Ball and Roller Bearings

SIC 3562

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

This industry covers establishments primarily engaged in manufacturing ball and roller bearings (including ball or roller bearing pillow block, flange, takeup cartridge, and hangar units) and parts. Establishments primarily engaged in manufacturing plain bearings are classified in SIC 3568: Mechanical Power Transmission Equipment, Not Elsewhere Classified.

Industry Snapshot

The ball and roller bearing industry is a very large, mature industry. It affects everything from the production of space shuttles to household appliances, automobiles, dentist drills, roller skates, and computer disk drives. In 2008 U.S. establishments involved in ball and roller bearing manufacturing shipped products valued at $7.5 billion, about the same as the previous year. However, as the global economy went into a tailspin, particularly the automotive manufacturing industry, U.S. ball and roller bearing shipment values fell in 2009 before plummeting to $6.5 billion in revenues for 2010.

The issues facing the bearing industry were numerous as well as complex. As a secondary steel product manufacturing industry, it is in the middle of the production chain, but policies favoring the steel industry may not be in the best interest of the bearing industry, and vice versa. Because bearings are essential components of military and civilian machinery and equipment, the federal government has historically been a major customer of the industry. Nonetheless, high labor and production costs caused the bearing industry to lose business to foreign competitors that have been able to sell bearings of equal quality at lower prices. U.S. bearing companies also have had to contend with illegal dumping practices by foreign competitors. After being found guilty of these practices, many perpetrators then turned around and either opened plants in the United States or bought plants to supply their U.S. customers. By the early to middle years of the first decade of the 2000s, U.S. manufacturers were especially confronted with competition from Asian countries, most notably China.

Organization and Structure

The ball and roller bearing business is unusual because it is strictly a component manufacturing industry. The industry accommodates its markets by selling loose or packaged bearings that are installed in races that allow manufacturers to interchange complete bearing components. The industry continues to evolve by developing new materials and lubricants and searching for alternative uses for bearings. Bearings have been found to have almost limitless applications and are expected to be in demand as long as machines are manufactured.

Ball bearings are spherical in shape, whereas roller bearings are cylindrical and may be tapered on one end or flattened to resemble needles. Generally, a ball bearing is used when speed is important, and a roller bearing is used more often when load is most important. The manufacture of antifriction bearings starts from rod or wire. In a typical production process, pieces of wire are cut off in a press, placed between dies, and pressed into the shape of a ball or roller. Large rollers are produced by machining turning processes. The fin of surplus material that forms in the pressing process is removed between rotating file discs, and the diameter of the bearings is reduced through grinding and tumbling processes. Roundness specifications and surface finish improvements are also attained during grinding and tumbling. The bearings are then hardened, tempered, and given a high polish by further tumbling with a polishing agent. Finally, the elements are graded according to diameter.

Ball and roller bearings are used in anything that slides, glides, or rolls and, in some cases, are as large as 15 meters in diameter. The two general classes of bearings are commodity and precision. Commodity bearings are used in rotating elements that have relatively low revolutions per minute and do not face extreme stresses. Precision bearings, on the other hand, are highly accurate in terms of material quality, consistency of finish and diameter, and repeatability of tolerance levels. These bearings go through rigorous tests that check internal structure for failure tendencies and measure diameters to within one-millionth of an inch. The bearing industry is widely respected for its ability to ensure an extraordinarily high level of quality control because the bearing industry has achieved such high product standards.

The primary materials consumed by the industry include alloy steel mill shapes. However, cold steel and iron forgings also are widely used in the bearing industry. Other materials and devices used by the industry include raw and composite ceramics; electric motors; machine cutting tools; grinding wheels; powdered metals; copper wire; stainless steel sheets; carbon steel bars; and iron, steel, and copper scrap.

Traditionally, manufacturers of motor vehicles and their parts and accessories have been the largest consumer of U.S. bearing industry output, often accounting for over 15 percent of production. The next four leading sectors for the industry are exports at about 10 percent; ball and roller bearings at about 7 percent; telephone and telegraph communications at about 6 percent; and blast furnaces and steel mills at about 4 percent. The mining, oil drilling, and metalworking industries also are heavy consumers of antifriction bearings. Additionally, bearings of various types and sizes are widely used in refrigeration and heating equipment, motors and generators, aircraft and related parts, and railroad equipment.

Antifriction bearings offer several advantages to machine designers. The friction placed on the bearings due to loads exerted is much lower than for other types of bearings. It is the lack of bearing friction that prevents excessive wear and abrasions on machines that start and stop while loads are applied. Automobile parts are examples of elements that benefit from less friction and wear. Roller bearings, in particular, are easily lubricated, can carry heavy loads relative to their size, and remain accurately aligned over extended periods of use. For these reasons, the huge market for antifriction bearings is stable and nearly recession proof.

Background and Development

Since the invention of the wheel, the theory of bearing movement has been understood as a powerful phenomenon. The transfer of power to a rolling element allowed societies to develop increasingly sophisticated structures and innovative machinery. As engines became more advanced and technology and production techniques improved, bearing manufacturing itself became a high-precision trade. Because virtually anything that rolls or spins uses bearings, the performance of the moving part is directly related to the bearing component. As such sophisticated machinery as military and commercial aircraft and nuclear-powered submarines have demanded increasingly high levels of precision and performance, bearing technology has evolved as a science and industry of its own.

Beginning in the mid-1980s and continuing through the mid-1990s, U.S. bearing manufacturers were subjected to dumping by foreign bearing manufacturers and various tactics designed to circumvent subsequent anti-dumping regulations. Dumping is a strategy that involves selling products in foreign countries at prices lower than the cost of manufacture in the parent country. The strategy is designed to allow a manufacturer to gain market share in a foreign country by providing a product at a price that is too low for competitors to match. Competitors eventually will be forced out of business, and the foreign competitor can command much higher prices because the competition has been eliminated.

Between 1968 and 1986, market share of imported bearings in the United States rose from 30 percent to 64 percent. After experiencing significant market share losses, in 1987 Timken Company and the Anti-Friction Bearing Manufacturers Association (AFBMA, which has become known as the American Bearing Manufacturers Association) petitioned the Department of Commerce to conduct an investigation of import practices.

The Trade Expansion Act of 1962 makes provisions for such investigations if the industry has been eroded to the point that it cannot compete internationally and if the nation's security is at risk. Because bearings are used in missile guidance systems, aircraft engines, tanks, and machine guns, dependence on foreign suppliers could leave production of this military equipment vulnerable. Moreover, because U.S. equipment manufacturers do not have control over the production schedules of foreign companies, they could be limited in their response to a surge in production demands during a military emergency.

Timken and the AFBMA eventually prevailed and the Department of Commerce instructed U.S. Customs to collect duties on shipments of bearings and related parts from Great Britain, Sweden, Italy, France, West Germany, Japan, Romania, Singapore, and Thailand. The Defense Department supported domestic manufacturers by issuing a "buy American" policy for all antifriction bearing purchases.

These actions resulted in an increase in bearing prices that angered bearing purchasers. Although the decision to impose duties only affected imported antifriction bearings, distributors took this as an opportunity to implement across-the-board increases. By 1989 a coalition of original equipment manufacturers called the American Manufacturers for Trade in Bearings (AMTB) took a stand against the duties on imported bearings. The AMTB represented manufacturers that collectively purchased more than 200 million products annually. This amounted to two-thirds the consumption of commodity ball bearings and double the amount produced by U.S. bearing manufacturers. The AMTB claimed that domestic bearing manufacturers had been unable to meet U.S. demand for commodity ball bearings since the early 1980s, and argued that the imports made up for this shortfall.

The specific bearings the AMTB was fighting for were commodity ball bearings, which have specific applications. The five most popular models in this line account for more than 50 percent of the commodity bearings sold in the United States. Their primary applications are in power tools, appliances, automobiles, office equipment, and computer components. According to the director of commodities purchasing at Black & Decker, an AMTB member, only three companies in the United States were capable of producing commodity ball bearings at the time of this decision.

The legal battle between foreign and domestic bearing manufacturers continued into the 1990s. In 1990 Ingersoll-Rand, then the leading bearing manufacturer in the United States, convinced the U.S. International Trade Commission to raise duties on ball bearings from nine foreign nations that were selling bearings in the United States, sometimes for as little as one-third of their home market price. In 1994 the Japanese bearing manufacturer NTN Corp. announced that bearing production at its U.S. subsidiary, NTN Bauer, would increase 150 percent. Simultaneously, 50 percent of production at its Okayama factory would be shifted to its facilities in Alabama and Illinois. Production was shifted to the United States to counter dumping allegations aimed at NTN exports, which already had a dumping tariff levied against them. In the early 1990s, the United States began to more broadly define "cylindrical roller bearings," which were subject to duty. Subsequently, in 1995 Nippon Thompson Co. Ltd. began shipping a new needle roller bearing to the United States that was specifically designed to circumvent U.S. anti-dumping tariffs. Needle roller bearings, which previously fell outside the boundaries of dutiable goods, were included in the new, broader classification. NTN's new bearing was specifically designed to challenge this reclassification.

In 1997 there were 184 establishments in the U.S. ball and roller bearing industry. By 2007 that number had decreased slightly to 180. Of these establishments, 30 had 50 to 99 employees, 34 had between 10 and 24, and 75 had 9 or fewer employees. The states with the largest number of companies operating in the industry are California with 30, Illinois with 19, and Ohio with 16. Plants have been built mostly in the South to take advantage of lower labor costs. Older plants have either been refurbished or their production capacity has been increased. These establishments manufacture a diverse product line of ball bearings, roller bearings, mounted bearings, and various related parts. The largest product category in terms of shipment value was roller bearings at $5.45 billion, followed by ball and roller bearings at $2.8 billion, and ball bearings and parts at $2.4 billion.

Because bearings are vital components of machinery, the industry is relatively recession proof. World ball and roller bearing production is estimated to be around $25 billion. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, in 1995 the value of U.S. industry shipments was $5.2 billion, but they experienced a slight decline in 1996.

Falling prices countered steady sales in the late 1990s. "The cost increase in material, consumables, and wages can only be partially offset by productivity changes and or design changes. A modest increase in aftermarket prices for select product groups is possible in 1999. However, original equipment prices have been flat," according to David Gridley, executive director of marketing services at the Torrington Company. Laura Grondin, vice-president and general manager for Hartford Bearing concurred, saying, "Prices will either stay the same or fall by 2 to 3 percent. The industry is still extremely competitive, and it will get worse." Much of this pessimism was due to overcapacity and softening demand. "There is overcapacity domestically," Grondin concluded.

According to Gridley, demand softened in the agricultural equipment, steel, paper, oil field, and aircraft sectors. In the automotive industry, however, demand for bearings for both light and heavy trucks rose significantly, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Shipments of ball and roller bearings grew steadily during the 1990s, peaking in 1998 with more than $5.8 billion. Although 1999 and 2000 remained relatively strong, shipment values dropped dramatically in 2001 to $5.3 billion, the lowest since 1995. Reasons included the economic recession, decreased automotive demand, and the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001. There was moderate growth in the sector in 2002, with the automotive market leading bearings growth.

Along with the other manufacturing sectors, there was a more widespread recovery for the ball and roller bearings industry into the middle of the first decade of the 2000s. Bearings also were doing significantly better worldwide. With supply levels remaining high worldwide, overall bearing prices were stable and were not expected to increase.

Conversely, prices for imports were expected to increase. As bearings from China came into the United States, selling below market values, the federal government levied anti-dumping duties up to 59.3 percent. Lead times for all bearings continued to fall 10 to 20 percent, with 60 percent of buyers receiving products within a week, according to one survey. Average lead time was about 2.6 weeks.

Current Conditions

The U.S. ball and roller bearings industry struggled through 2009 with sales declining about 17 percent compared to 2008 as the automobile manufacturing industry experienced an "unprecedented" downturn. If not for increased demand for U.S. vehicles from Brazil, sales for ball and roller bearings would have fallen even further. The U.S. ball and roller bearings industry began to recover in 2010, and some industry watchers expected sales to increase about 5 percent from 2008 levels in 2012.

The industry generated an estimated $6.5 billion in revenues for 2010, while gross profit was approximately 38.88 percent. The United States imported $2.3 billion in ball and roller bearings from 68 countries. In addition, the United States exported $2 billion in ball and roller bearings to 165 countries, and total U.S. consumption of ball and roller bearings was $6.7 billion in 2010.

A bright spot spurring growth for roller bearings was from wind turbine manufacturers at the end of the first decade of the 2000s. Industry standout Timken formed a joint venture with Xiangtan Electric Manufacturing Co. Ltd. (XEMC) in China to construct the $38 million greenfield manufacturing facility in Xiangtan to produce "ultra-large-bore bearings" for the central shafts of large, "high-output" wind turbines. Construction of the facility began in early 2009 and in 2010 the first "ultra-large bore" wind turbine bearings were shipped. Significantly, this marked the eighth wind power roller bearing facility for Timken over the prior several years.

Market research company The Freedonia Group projected U.S. ball, roller, and plain bearing demand to grow 3 percent annually through 2013. Gains were expected to be supported by "high-value" bearings used for wind energy and heavy equipment. Increased demand for ball and roller bearings were projected to overshadow demand for plain bearings, with roller bearings expected to post the largest gains.

Industry Leaders

Already a leader in the industry, Timken became the undisputed heavyweight of U.S. ball bearings with the 2002 acquisition of industry leader Ingersoll-Rand's The Torrington Co. Timken has been perfecting its tapered roller bearings since 1898. By the early 1990s, the company offered 26,000 different bearing combinations. Promoting itself as the world's largest tapered roller bearing producer, Timken attributes part of this success to international trade. After establishing a sales office in Japan in 1974 in an effort to serve Asian distributors, Timken finally made inroads with Japanese automobile manufacturers in 1987. The currency exchange rate and political climates contributed to the company's success in 1987, but the company received an important image boost, primarily by maintaining a good reputation for quality when other U.S. goods were perceived as being inferior to Japanese products.

Although prices were not competitive, technical expertise from Timken's side won praise from Japanese design engineers who started specifying tapered roller bearings for their products. With patience and expertise, Timken started supplying Nissan Motor Company and Mazda Motor Corporation with wheel bearings. Generally, about 20 percent of Timken's sales is from the export market, and bearings represent about two-thirds of Timken's total sales. In 2008 Timken had sales of more than $5.6 billion, up from $4.5 billion in 2003. Timken has operations in 25 countries and employs nearly 26,000. Its subsidiary, MPB Corp., manufactures precision bearings for various specialty markets. Timken reported revenues of $4 billion in 2010, well below the $5.6 billion in 2008. More than half of Timken's revenues were derived from the United States. The company employed 19,839 workers in 2010.

Sweden-based Aktiebolegat SKF (SKF), which was incorporated in 1907, is one of the world's leading roller bearing companies. Headquartered in Kulpsville, Pennsylvania, SKF USA is the U.S. subsidiary of SKF and employs 4,000, with posted 2007 sales of just under $1.4 billion. For 2010 the company generated sales of more than $1.5 billion with 4,200 employees. In 1988 SKF controlled 20 percent of the world market in bearings, which was more than twice the market share held by its closest competitors.

SKF's entry to the bearings market was motivated by its frustration with the poor quality and high cost of other bearings. The parent company, Gamlestadens Fabriker, a textile manufacturer, granted funds for research into producing bearings. Subsequently, the founder of SKF, Sven Wingquist, went on to develop the double row, self-aligning ball bearing that introduced SKF as a leader and innovator in the industry. From the beginning, SKF aligned itself with the automotive industry and pushed its operations into France and the United Kingdom to compete directly with German manufacturers. In 1909 SKF established a New York subsidiary, which acted as a sales office for products manufactured in Sweden. In 1916 the SKF Administrative Company was formed in New York, and in 1918 a manufacturing plant was established in Hartford, Connecticut. SKF quickly acquired two other manufacturing plants in Philadelphia. Also in 1916, the company acquired another Swedish ball bearing producer, as well as a steel works company to increase its steel supply for bearings. During the 1920s, SKF furthered its reputation for innovation when it introduced spherical and taper roller bearings.


In 2007 the U.S. ball and roller bearing industry had 27,346 employees. The technical side of the bearings industry offers employment for such job classifications as engineers and metallurgists, as well as skilled and semi-skilled workers. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted that general employment opportunities for mechanical engineers will grow about as fast as the average for all occupations. The outlook for metallurgists is slightly pessimistic, with employment opportunities forecast to increase more slowly than the average for all occupations. However, because relatively few students chose to go into metallurgy, all graduates were expected to be able to find employment. The availability of jobs for skilled and semi-skilled workers, including assemblers, inspectors, machine tool cutting operators, and welders, among others, was generally expected to decline through 2006. Much of the decline in these occupational classifications was due to increased automation.

America and the World

The largest bearing producing countries are the United States, Japan, and Germany. These three countries also represent the three largest markets for bearings in spite of growing demand in other European and Asian countries. The demand for bearings was expected to grow an average of 2 percent per year through 2010 in the United States; 5.6 percent per year in Western Europe; 6.8 percent per year in the Asia/Pacific region; and 9.9 percent per year in Canada and Mexico.

The world's major bearing manufacturers were expected to build facilities in these regions to take advantage of inexpensive labor and lower production costs in order to meet demand in developing countries. Advantages in labor costs were, however, somewhat offset by a shortage of skilled workers.

On a global scale, the U.S. imported some $2.4 billion in goods from 60 countries while exporting approximately $2.1 billion to 154 countries.

Research and Technology

The production of ball and roller bearings is a mature industry and the basic technology for it has been in place for decades. Technological innovations in the industry in the late 1990s focused on the use of new and sometimes exotic materials, more efficient bearings, and bearings specifically designed for more narrow market applications.

Steel was traditionally the major component of ball bearings because of its strength and existing technology for its production and machining. Nevertheless, by the late 1990s, many bearing manufacturers were exploring the use of other materials for their bearings. The use of exotic materials in bearings, often called hybrid bearings, was becoming increasingly standard. Hybrid bearings using materials such as silicon nitride ceramics were produced and tested for improved performance. Wausau Paper Mills estimated annual savings of $40,000 by using self-lubricating graphite alloy bearings in their stock tank agitators. These agitators have a propensity to destroy bearing lubricants and Wausau found that the original equipment bronze bushings would frequently fail between the recommended six-month preventive maintenance inspections. The graphite alloy bearings have lasted in 12 to 24 months of service without showing wear.

Silicon nitride ceramic hybrid bearings, as well as all ceramic self-lubricating bearings, were used increasingly in applications in the semiconductor industry. Sulfuric acid and other corrosives, which are used to etch silicon wafers, also have a corrosive effect on steel roller bearings. The traditional lubricants used with steel bearings also tend to become gaseous in vacuum systems, contaminating the ultra-clean environment required by the semiconductor industry. The answer is silicon nitride hybrid bearings. All-ceramic bearings are in the future of the industry.

The EGC Corp. has developed a material for high-load bushing and bearing applications called XC-2L. The polyetheretherketone (PEEK) carbon-fiber reinforced material incorporates a lubricant compound, making it ideal for applications where more common materials cannot be used because of media incompatibility, dry running, high PV, high temperature requirements, or contact with abrasive mediums. In comparative testing, XC-2L outperformed traditional materials, such as steel and bronze.

Duralon composite bearings are produced by the Rexnord Corp. for special applications, especially in the textile industry. The bearings are made of a self-lubricating, low friction composite of a Teflon/Dacron fabric liner bonded to a supporting shell of filament-wound, high strength fiber glass and epoxy resin. These bearings have a low friction coefficient and require no lubrication. Because they need no lubrication, there is no danger of them "running dry," making them well suited for machinery locations where accessibility is difficult. The absence of grease or oil lubricants also makes them ideal for the textile industry because there is no danger of lubricant stains on fibers or fabrics. They also do not suffer from fretting corrosion or brinelling that is common in other bearings because of the high cyclic rate of mechanisms used in weaving machinery.

Targeting industries concerned with machine tool precision, accuracy, and part-surface quality, NSK of Ann Arbor, Michigan, introduced its Ultra bearing. This bearing combines high-speed capability with low internal heat generation. The low heat generation is attributed to design features of the bearing and a lightweight phenolic cage. Also targeting a particular market niche, Torrington was developing camshaft supports that use needle instead of slide bearings. The use of needle bearings for this application was expected to lower friction, boost fuel economy, and eliminate valve train durability concerns.

In 2002 SKF USA Inc. developed a hybrid bearing that had the potential to help refrigeration and air-conditioning compressor designers with a long-time bearing problem. Generally, oil is mixed with the refrigerant to keep the bearings lubricated in a compressor. Problems arise when the resulting oil/refrigerant mixture enters the bearing where the refrigerant usually evaporates and prevents the oil from lubricating the balls and raceway. The long-time fix has been to minimize the degree of mixing by using an oil separator, which collects the oil and moves it back to the bearings. The separator, however, increases parts and cost to the compressor, along with increased maintenance issues. The New Hybrid bearing, made up of steel raceways and silicon-nitride balls, had the ability to use the refrigerant as the lubricant, eliminating the need for oil. It also was expected to last longer and accommodate higher speeds than all-steel bearings.

© COPYRIGHT 2018 The Gale Group, Inc. This material is published under license from the publisher through the Gale Group, Farmington Hills, Michigan. All inquiries regarding rights should be directed to the Gale Group. For permission to reuse this article, contact the Copyright Clearance Center.

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