Bowman International is a small-to-medium-sized enterprise (SME) based in the U.K. that does something seemingly invisible, but crucial in the manufacturing industry and, well, throughout industrialized society. It makes bearings.
Bearings reduce the friction between moving parts and allow for greater control over those parts. For instance, the hub of a car wheel features a bearing that reduces the friction between the axel that spins the wheel and the wheel hub so that the tires can spin as smoothly and quickly as possible. These machine elements are so ubiquitous that, if you’re reading this article, you’ll surely use or pass by them many times throughout the day, whether they’re spinning in your hard drive or in the arm on an excavator at a construction site.
Given the importance of these parts, Bowman’s recent foray into additive manufacturing (AM) symbolizes a significant development in the general industry sector. The company recently began 3D printing key components for a specific set of bearings that led to the formation of an entire additive services division that focuses not just on the 3D printing of Bowman’s own parts, but those of its customers.
According to Jacob Turner, head of Additive Production for Bowman International, around 2015 to 2016, the company was in the process of redesigning a component, called a cage, using a high-tech metal alloy. To do so, an EOS selective laser sintering (SLS) system was being used to 3D printing prototype parts. In that prototyping process, Bowman realized that the cage could actually be made directly from SLS nylon, which would enable a more complex design for better performance.
Turner explained that the goal of the project was to redesign the part such that more rollers could be fit into the cage, which would result in more points of contact to spread a load being supported by the bearings. By being able to take a heavier load, the assembly would have a longer life, which means replacing or repairing the part less often, which, in turn, means less down time for whatever equipment is using the bearings in its operation.
By replacing the standard part with an optimized 3D-printed design, the bearings could support a load increase of 20 to 30 percent, which improves the life of the part by two to three times.
“Suddenly, we’re able to take a standard bearing and, just by changing one component and switching it out for 3D-printed nylon parts, we’re able to extend the life of that bearing by two or three times potentially,” Turner said.
That initial performance increase was just the beginning. Beginning with the single cage, Turner’s team began redesigning other associated machined or cast metal components to see what sort of improvements could be made.
“By doing it that way around—by designing around the 3D-printed component, suddenly we’re able to unlock more performance,” Turner said. “Again, we could increase the length of the rollers, which again, increased our load ratings and the performance of the bearings.”
Where Bowman’s competitors have two different products to cover two different load ratings, Bowman was able create a single product to cover both. This in turn reduces the cost and inventory to tackle these two different load requirements. Moreover, the new design made it possible for the bearings to handle different types of loads: axial (a load parallel to the longitudinal axis) and radial (load perpendicular to the longitudinal axis).
As a result, the bearings are now able to take 10 times the sideload that has historically been available on the market. At the same time, they are priced competitively with traditional parts due to these performance gain. In the end, Bowman’s new design has a 50 to 70 percent higher load rating, can last five to seven times as long in a typical environment, can handle 10 times the axial load and at a cost that competes with the market.
This level of performance was so inspiring to the company that it dedicated a new division solely to 3D printing. Bowman Additive Manufacturing manufactures these rollertrain cages using HP’s Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) technology, but it also provides services to customers. This includes everything from design and engineering up to production. In addition to producing bespoke bearings, seals and other related parts in production runs of 20 to 20,000 units for customers, the division works with manufacturers on components that aren’t directly related to bearings at all.
“We’re generally working with U.K. manufacturers of pretty much anything,” Turner said. “We go in and help them design for additive, whether it helps them consolidate parts and reduce assembly or just low volume parts where it’s not worth using injection molding. We’ve got companies who are doing very complex parts that design at high spec but low volume—specialist drones for example or parts for the military.”
Because Bowman has its own background in mass manufacturing, as well as expertise in AM, Turner believes that his division offers something that not every firm in the 3D printing space does: an understanding of the needs and standards of traditional manufacturers. Due to the fact that many people in AM initially came from a prototyping background, traceability, process controls and other concepts may not be in their wheelhouses.
This background combined with the appeal of Bowman’s 3D printing for bearing cages could position the company well as the general industry sector begins to adopt AM. The benefits of 3D-printed cages are so clear that Bowman estimates a large majority of the industry shifting to the use of either Bowman’s products directly or considering their own printable redesigns. As this occurs and as the larger industrial market looks to 3D printing for parts beyond bearing cages, Bowman will be primed for business.
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