and how advanced self-lubricating components can help tackle them).

Early History: Agricultural Equipment Pre-Mechanization

Today, advancements in agriculture equipment tend to center on better, more efficient mechanized equipment. Even before powered machines, however, equipment innovations played an important role in agriculture’s historical development.

The earliest innovations involve the invention of the first implements to advance farming beyond working directly with hands, sticks, and simple stone hoes. A few examples include:

  • The earliest plows, in the form of forked sticks used to scratch trenches in the dirt for planting seeds, emerged over 5000 years BC. While hand-drawn plows were only a suitable replacement for hoes in certain climates, they allowed for rapid preparation of far more ground. Beginning with the domestication of oxen (first in the Indus Valley around 4000 BC) draft animals would soon allow for much more efficient use of emerging plow technologies. Wooden, animal-drawn plows would become the preferred method of tilling by 1500 BC. Some of the earliest wooden plow examples are found in Ancient Sumeria (modern-day Iraq).
  • Around the same time, we have found examples of some of the earliest stone sickles, an implement which dramatically increased humans’ ability to harvest large quantities of grain. The invention of the sickle helped make the earliest grain agriculture possible. The earliest examples were simple flint or stone blades attached to a wood or bone shaft. Sickles became one of the first applications of early metalworking, with copper and bronze sickle blades emerging as knowledge of metal-working matured and proliferated.

    Even modest improvements to this design made a real difference for agricultural productivity: the invention and proliferation of the long-bladed, long-handled scythe are credited with substantially increasing production compared to sickles.
  • The first known iron plow was developed in China around 475 BC. Limited metal-working capabilities meant early plows included only a small metal blade attached to a wooden implement. As metal-working improved, plows could be made with more metal and at much higher weights. By the Han Dynasty period (200 BC - 200 AD) all-metal, cast-iron plows were being employed, leading China into a revolution of agricultural productivity.

    Metal plows would not expand to Europe until much later, during the early Middle Ages, where they drove greater productivity due to their ability to work in colder, clay-based soil. The first steel plow would not be introduced until John Deere in 1837.

The Rise of Mechanized Agriculture Equipment

Jethro Tull’s invention of an improved mechanical seed drill in 1701 marked the beginning of a new age for agriculture equipment. Tull’s machine combined a small plow for creating a planting row, integrated with a hopper for storing seed, a funnel for distributing it, and a harrow for re-covering the newly planted seed. Prior to this invention, seeds were either scattered (or in some cases, like bean pods, individually hand-planted). Tull’s seed drill could be pulled by hand or animal.

Tull’s invention foreshadowed a common trend for the coming mechanical revolution: integrating more tasks into a single, integrated piece of equipment to accomplish them more quickly and more precisely than was possible through manual labor alone. Innovations would begin emerging more quickly than ever.

Important Examples of Agricultural Equipment Innovation

  • In 1794, Eli Whitney developed the first hand-powered cotton gin suitable for the short-staple cotton grown in North America (gins used for long-staple cotton in India have a much longer history). This device separates seeds/hulls and other detritus from cotton fibers, a process that had earlier been extremely labor-intensive.
  • By 1834, rival reaper designs from Hussey and McCormick marked the first move away from sickle/scythe reaping of grains. These devices could be drawn by horse, while a hand-crank powered a reciprocating cutting bar. While a skilled farmer could harvest at most 1-2 acres per day with a scythe, the mechanical reaper allowed one man (with a horse) to harvest large fields in a day. With this increase in efficiency, farm sizes could expand to hundreds or even thousands of acres.
  • The proliferation of the steam engine created the first technological options for replacing human and animal power in agriculture. The earliest agricultural steam engines were used in the early 19th century. These examples were portable machines that could be placed in a field or a barn to power farm machinery like threshing machines. Power was transmitted using a belt or drive chain (a mechanism used to transmit power to machinery towed by tractors to this day). Soon, steam traction engines would even be placed on both ends of a field to actually pull a wire-drawn plow back and forth.
  • While experimental steam-tractors found some applications, they were cumbersome, heavy, and dangerous pieces of machinery. The invention of the internal combustion engine would lead to the first gasoline-powered tractor by John Froelich in 1892. While tractor designs would take time to perfect, Henry Ford would introduce a popular mass-produced tractor, the Fordson, by 1917. Ever since, the tractor has been at the center of agriculture: it can both tow and power a variety of implements, from simple plows to combine harvesters, operating as a flexible investment for farm mechanization across the entire cultivation cycle.

“Low prices made it possible for thousands of small-scale farmers to afford a tractor, and ownership jumped. In 1916, about 20,000 tractors were sold in the U. S.; by 1935 that number had jumped to more than 1 million.” - Smithsonian Insider

Innovation in agriculture equipment continues to this day. GPS, for instance, is helping farms to work more precisely than ever. Aerial drones are being used for more and more applications, from scanning/monitoring to pesticide dispersal. And the “internet of things” (IoT) is finding promising agricultural use cases.

Learning More: Engineering Challenges for Agricultural Equipment

At TriStar, we work hand-in-hand with the engineers who work to design and produce better agricultural equipment to this day. We work with a diverse variety of agricultural equipment OEM’s to help solve key engineering challenges for everything from tractor under-carriages to liquid sprayers (for fertilizer, pesticide, etc.)

Our bearings and other components fabricated from advanced self-lubricating materials can offer greaseless operation for lower maintenance costs, less equipment downtime, and the functional characteristics needed to replace traditional metal bearings in a wide variety of applications.

We employ a true consultative engineering approach to help our customers select components that can generate real ROI for agriculture equipment. Critical components work best when they are engineered to reflect relevant operational challenges (not treated as commodities to be sourced from the cheapest bidder).

For a more specific look at how TriStar materials can help solve key engineering pain points for agriculture OEM’s, please click below to see our guide.

Challenges for Agriculture Equipment: The Value of Self-Lubricating Components

If you prefer to reach out directly to the TriStar team to discuss your agriculture product and its component needs, you can contact our bearing experts using the button below.

CONTACT THE TRISTAR TEAM

Topics: Agriculture
5 min read

Three Important Trends for Agriculture and Agriculture Equipment

By Dave Biering on December 15, 2020

Three Important Trends for Agriculture and Agriculture Equipment

Agriculture is the oldest industry in human history but remains defined by changing practices, technological innovations, and a never-ending quest for more efficient production. Continued innovation has been vital to feeding a growing global population while keeping food prices affordable.

In this blog post, we look at some key recent trends for agriculture. Collectively, these trends appear set to help support expected long-term demand growth for agricultural products. Concurrently, this growth will drive a continued need for agricultural equipment that can help farmers grow food more efficiently and sustainably.

Agriculture Trend One: Continuing Farm Consolidation

The consolidation of agricultural production from smaller producers to larger farms is a long term macro trend in the industry. This shift covers the entire industry, across virtually every type of crop and livestock. James MacDonald, agriculture research professor at the University of Maryland, writes that “what's been happening is a steady shift of acreage and production to larger operations that covers almost all crop and livestock commodities and that occurs steadily over three or four decades.”

More and more small firms are going out of business, replaced by fewer distinct operations operating on more acreage. MacDonald’s research shows that over the past 35 years:

  • Production shifted to larger farms in 60 of the 62 tracked crop and livestock commodities.
  • 2,000+ acre farms operated 15% of all cropland in 1987. By 2017, that figure was 37%.
  • While much larger than before, the majority of farms are still family-owned.

This change is being driven, most of all, by the economies of scale that come with more specialized production, and the capital investment this specialization allows. More specialized producers simply have more economical options for investing in equipment that can improve yields.

Meanwhile, many remaining small farms are operated by older farmers who aren’t interested in selling their land to pursue a new career. As these farmers retire and age out of the workforce, this trend will only accelerate. The Association of Equipment Manufacturers notes that “there are more than two farmers over the age of 65 for every farmer under the age of 45 in the industry today. The average age of farm operators is 58—higher than it’s ever been—and many of these farmers’ children have already gone on to establish their own careers off the farm.”

There are few signs that this long term consolidation will abate anytime soon. It represents a growth-driver for equipment OEM’s, with larger farms able to afford greater investments in equipment, mechanization of more agricultural processes, and more willingness to consider any operational innovation that can improve the bottom line.

Agriculture Trends Two: Precision Agriculture

More than ever before, equipment innovation is being driven by digital technology that allows more data-driven, responsive, and precise agricultural work. From in-field sensors to UAVs, new digital applications are everywhere in agriculture. Farmers now have access to tools and software that can provide real-time intelligence on factors like:

  • Soil Conditions via Soil Sampling
  • Rainfall
  • Crop Yield Monitors
  • GPS-driven monitoring of equipment performance (and even autonomous vehicles that operate via GPS).

In addition to better data on the status of these vital production parameters, farm information management systems (FMIS) give farmers more powerful tools for tying operational decisions to their financial impact. Farmers are always juggling an incredibly complex array of factors. For instance, the most profitable crop to plant may depend on soil status, prices and market conditions forecasted months into the future, expected weather, transportation costs, and more. Software allows for a more systematic consideration of these trade-offs than ever before. And broader applications for AI and machine learning in agriculture are only now beginning to emerge.

Equipment makers are not only looking to deliver equipment that features more sensors and digital integration but exploring opportunities for providing broader farm management services (like predictive maintenance analytics to detect potential equipment failures before they cause an operational disruption during, for example, a critical time-sensitive harvest).

Collectively, these new technologies are closely related to consolidation. Farms are bigger, more business-oriented, and deeply interested in developing a more holistic understanding of yields than ever before. Better data and more sophisticated management tools will help farmers leave no stone unturned in the search for more efficient, profitable production.

Agriculture Trend Three: Accelerating Government-Led Investment

Food security is, understandably, a huge political priority for governments across the globe. As available arable land diminishes, the climate changes, and population grows, governments will only develop more focus on increasing food production wherever possible. Meanwhile, citizens of developing countries are consuming more calories as their income increases, putting more pressure on the global food supply. By 2050, average per capita calorie requirements are expected to be up 11% compared to 2003.

India provides subsidies of 40% of the total cost for rural entrepreneurs setting up farm machinery banks, which rent out equipment to small-acreage farmers to incentivize mechanized production even on traditional family farms.

From subsidized crops, to public investment in more productive equipment and farming methods, to government-backed loans for agricultural capital investment, the public sector will be seeking to enhance agricultural production using every tool available in the public policy toolkit.

Water and soil conservation are other vital areas for public involvement. More intensive agricultural production can degrade soil and stretch already overburdened water supplies, harming productive capacity even as demand surges. Governments are expected to invest in research regarding the practices and equipment needed to keep yields high while preserving soil fertility (and water usage) wherever possible. New machinery designs, for instance, play an important role in “conservation tillage” practices.

The long term imperative for more food production, backed by public investment, is another factor likely to drive a long term growth market for agriculture equipment.

Learning More: Better Components for More Efficient Agricultural Equipment

TriStar has worked with a variety of agricultural equipment OEM’s to help solve key engineering challenges for agriculture equipment. Bearings and other components fabricated from our advanced self-lubricating materials can offer greaseless operation for lower maintenance costs, less equipment downtime, and the functional characteristics needed to replace traditional metal bearings in a wide variety of applications.

When it comes to bearings in demanding agriculture applications, material selection matters.

We take pride in offering a true consultative engineering approach to all of our clients. Critical components like bearings perform best when they are carefully matched to relevant operational challenges (not treated as commodities to be sourced from the cheapest bidder). We work to understand each and every client application for clients large and small (many smaller OEM’s play a vital role designing and producing highly specialized agriculture equipment).

For a more specific look at how TriStar materials can help solve key engineering pain points for agriculture OEM’s, please see our guide here.

If you prefer to reach out directly to the TriStar team to discuss your agriculture product and its component needs, you can contact our bearings experts using the button below.

DO YOU HAVE A QUESTION FOR OUR EXPERTS?

Challenges for Agriculture Equipment: The Value of Self-Lubricating Components

Topics: Agriculture
4 min read

Agriculture: An Industry Overview

By Dave Biering on December 10, 2020

Agriculture: An Industry Overview

The agriculture industry includes everything from small local farmers growing organic produce to massive grain and livestock operations producing food for the export market.

These core production activities are supported by a huge network of equipment manufacturers. From simple plows to sophisticated harvesting combines, equipment plays an essential role in helping agriculture produce food as efficiently as possible.

This blog post provides a concise overview of this essential industry that provides nutrition for the entire globe. For a more focused look at engineering challenges for agricultural equipment (and how TriStar components can help tackle them), please see our article here.

What is agriculture?

Formally defined, agriculture is the science and business of cultivating plants and animals for use as food (and in some cases, other industrial products like fiber, eg. cotton).

Harnessing the productive power of nature requires extensive knowledge of many different processes. Soil must be tilled, fertilized, and irrigated. Soil qualities must be carefully matched to the right crops. Seeds must be planted at the right time. Plants must be protected from pests and weeds. And these are just a few of the concerns that farmers face each and every year.

Agriculture has developed over thousands of years, and vital knowledge has been accumulated over that entire span. We directly benefit from this long process of advancement today. Today’s plants and animals, for example, reflect hundreds of generations’ work breeding, husbanding, and hybridizing different species so that they can better serve human needs.

Farmers and other agriculture specialists remain engaged in a never-ending quest to increase yields using limited arable lands. These efforts can be a matter of life and death: the “Green Revolution” famously enabled dramatic increases in food production just when it appeared certain that the developing world was set to descend into chronic famine.

This work to increase production can center on:

  • Expanding Irrigation: California’s Central Valley, for instance, produces 40% of the United States’ fruits, nuts, and vegetables using less than 1% of US farmland. Before irrigation, it was a desert speckled with seasonal wetlands. From the very first sedentary agricultural societies in Egypt, the Fertile Crescent, and the river valleys of China, irrigation has been an essential driver of more food production.
  • Engineering New Arable Land: a famous example is the Netherlands, which has used ingenious engineering and hard work to transform the ocean itself into arable farmland. To increase production, the only alternative to increasing yields per acre is actually creating new farmland.
  • Making Use of New Equipment and Technology: new equipment has always played a key role in expanding agricultural efficiency. Innovations that may seem obvious today (like the heavy metal plow) precipitated agricultural revolutions in their own time. Mechanized agriculture, often dated by the creation of the seed drill by Jethro Tull, revolutionized the industry in its own right. Equipment innovations continue to this day, with GPS, IoT sensors, and even UAVs becoming increasingly commonplace on farms.

    Finally, genetics has been a new frontier over the past several decades, representing a marked leap in directly increasing the biological productivity of plants and animals.

How Big is the Agriculture Industry? Facts and Figures

In the United States, farming directly contributes over $130 billion to the economy, about 1% of GDP. However, its true impact is much larger: related industries like food processing depend on agriculture for their inputs. Expanding to agriculture, food, and related industries, the overall impact rises to $1.053 trillion (around 5% of GDP).

This economic activity amounts to well over 20 million full-and part-time jobs, or 11% of total US employment. Of these jobs, over 2.5 million are directly on the farm.

In developing countries, agriculture plays an even more dominant role in the economy. While it accounts for 4% of global GDP, it is well over 25% in many developing countries (according to the World Bank).

As more and more global farms adopt mechanized techniques, the associated market for agricultural equipment is only expected to grow. The equipment market is over $150 billion and is expected to reach $244.2 billion by 2025.

Learning More

For a look at recent trends in agriculture, please see our blog post here. Next, we provide an overview of key events in the historical development of agricultural equipment here.

At TriStar, we work with this equipment up close. We have worked with a broad variety of agricultural equipment OEM’s to help solve key engineering challenges for everything from tractor under-carriages to liquid sprayers (for fertilizer, pesticide, etc.)

Our bearings and other components fabricated from advanced self-lubricating materials can offer greaseless operation for lower maintenance costs, less equipment downtime, and the functional characteristics needed to replace traditional metal bearings in a wide variety of applications.

We employ a true consultative engineering approach to help our customers select components that can generate real ROI for agriculture equipment. Critical components work best when they are engineered to reflect relevant operational challenges (not treated as commodities to be sourced from the cheapest bidder).

For a more specific look at how TriStar materials can help solve key engineering pain points for agriculture OEM’s, please see our guide here.

If you prefer to reach out directly to the TriStar team to discuss your agriculture product and its component needs, you can contact our bearings experts using the button below.

DO YOU HAVE A QUESTION FOR OUR EXPERTS?

Challenges for Agriculture Equipment: The Value of Self-Lubricating Components

Topics: Agriculture
4 min read

Rail Transportation: An Equipment Overview

By Dave Biering on October 29, 2020

Blog_2020-rail-3

In this article, we take a look at some key types of locomotive, rail car, and maintenance of way equipment.

Rail Locomotives

The locomotive (or “engine”) is the rail vehicle that provides power for each train. Some modern passenger train designs do employ “self-propelled” cars which can be powered without an engine, but this arrangement is relatively rare.

At a high-level, locomotives are typically classified based on how they generate power. For example:

  • Steam locomotives were the first type of mechanized locomotive (early experimental trains were horse-drawn or pulled by stationary cable systems). While they remained the most common type of engine until well into the post-war period, they are less efficient than modern alternatives and have been phased out except on history-minded “heritage railways.”
  • Diesel-electric locomotives use a diesel engine, but this engine does not drive a mechanical mechanism directly. Instead, it powers an electric generator which is subsequently used to power the motor. 
  • Electric locomotives are powered by electricity alone, which means they need some sort of external power supply. This supply can take the form of an overhead line suspended from poles above the track or an electrified “third rail” running along the track itself.

We traditionally imagine locomotives pulling from the front of a train, but today’s locomotives are often used in a “push-pull” manner, where the engine can be at the front, back, or both of the train. Heavy freight trains may even utilize a “distributed power” arrangement where a supplementary locomotive is placed in the middle of the train and remote-controlled by the leading locomotive.

Rail Cars

This list highlights the breadth of specialized cargoes that rail cars are tasked with handling. Even a simple boxcar comes with a large degree of mechanical complexity, including coupling systems, braking systems, undercarriage trucks, and more. All of these systems must be engineered to stand up to high levels of vibration, varied weather conditions, and more. Meanwhile, rail OEM’s and operators are experimenting with more and more advanced technologies, this article provides a great exploration: 

Types of Freight Cars: Key Examples

  • Boxcars are the most common type of freight car and can carry a huge variety of pallet-borne cargo inside.
  • Refrigerated boxcars are essential for transporting perishable foods.
  • Automobile rack cars for transporting automotive vehicles. These racks can be single- or multi-level. Some even include adjustable-height racks for accommodating larger vehicles without changing rail cars.
  • Flatcars offer more room than boxcars and can be flexibly loaded. They are suitable so long as the carried cargo can be exposed to weather. Common goods shipped include intermodal containers, steel beams, heavy machinery, and pipe. 
  • Centerbeam cars (a specialized flatcar) allow for bundled goods that can be packed up along both sides of a central beam, providing a strong center of gravity. Lumber or wallboard are examples of the types of goods shipped on these cars. 
  • Hopper cars come in covered and uncovered varieties. Used to transport dry bulk commodities like grain, they can be loaded from the top and unloaded from the bottom.
  • Tank cars for shipping liquid products like oil or chemicals. These cars often need extra safety features to, for instance, prevent sparks and limit fire risk.

Passenger Cars

Passenger rail systems range from larger long-distance Amtrak trains to small local trolleys and commuter/light rail systems. In general, these cars employ more complex safety systems than freight. For example, mechanical brakes are replaced with electro-mechanical braking systems. 

While the basic function of these cars is the same, higher-speed trains require more robust safety systems, while smaller trains need lighter-weight cars. Some trains include cars with specialized interiors, like sleeping cars, dining cars, and observation cars, which come with their own equipment needs. 

This article provides some interesting depth on the history of passenger cars and how their design evolved over time.

Maintenance of Way Equipment

Rail locomotives and cars are only one small part of the arsenal of equipment needed to maintain rail infrastructure. Tracks cover many miles of varied terrain and need to be kept level, solidly founded on well-packed ballast (the crushed stone used as a bed under the track itself), and free from debris.

Successfully performing these maintenance tasks requires specialized equipment like:

  • Ballast cleaners, a machine for removing dirt and other contaminants from the ballast. Cleaning ballast helps prevent the need to constantly replace it with new crushed stone.
  • Under cutters, a special heavy-duty machine for actually removing the ballast under tracks to facilitate more in-depth maintenance and cleaning.
  • Rail Grinders are a vehicle that grinds down rails to preserve level rails, remove deformations, and smooth out corrosion. Regular grinding allowing for longer intervals between rail-replacement.
  • Tampers are used to pack ballast as tightly as possible, which helps to keep ballast level, tightly packed to absorb impact, and effective at preventing foliage from growing under the tracks.

Learning More

TriStar is proud to work with rail equipment manufacturers across all the categories discussed above. We bring an engineering-driven approach to the table, helping clients solve key design pain points for their rail designs. You’ll find our self-lubricating materials everywhere from maintenance of way equipment to on the station platforms of the largest subway system in the country.

In the in-depth article linked below, we take a look at why bearings and similar components are so important for rail equipment.

Rail Cars and Rail Transportation

Or, just use the button below to reach out directly to our team and discuss how we can help your rail equipment perform more efficiently and more safely.

DO YOU HAVE A QUESTION FOR OUR EXPERTS?

Topics: Railroad
5 min read

Rail Transport: Important Trends

By Dave Biering on October 27, 2020

Rail Transport: Important Trends

Rail transportation systems are a great example of a longstanding industry that is always looking for new ways to become more efficient, safer, and more effective at moving passengers and goods across rails.

From the New York City subway to transcontinental rail on every continent but Antarctica, rail lines are essential arteries of the global economy.

In this article, we take a look at some important recent trends.

Rail Trend One: Intermodal Freight Rail Continues to Expand

“In 2019, U.S. rail intermodal volume was 13.7 million units and intermodal accounted for approximately 25% of revenue for major U.S. railroads, more than any other single commodity group and well ahead of coal, which in the past was usually the largest single source of rail revenue.” - Association of American Railroads

Intermodal transportation refers to shipping using containers or truck trailers which are designed to be readily transferable between maritime, rail, and automotive shipping methods.

The container is increasingly dominating intermodal transport, and railroads are no exception. Since its inception in the 1950s, the rise of the “container,” which is standardized for maritime shipping and land-based transportation, is one of the most dominant trends in logistics. They continue to count for an ever-increasing share of overall freight. According to the Association of American Railroads, containers accounted for:

  • 47% of intermodal volume in 1990.
  • 69% in 2000.
  • 92% in 2019.

Containers can be double-stacked on ships and trains, allowing for much greater efficiency compared to traditional truck trailers. Modern port infrastructure also allows for the rapid transfer of containers between ships and trucks/trains using specialized cranes.

These containers are a great example of improved transportation integration offering more efficient options for shipping customers. Efficient intermodal containers allow customers to benefit from the geographic flexibility of trucks without sacrificing the superior per-mile costs of rail. The intermodal approach first became prominent in import/export shipping but has become increasingly common in domestic shipping.

Rail Trend Two: A Focus on Digitalization and Cyber-Security

Digital innovation is everywhere in today’s economy, and rail transportation is no exception. With sprawling physical infrastructure, rail networks provide a prime opportunity for improved integration of sensors with physical infrastructure (the much-hyped “internet of things”).

Cisco estimates that $30 billion will be spent on IoT projects for rail over the next 12 years. Myriad potential applications include more detailed passenger tracking and feedback, preventative maintenance sensors to reduce long term TCO, and real-time incident alarms. Meanwhile, automated trains are slowly expanding in scope.

Finally, cybersecurity is an increasing concern that comes alongside greater reliance on digital tools. As crucial infrastructure, rail networks represent a potentially attractive target for cyber attacks. This article in Railway Review provides an excellent interview of the rail cybersecurity landscape.

Rail Trend Three: Chemicals as Prime Freight

“The American Chemistry Council estimates that an additional 300,000 annual rail shipments will be required to meet increased production by 2023. From our analysis, that translates to about 40% of their projected volume growth moving via rail.” - AAR

Coal was traditionally the number one commodity shipped by rail. While the decline of coal continues to reduce rail traffic for this commodity, chemical shipping is emerging as a promising alternative growth market.

Rail offers a safe, cost-effective method for shipping chemicals, which now command the second-largest share of revenue of any freight (more than coal and behind only intermodal freight). The chemicals category includes everything from plastics to pharmaceuticals, consumer goods to toxic compounds.

Continued investment in safe rail car operation conditions has helped mitigate the risks associated with shipping hazardous or highly flammable materials. TriStar has some ground-level experience with this trend: we have been using our flame retardant composites to help rail OEM’s achieve better fire safety alongside improved performance (learn more here).

Rail Trend Four: The Resurgence of Passenger Rail?

“Rail is among the most energy-efficient modes of transport for freight and passengers - while the rail sector carries 8% of the world’s passengers and 7% of global freight transport, it represents only 2% of total transport energy demand.” - IEA

Passenger rail experienced a long decline as new transportation methods like air and the interstate highway system proliferated. Amtrak long exhibited widely criticized financial performance, but things may be beginning to turn around.

Growing congestion at airports and on highways, coupled with an increasingly carbon-conscious consumer population, are driving renewed demand for train travel.

For now, passenger lines are focused on major inter-urban corridors, like San Diego-Los Angeles and Milwaukee-Chicago. The Northeast Corridor from NYC to Boston remains Amtrak’s best growth driver. Long-distance routes, however, continue to operate at a loss.

New technologies are opening up new options for passenger travel. In Europe, for instance, high-speed trains are offering increasingly competitive travel times between highly trafficked routes like Paris-London. High-speed trains, however, require substantial infrastructure investments that were public-led in Europe but remain elusive for a US passenger system which has seen substantially less government investment.

Forbes provides a good summary of the current state of play for passenger rail here. For a deeper look at train energy efficiency and how this could lead to a rail resurgence, we recommend this article by the International Energy Agency.

Learning More

TriStar works closely with a number of rail manufacturers to select advanced material components that solve key industry challenges (like the need for flame-retardant components). We bring our engineering-driven approach to bear on every client project, ensuring the right materials are selected.

To read more about why bearings and similar components are so important for rail car technology, please see the article linked below.

Rail Cars and Rail Transportation

If you’d like to reach out to learn more about using TriStar’s self-lubricating composites to solve rail engineering pain points, just click the button below.

DO YOU HAVE A QUESTION FOR OUR EXPERTS?

Topics: Railroad
4 min read

Rail Transportation: An Industry Overview

By Dave Biering on October 23, 2020

Rail Transportation: An Industry Overview

Railroads are the oldest form of mechanized transport and one of the original “big businesses” of the American economy. At the turn of the century, railroads were the largest industry in the country. While they no longer command such economic heights, rail is still an essential part of transportation infrastructure, from regional passenger networks to long-distance freight.

In this article, we provide a high-level overview of rail transportation today. 

The rail industry varies considerably internationally: in many countries, rail operations are overseen by a government entity. In the United States, however, private companies often manage both operations and own/maintain tracks and other infrastructure (with some notable exceptions like Amtrak and regional transit authorities). For simplicity, this article focuses on US/North American rail.

Before examining the industry in greater detail below, we should note that rail is a highly cyclical industry that reflects the broader state of the economy. A robust economy means more freight, more passengers, and more revenue for rail companies. Meanwhile, rail companies face extensive capital costs to build and maintain infrastructure, a fact that can leave cash flow vulnerable in the face of economic downturns. For example, overall rail traffic appears to have hit a substantial downturn due to COVID.

Rail Industry Key Facts

  1. Total routes cover over 140,000 miles.
  2. The industry generates an excess of $70 billion per year in revenue.
  3. The industry employs 167,000 plus people.

Source: Department of Transportation

Rail Transport Industry Structure

Rail is a highly consolidated industry. A cluster of seven large “Class I” freight railroads dominate the market, working with smaller regional operators to integrate transportation across regions.

There are over 500 smaller freight railroads across the country, but according to the American Association of Railroads, the Class I operators account for 90 percent of employees, 69% of freight miles, and 94% of total revenue.

As you’ll see below, these large railroads maintain market dominance based on region.

Class I Railroads in North America

  1. Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe are the most important players in American West.
  2. Norfolk Southern and CSX maintain rail operations along the East Coast (including Ontario/Easter Canada).
  3. Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway maintain operations across most of Canada.
  4. Kansas City Southern Railway operates a number of lines that connect Kansas City to the South and Gulf Coast. It is substantially smaller than the other Class I freight railways.
  5. Amtrak is a special quasi-public corporation that operates many US passenger rail routes (and virtually all long-distance passenger routes). It maintains stations at over 500 destinations across 46 US states and 3 Canadian provinces.

The Competitive Landscape for Rail

In North America, freight is by far the dominant activity for the small set of large rail operators who dominate the industry. Major firms like Union Pacific no longer operate passenger lines at all. Passenger rail is generally managed by regional short-line railroads that provide local service (including various municipal rail systems like the NYC subway or Chicago’s CTA) and Amtrak.

While still an essential part of transportation infrastructure, rail moves a smaller percentage of freight (27.69%) than trucking (39.6% | source). However, when this metric is constrained to inter-city freight, rail’s share of tonnage increases to 43%.

Compared to trucking, rail offers much lower per-mileage costs to offset its more limited geographic flexibility. Freight rail also offers much lower accident rates than trucks. Finally, rail remains the only cost-viable option for moving heavy commodities like grain and coal over long land distances.

Intermodal transport using containers is allowing trains to be better integrated with maritime and automotive shipping (we look at intermodal shipping in our article on rail trends here). Freight rail also offers superior carbon and energy use per mile, a fact which may help drive growth as firms look for greener supply chains.

Learning More

It’s important to remember that the size of the full array of companies that support the rail industry greatly expands the economic footprint of the industry. Rail equipment OEM’s are tasked with designing everything from specialized freight cars, to braking systems, to advanced electronics. We break down some key types of rail equipment here.

All of this equipment is expected to thrive in an operational environment that’s full of vibration, heavy loads, all-weather conditions, and fire risk from metal-on-metal friction. For a deeper look at challenges for rail transportation equipment (and how the right component materials can help), see our guide here.

TriStar works with a wide variety of rail equipment makers to identify solutions for these engineering pain points. In an industry where efficiency, safety, and performance are all central to the bottom line, material selection matters.

If you’d like to discuss your rail engineering challenges with our team, click the button below to reach out.

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FREE Railcar Equipment White Paper

Topics: Railroad
3 min read

Food Processing and Packaging: Industry Overview

By Dave Biering on July 27, 2020

food processing and packaging - industry overview

In this brief overview of food processing and packaging, we take a look at:

  • Defining the size of the food processing and packaging industry.
  • Looking at key growth drivers.
  • Examining competitive pressures that drive a continued need for efficient manufacturing.

For a look at which activities are included under processing (from pickling to high-pressure cooking) and packaging (from canning to modified atmosphere) take a look at our blog post here.

For some of the facts and figures below, this article draws on McKinsey’s 2018 industry white paper, available here. We recommend it for a more exhaustive exploration of the topics we highlight below.

What companies are included in the Food Processing and Packaging Industry?

This industry traditionally includes the production of a variety of equipment for both food processing and packaging tasks. Many analysts also include commercial foodservice preparation equipment (like commercial-grade ovens).

The most important companies not included in this industry are agricultural firms (part of the Agriculture Industry) and restaurants, which are considered Food Service Industry companies. While food is being grown at the farm, harvested/washed, and prepared for initial storage (eg. flash-freezing vegetables at the farm) it is still within the Agriculture Industry. Once the food has entered a production facility, however, it’s within the domain of Food Processing and Packaging.

How big is the Food Processing and Packaging Industry?

Defining the size of this industry can be a complicated question, and analyst estimates vary widely.

Because many companies blur the line between agriculture and food processing, focusing on the market for Food Processing and Packaging Equipment is the easiest way to separate processing and packaging activity from the broader food/agriculture sector.

As of 2018, the management consulting firm McKinsey values the sector at ~$100 billion (including three sub-sectors: processing ($45 billion), packaging ($37 billion), and commercial food service equipment ($16 billion)).

McKinsey also notes that, by most metrics, this industry has lead industrial firms across several key financial performance metrics over the past decade, including profit per $ of revenue, total return to shareholder, and EBITA margin.

A Growing Industry for a Hungry Globe

McKinsey identifies several key factors driving growing revenue and profit margins:

  • Overall emerging-market population growth is fueling overall demand. Within these emerging markets, urbanization is pushing incomes higher, increasing food consumption per capita as well. Asia, for instance, is expected to account for 50 percent of growth for industry demand through 2021.
  • Rising income and increasing food consumption in emerging markets also changes the types of foods consumed, with richer consumers buying fewer commodity staples and more value-added food products (like meat, dairy, and packaged foods).
  • A rising consumer preference for healthy, organic food is driving menu expansion, more rigorous quality standards, and a shift toward higher-margin products. This trend also means new types of equipment for food production, higher-standard machines, and the proliferation of specialized systems like RFIT labeling for better traceability.

A Competitive Space Requiring Efficient Equipment and Ambitious Automation

Despite all this growth, the food processing and packaging industry companies face an eternal challenge: hungry end-consumers who won’t easily tolerate higher prices.

This strategic environment puts pressure on food companies to pursue a continuous push for more efficient production that automates as much of food processing as possible. McKinsey notes that increasing labor costs, tightening immigration policy in the U.S., and low industrial labor retention rates are all contributing to a push for more automation. And that means more advanced machinery.

Manufacturers in the food and beverage industry need equipment that can offer improved efficiency, lower cost, and better uptime.

Equipment downtime can be costly in any industry. Studies suggest a single hour of downtime cost 98% of businesses (across all industries) at least $100,000. For 33% of firms, those costs fall in the $1-5 million range. For food companies, these costs tend to run toward the higher end: the ever-present risk of spoilage means potential costs of downtime go far beyond production delays.

Learning More

If you’re interested in learning more about key 2020 trends for the broader food industry, take a look at our blog post here.

For a deeper dive into the industry (with a more specific look at using advanced materials to solve key food production issues) please see our white paper here.

Food and Beverage Industry: Challenges for Processing, Packaging, and Beyond

Topics: Food food bearings
5 min read

Important Processes for Food Processing and Packaging

By Dave Biering on July 24, 2020

important processes for food processing and packaging

Food processing is a science-driven industry that demands extensive knowledge of chemistry, microbiology, and the physical properties of various foods and agricultural products. It also requires the ability to engineer equipment capable of processing and packaging this food at volume.

For an overview of the Food Processing and Packaging Industry, please see our blog post here. In this article, we highlight some of the most prominent techniques used in food processing and packaging.

Traditional Food Processing Methods Still in Use Today

Food processing is one of the oldest industries on earth: as long as humans have produced food, we have needed methods to process it for optimized nutrition, longer storage life, and improved flavor. Some of the most fundamental food processing methods can be found anywhere from an open campfire to an industrial scale processing facility.

  • Cooking is the most ubiquitous form of processing. Heat is applied through various methods like baking, grilling, roasting, and frying. All of these processes require materials that can stand up the varying degrees of heat without degrading or releasing toxic material into food.
  • Drying is one of the oldest methods for preserving food. While sun-drying has been used for thousands of years, modern plants employ techniques like freeze-drying (see below).
  • Smoking is another simple but effective method for preserving a wide variety of foods. Industrial-scale smoking involves massive smoking chambers that can handle large quantities of food at once.
  • Fermentation is a chemical process caused by bacteria and other microorganisms like yeasts in anaerobic (no oxygen) environments. In addition to its famous use for alcoholic beverages, fermentation is used to make products like sauerkraut, yogurts, and bread yeast.
  • Pickling: this process can refer to either brine or vinegar immersion. The key feature of this process is a pH sufficient to kill most bacteria. In traditional pickling, antimicrobial herbs like mustard seed and garlic can also be added to the mix. Brine also draws out moisture from food, enhancing preservation. Pickling has been in use at least since the Indus Valley civilization around 2400 BC.
  • Salting/Curing: this process works similarly to pickle brine, but uses dry salt, typically on meats. Salting was the main method for preserving meats until the advent of refrigeration. Salt draws water out of the meat to dramatically reduce spoilage.

While these techniques are still used (in a highly advanced and scaled-up form) in industrial-scale food processing, today’s food processing companies have also created completely novel processes.

Advanced Food Processing Methods

Some versions of industrial food processing (like conveyorized ovens) are simply larger-scale versions of traditional food processing techniques. But the technologies available to industrial-scale food processors have also opened entirely new avenues for food processing.

  • Freezing, Flash Freezing, and Freeze Drying: freezing dramatically improves freshness and shelf-life for a huge variety of foods, and techniques like flash-freezing help prep food at mass-production speeds and volumes.
  • Irradiation: exposing food to ionizing radiation can improve food safety, delay the sprouting of plant products, and help control insects and other pests.
  • Pasteurization: in this technique, invented by Louis Pasteur in 1864, food is rapidly heated and then cooled, a reliable method for killing potentially harmful microorganisms.
  • High-Pressure Processing: sometimes called Pascalization, this process processes food in high-pressure conditions which kill many bacteria types, improving safety and shelf life. This process is desirable for its energy efficiency, decreased processing time, and the absence of additives. This relatively new process was invented starting being used commercially in the 1990’s and is still being perfected.
  • Extrusion: mixed ingredients are forced through an opening to form a continuous shape that can subsequently be cut into a specific size by a blade. This method allows for efficient mass production of food that can be easily cut to size after it is produced.
  • Modified Atmosphere Packaging: air inside a package can be substituted with a special gas mix designed to slow spoilage, extend shelf-life, and improve food safety.
  • Chemical Additives: In addition to vitamins, antioxidants help prevent oil from going rancid. Emulsifiers can help products like salad dressing from separating into oil and water in the package.

Food Processing Equipment Examples

All of the processes above require specialized equipment. And food needs to be carefully cleaned, prepared, and packaged based on how a food product is processed -- each of these tasks creates even more equipment needs.

Below we list just a few of the massive array of highly-specialized machinery used in food processing. For a more exhaustive treatment, we recommend this resource.

  • Cleaning: Sprayers, Ultrasonic Cleaners, Magnetic Separators
  • Grading Equipment: lab-like equipment to test food quality.
  • Preparation: rollers, peelers (blade/steam/flame), sorting equipment
  • Mechanical processing: mills, crushers, strainers, pulpers, slicers, grinders, and saws.
  • Extruding Equipment
  • Agglomeration Equipment: Pelletizers, Rotating Drums, and High-Speed Agitators
  • Forming Equipment: Molders, Formers, and Enrobing Machines
  • Mixers: paddle, turbine, anchor, and agitated tank mixers.

Food Packaging Examples and Equipment

The types of packaging used for food are nearly as diverse as the food itself. A few prominent examples include trays, bags, cans, coated paper cans, pallets, and plastic wrap.

For many food products, multiple packaging techniques will be required for each salable item, like a frozen meal with a tray, plastic wrap cover, and outer box (and that means multiple pieces of packaging machinery for just one production line). To package processed food at an industrial scale, food companies utilize a wide variety of specialized equipment. Just a few important examples include:

  • Vacuum-packaging machines remove air from plastic packaging to reduce atmospheric oxygen, limiting microbe growth and evaporation to improve shelf-life.
  • Cartoning machines that automatically fold paper cartons, applying adhesive as necessary. 
  • Coding and labeling machines to not only apply repetitive graphics like marketing labels but autocode information that is essential for tracking food freshness.
  • Filling and bottling machines for beverages and other liquid products.
  • Capping machines to seal and cap bottled liquids.

Learning More

A single food production facility may need to employ many of the machines highlighted above in just a single production line. Food producers face the challenge of keeping all of this equipment up and running in a manufacturing environment with some unique challenges:

  • A heightened need for clean operation.
  • A wide variety of temperature conditions: food might be fried and frozen even on the same production line.
  • A high-margin, high production volume industry where machine downtime comes with serious costs.
  • A number of food materials generate abrasive particulate matters that can damage materials made from the wrong materials.

For a more specific look at challenges for food processing and packaging equipment (and how the right material selection can help) we recommend our white paper.

Food and Beverage Industry: Challenges for Processing, Packaging, and Beyond

Topics: Food food bearings
4 min read

Food & Beverage Industry Trends: Plant-Based Proteins, & More

By Dave Biering on July 22, 2020

food and beverage Industry trends - convenience, plant-based proteins

Major food trends have implications for a cluster of related industries. For instance, the rise of plant-based food affects not only restaurants and meat substitute manufacturers but a much broader set of companies.

From the agricultural operations where raw inputs are grown to the processing facilities where food is produced and packaged, new trends create new challenges for companies throughout the supply chain.

Meanwhile, food companies continue to face a manufacturing environment full of caustic chemicals, clean operation requirements, and abrasive food materials. Food processing and packaging equipment manufacturers are always looking for ways to improve performance, reliability, and uptime in the face of diverse food production challenges.

In this post, we take a look at some of the most important food industry trends for 2020.

Or for an overview of food processing and packaging (including what companies fall under this category), take a look at our blog post here.

If you’re looking for a deeper look at food processing and packaging, we recommend our whitepaper here.

Plant-Based Food: Burgers and Beyond

Plant-based hamburgers are a great symbol of continued product innovation in this industry. And burgers are just the beginning of a dramatic explosion in plant-based food that has only begun to reshape the marketplace. Plant-based burgers and ground beef are already available everywhere from fine-dining to fast food. But the industry has only begun exploring plant-based alternatives for animal products like fish, chicken, pork, eggs, and dairy. Even KFC is getting in on the trend.

The move toward plant-based products will have dramatic implications for the entire food industry supply chain. For example, the plant-based meat substitute trend is already driving an explosion of pea production: peas are becoming a popular alternative to soy as a source for plant-based proteins. A single shift like this one means different farms, different food packaging and processing needs, and different machinery.

Food and Beverage companies face the challenge of maintaining efficient production of price-sensitive products even as they adapt their supply chains for new consumer tastes.

The Digital Revolution Comes to Food and Beverage: Big Data and Online Delivery

The food-focused marketing agency Quench provides an excellent deep dive into major industry trends heading into 2020. Highlights include:

  • Hyper-customizable food to reflect a growing awareness of personal allergen- and nutrient-related needs. Personalized, data-driven food delivery applications range from the common sense (avoiding food allergies) to applications that wouldn’t surprise us in a science fiction movie. For example, Sushi Singularity is a restaurant concept where personal biodata will be used to create 3D-printed sushi dishes.

  • Data-rich supply chains allow for much more granular tracking of food from production to packaging, essential for promoting better food-safety. Superior tracking also helps prevent supplier fraud (like passing off non-organic agricultural products as organic or lying about freshness). Better tracking also allows consumers to have more precise information about where their food comes from.

  • A growth in online-driven food delivery is only beginning to shakeup how food products are distributed (with potential implications for everything from restaurants to packaging design). Food delivery app downloads were already up 380 percent over the past three years before the COVID crisis hit.

    While the initial move to home food delivery has generally centered on apps that allow customers to order food from a physical restaurant, this model has the potential to shake up the food supply chain more dramatically. For example, more and more companies are exploring the concept of a “ghost kitchen” (a non-dine-in location that makes food solely for delivery). These locations will make it easier to flexibly accommodate demand in areas with high amounts of delivery orders.

A Move Toward Convenient Food

Consumers in developed economies have long shown an increasing preference for “convenient” food options, like frozen food or pre-packaged fresh meals. This also includes an increase in restaurant meals (the BLS reports Millenials spend 46% of their food dollars eating out compared to 41% for Baby Boomers).

This trend has many implications for food companies throughout the supply chain, even packaging. For example, McKinsey reports it is driving a boost in demand for trays made from plastics that allow for direct cooking/warming. These flexible packaging options (eg. plastic containers that can be used for different types of fresh, convenient food products) are growing at the expense of traditional packaging formats like glass jars and metal cans.

Inside the Production Plant: Challenges for Food Processing and Packaging Equipment

Food companies face the need to adapt to these changes in a competitive market that demands highly-efficient, high-volume production wherever possible. Food processing and packaging equipment need to achieve optimal uptime and have to do so while facing unique manufacturing challenges. As equipment makers design machines for the next generation of food products, these key operational challenges will remain as relevant as ever.

Key Challenges for Food Processing and Packaging Equipment

  • Food materials like beans and dry cereals can be highly abrasive to machinery over time. Abrasion can cause premature part failure (resulting in both elevated maintenance costs and more stoppages).
  • Food processing equipment requires regular cleaning using FDA-certified processes and chemicals. In many cases, these chemicals are highly caustic, and can potentially degrade mechanical components made from the wrong materials.
  • Food processing and packaging plants require unusually clean operation for a manufacturing facility. This requirement can create challenges for component selection. For instance, parts requiring high amounts of grease present a chronic contamination risk when used in food processing equipment.

Learning More

In our experience, the right materials for vital engineered components like bearings is essential to maximizing performance and uptime for business-critical food processing and packaging equipment.

For a deeper look at manufacturing challenges for the bearing industry and how solutions like self-lubricating polymer components can help solve them, you can download our free industry white paper by clicking on the graphic below.

Food and Beverage Industry: Challenges for Processing, Packaging, and Beyond

Topics: Food food bearings
3 min read

Thermoset vs Thermoplastic Materials: Bearings and Other Applications

By Dave Biering on June 30, 2020

Polyethylene Plastic Molecule - A Thermoplastic

Thermoset and Thermoplastic materials have similar names, but they have very different properties. In this post, we provide an overview of what makes these two categories different and why these differences matter for different applications.

What is the difference between thermoset and thermoplastic bearings?

The primary difference between these two bearing materials is that thermoset plastics retain their solid state indefinitely, and include just a few trade names. Thermoplastic bearing materials can be heated and reheated many times to form new shapes.

Thermoplastics are the largest groups of plastics and include PVC, PEEK, polyethylene, nylon, acetal, and acrylic. Thermoplastics are particularly good for machining into custom fabricated components (explore The Essential Guide To Machining Plastics).

We explore the key differences in more detail below.

Thermoset v Thermoplastic | Remolding Properties

Thermoset: Synthetic materials that are not able to be reheated or remolded.

Thermoplastic: This is the largest group of plastics (polymers) and the group is also known as “thermosoftening” plastics given their ability to melt at high temperatures.

Thermoset v Thermoplastic | Heat Resistance

Thermoset: As it cures, the material increases in its ability to resist heat and succeed in high-heat applications (approaching 400°F or more).

Thermoplastic: Readily liquefies upon reaching melting points. The material also hardens and strengthens after cooling.

Thermoset v Thermoplastic | Chemical Characteristics

Thermoset: This category often incorporates fillers. When heated, the material’s molecules begin to crosslink, which helps to determine final strength and other characteristics. However, some of these materials also have a tendency to shatter under certain circumstances.

Thermoplastic: Provides good chemical resistance (will re-form without any chemical changes), but keep in mind that material properties will deteriorate if over-processed. Thermoplastics offer good impact-resistance as compared to thermoset plastics, and are also easily recycled.

Thermoset v Thermoplastic | Machining

Thermoset: Some of these materials are brittle and chip easily, making them hard to machine into custom parts. Other thermosets with fillers and fibers are easier to machine and produce very clean finished parts.

Thermoplastic: Are stronger and well-suited to machining techniques – as long as proper heat controls are followed. Get the Machining Slide Deck to review heating and cooling guidelines.

Examples of Thermoplastics and Thermosetting Plastics

Thermoset: Common formulas include Phenolic, Epoxy, PTFE, Ultracomp, CJ, Micartas, Melamine and some grades of imides.

Thermoplastic: This group includes both trade and generic names, representing Acetal, ABS, nylon, polyethelene, PET and PBT.

The different properties of thermoset plastics and thermoplastics have vital implications for your design, whether used as a bearing or in a different application. But this basic material difference is only one of many factors that need to be carefully considered. We always recommend approaching materials selection as a strategic engineering decision, not a box to be checked.

You can connect with our polymer experts here to discuss the right material for your design.

Custom Plastic Fabrication: Get the Guide!

Topics: Thermoplastic bearings
4 min read

Consultative Engineering for Optimal Material Selection

By Dave Biering on June 16, 2020

TriStar Engineering Consultants

In this blog post, we highlight TriStar’s application-focused approach to finding the right bearing materials for our client’s needs.

For a broader look at bearings, bearings failure, and bearings materials, take a look at our Bearings 101 page here. Or keep reading to learn why choosing the right bearing for an application can be a real engineering challenge. 

Careful Component Selection Can Solve Engineering Problems

For fundamental mechanical components like bearings, bushings, and wear pads, material selection matters. Options range from traditional greased metals to advanced, self-lubricating polymers.

Even within a broad material type like polymers, different materials (and material specifications) have very different performance characteristics. These attributes have important implications for the life and effectiveness of the bearing itself. But they can also have much broader effects on the performance of the equipment where they are employed. Excessive vibration, heat, or electrical conductivity can create real problems for the reliability of an entire complex machine.

All too often, however, we see bearings treated like a commodity-part. In this situation, material selection is often based on a broad, pre-existing preference for one material over another. In our experience, this approach comes with real risks. Employing an improper bearing in a design heightens the risk of acute failure. But simply using a sub-optimal bearing may result in chronic problems that affect reliability, maintenance costs, and performance for years without going recognized.

To be clear, there are certainly low-performance, cost-sensitive applications where the priority is simply to find the cheapest possible material. But a wide variety of applications call for materials that are carefully selected to reflect specific operational concerns.

There is no “perfect” bearing material: there’s only the right bearing for the task (and budget) at hand. This reality calls for real engineering expertise to identify the demands of a particular application and match the right material to the application.

TriStar’s Approach: Consultative Engineering to Find the Right Bearing for Every Application

TriStar works with our clients to understand precisely how and where a bearing is going to be used. Our engineers and sales representatives take time to study the applications where our bearings will be expected to perform. In some cases, TriStar team members will spend weeks on-site to learn more about the operating conditions where a bearing or other component will be expected to thrive.

That’s the only way to select materials that are not only fit-for-purpose but capable of solving problems our clients didn’t know they had. For some great examples of this approach in action, see our case study library here.

In some cases, a very subtle problem can result in serious implications for a broader design. Even utilizing a bearing that is over-specified for an application can result in a problem: the bearing may not deform to the intended geometry under operating stress. Within the same factory, and even within the same machine, different bearings may be subjected to very different environmental stresses.

The right materials selection offers a viable solution for many common engineering problems that bearings are called to solve. But to find the right solution, real expertise helps match the chosen material and shape to the precise operating conditions it will be confronting.

The operating concerns listed below illustrate how careful bearing selection is simply good business. A bearing that is marginally cheaper may end up costing far more if it requires frequent replacement or constant re-lubrication.

Example Operating Concerns for Bushing, Bearings, and Wear Pads

  • Corrosion: Applications everywhere from manufacturing to underwater introduce corrosion concerns. Even the cleaning chemicals used in food processing plants will destroy the wrong material.
  • Dusty and Dirty Environments: Particular matter risks being attracted to traditional grease lubricants almost like a magnet. Once inside the bearing, abrasive contaminants will negatively affect performance and service life.
  • Lubrication: inadequate lubrication is the number one cause of bearing failure. The viability and cost-effectiveness of regular lubrication need to be carefully considered when selecting a bearing. Self-lubricating characteristics, for example, are a must in hard-to-reach locations.
  • Weight: a lighter bearing capable of handling the same load can offer vital performance advantages for the entire design. For instance, plastic polymer bearings are up to 5x lighter than steel.
  • Noise/Vibration: high-levels of bearing vibration is a common operating condition, yet it’s still one of the most common causes of failure for metal bearings. Reducing metal-on-metal contact can help dramatically reduce vibration and noise. This reduction is not only good for the life of bearings but the entire mechanical design.
  • Temperature: it’s best to avoid broad generalizations about material temperature tolerances. While every polymer has some theoretical melting point, the right plastics can succeed at relatively high operating temperatures. However, material deformation needs to be carefully considered, as a material can begin losing crucial structural integrity long before its actual melting point.

These concerns are just a few examples, and every different material and application will vary across each of these categories.

At TriStar, we take pride not only in our advanced, high-performance materials but our years of hard-won knowledge on how bearings can be best applied in a huge range of applications.

Our experience allows us to offer our clients a true end-to-end partnership, from solution engineering to final production to support.

Tstar-Advantage-2020

From choosing the right polymer to conducting surface treatments to ensure the right adhesion and bonding properties, we treat bearing selection as a real engineering problem that is best addressed with genuine expertise. Our enhanced materials division even adapts our materials to specialized applications such as filtering membranes.

We work closely with clients to understand both functional and financial needs, identifying the material that will ultimately provide the best possible ROI.

For a detailed look at some of our materials and their specific properties, we recommend our materials database here. If you’d like to reach out to our team to discuss finding the right solution for your application, just click the button below. 

DO YOU HAVE A QUESTION FOR OUR EXPERTS?

Bearing Selection: Get the Ultimate Plastic Bearing Design

2 min read

TriStar’s Engineering Partnership with Clients of All Sizes

By Dave Biering on June 9, 2020

TriStar’s Engineering Partnership with Clients of All Sizes

The market for bearings and similar components like bushing and shock absorbers is multi-faceted.

On one hand, a variety of non-specialized, high-volume applications demand extremely cheap solutions. These components can be as simple as furniture drawers slides. In this context, bearings are often treated like a commodity: cheap, plentiful, and interchangeable.

For manufacturers that focus on this bulk production bearings market, volume matters. For the largest bearings manufacturers, the ideal client will purchase huge quantities, even millions, of bearings per year. But while this style of production makes sense in support of some applications, we find that it hasn’t always served TriStar’s customers well.

Smaller manufacturers and high-tech firms with specialized, high-performance bearings needs often don’t receive adequate attention from bulk manufacturers chasing accounts at some of the biggest companies on earth. Yet smaller companies, often in the sub-contractor role, are often doing the heavy-lifting when it comes to design and component selection.

Bearings are expected to thrive in a huge variety of specialized conditions that are anything but interchangeable. And they have vital implications for a design’s performance, reliability, service life, and maintenance needs. Businesses of different sizes and industries feature crucial applications where bearings aren’t a commodity, but a vital, precisely engineered component.

TriStar takes pride in bringing our full engineering expertise to bear on each and every client account. 

A Prototype to Production Partnership for Customers of All Sizes

TriStar retains the ability to engage with each client’s application as a real engineering challenge. We’re not just selling bearings, but using bearings to solve problems our clients didn’t know they had. We work directly with client engineers to understand specifically how our products will be used, where they’ll be expected to thrive, and how they can help promote superior performance and reliability. From extensive consulting on material selection to 24/7 support, we center our service model on customer success from prototyping to production.

Our business is built on finding the right bearing for every possible client application, and you’ll never struggle with a service issue or order too small to get our attention. From working with niche agriculture equipment manufacturers to developing specialized membranes for medical applications, we’re always working to find new problems to solve with our materials. Which is why you’ll find our products everywhere from underwater to high-altitude. We’re still finding exciting new applications for our low-friction, self-lubricating materials every day.

If you’re interested in learning more about taking advantage of our advanced, customizable materials (and working with a bearing provider that always picks up the phone) you can get in touch with our experts using the button below.

CONTACT THE TRISTAR TEAM

Topics: TriStar Engineering bearing engineering