Innovative manufacturers are always looking to create a better products. Many are turning to air bearings to achieve this goal as they offer distinct advantages over ball bearings in a variety of applications.
This article will cover the basics of air bearings, their benefits, and some common air-bearing applications by industry.
The Basics of Air Bearings
Air bearings offer sub-micron accuracy and remove many limitations that ball bearings create. In a ball-bearing system, lubricated balls (typically fixed on a track) sustain two surfaces as they slide over each other.
Air-bearing systems work differently.
By inserting a layer of highly pressurized air (through a gap, porous media, or slot), air bearings can separate the two surfaces without physical contact between them. The system can be designed to support a load appropriate to the air-bearing application.
Learn how we design air bearings at ABTech in our Technical Paper.
The Advantages of Air Bearings
Using air in place of a physical ball bearing represents a massive opportunity for industries looking to innovate.
With air separating two surfaces, there’s practically no static or kinetic friction and no wear on parts.
Ball bearings have different roundness measurements that introduce errors; air bearings can achieve tolerances within a fraction of a millionth of an inch.
Air bearing applications are extremely repeatable compared to ball bearings, where the position of the rotating balls causes minute changes in the system’s center of rotation.
Lubrication is not needed in an air-bearing system—it has minimal maintenance needs and can be used in processes where contamination is a concern.
With no contact between surfaces, air bearings generate less heat and require less maintenance at high speed than ball-bearing systems.
Examples of Air Bearing Applications
Today, many industries are already taking advantage of air bearings, while others are just now discovering this exciting technology.
Here are a few examples of air-bearing applications by industry.
Aircraft or spacecraft engines are made to extreme specifications. For example, every component of a jet engine turbine must be as close as possible to the true center. Any offsets (no matter how minuscule) increase vibration and affect engine operation.
Rotating air bearing tables are ideal for use as a reference of the true center for manufacturing turbine components because of their repeatability and accuracy. That’s one reason why GE Aviation uses ABTech’s air bearings for their aircraft turbine engine assembly systems.
Air bearings play an important role in creating lenses for telescopes, cellphone cameras, night vision goggles, everyday eyeglasses, and more.
Lenses are manufactured using a lathe to cut and polish the lens material. Air bearings’ high precision and repeatability allow for precise positioning when grinding and polishing. This precision is crucial for applications such as NASA’s NuSTAR telescope, which has lenses created using an ABTech air-bearing system.
Semiconductors (integrated circuits or microchips) are essential for modern computers, cellphones, cars, airplanes, medical diagnostic machines, and nearly every other electronic device. Chips are getting smaller and more complex as the industry innovates.
An air-bearing rotary table allows for sub-micron accuracy and precision—it can place and hold a 300mm semiconductor chip in the exact position needed to apply an intricate circuit pattern.
3D Additive Machining
3D additive machining (aka 3D printing) is a quickly advancing industry with enormous potential for air-bearing applications.
The accuracies used in 3D additive machining are getting tighter, and air bearings may be essential to the next evolution of 3D manufacturing. ABTech is watching this space, looking for ways to apply our air-bearing technology to this innovative industry.
Air Bearing Experts with Pride in Precision
At ABTech, we’ve been creating air-bearing systems since 1998, and we design custom machines for OEMs across a wide variety of industries.
The precision motion components we create include:
Find out more about ABTech and what our air-bearing systems can do for you.