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Smart sensors change the pace of bearings maintenance

16 July 2019

Condition monitoring is transforming the once complex and costly business of maintaining mounted bearings, says ABB’s Tristin Hurst.

Keeping a check on bearing performance is critical. Failed bearings can lead to costly downtime, not only from lost production but also from secondary damage. Additionally, bearings are often located in inaccessible locations, making inspections difficult and time-consuming and posing safety issues for workers. 

Most bearings are maintained reactively, with failure usually detected by a change in temperature or vibration level. This is because plant operators argue that the cost of proactive maintenance is greater than the saving in longer equipment life. However, this is changing with the advent of smart sensor technology. Now tracking bearing health is as simple as opening a smartphone app.

While there are many types of bearings, smart sensors are used on standard cast iron and washdown ball bearings and spherical roller bearings – all in pillow block housing styles. They can also be used on tapered roller bearings. 

Revolutioning bearing maintenance 

Smart sensors use temperature and vibration data to assess bearing condition. Hot bearings can mean incorrect lubrication while vibrations can indicate imminent system breakdown. Using gathered data, operators can decide the best course of action to avoid failure, safety risks and high costs.

Built-in diagnostics gives operators the information they need to adjust a machine’s operating parameters during production.They can then determine the best time to order spare parts or simply to optimise maintenance and repair schedules.

Short payback

Smart sensors are easy to install. Within minutes they can be threaded into the installation plug in the bearing’s housing, without electrical wiring. In-built Bluetooth low-energy technology connects the bearing to the smart device App, from which the bearing‘s health can be analysed. A traffic light scheme offers early indication of performance: red warns that the findings need to be verified immediately and corrective action taken; yellow indicates the bearing is okay but will need maintenance soon; and green indicates no action required. 

Having an insight into bearing performance prevents unplanned downtime and the expense of lost production. Being able to remotely monitor bearing condition makes for better maintenance scheduling and a more accurate understanding of what spare parts are needed. All of this makes for a rapid return on investment in smart sensor technology.

Successful pilot encourages investment in condition monitoring solution

Industrial coatings producer Transcontinental Advanced Coatings is a step closer to achieving zero downtime at its North Wales facility following a successful trial of the ABB Ability Condition Monitoring solution on a critical oxidizer plant. 

Smart sensors are fitted to the motors and mounted bearings of the oxidizer's two fans and regularly collect and analyse data. The system alarms if pre-defined limits for parameters such as temperature and vibration are exceeded, signaling that maintenance must be carried out. Now system maintenance is only carried out when needed and only to those components which require it. 

“Our overall goal is zero downtime. ABB AbilityM Condition Monitoring ensures we can identify equipment issues early on – before they happen – and take action to prevent breakdowns from occurring,” says Dr. Keith Vidamour, engineering manager for the Transcontinental Advanced Coatings North Wales plant. “Conducting maintenance as needed rather than on a fixed schedule will help us improve reliability and process control.”

Previously, the company relied on monthly manual monitoring of the fans’ motors and bearings using thermal imaging, oil sampling, and vibration analysis. These tests were only a snapshot of the condition of the process rather than a continuous real-time picture. The results also relied on an individual engineer’s interpretation.

“We are keen to move to a more objective, more data-based condition monitoring regime,” says Dr. Vidamour. “We are now monitoring additional parameters and have access to far more objective information than ever.”