Air Bearing vs Contact Bearing: What to Know Before Upgrading

Most engineers start exploring the benefits of air bearings once their manufacturing tolerances drop to less than 1 micron. Why is that?

Unlike mechanical, metal, or ball bearings, an air bearing provides zero-friction operation, absolute repeatability, and requires little maintenance. But it’s an air bearing’s ability to achieve reliable accuracy, as small as 0.025 microns or less, that sets it apart from contact bearings.  

It’s easy to see the potential of using air bearings in manufacturing, for instance, in linear slides, lathes, spindles, or rotary tables. The unclear part is whether air bearings are feasible in your situation.

If your process pushes the limits of what contact bearings can do, you’re at the point where air bearings may be the logical next step. This post will cover what you need to consider before upgrading.

Your Specific Application

Different bearings suit different processes when it comes to precision motion. For example, a contact-bearing machine is ideal for aggressive material removal that doesn’t require sub-micron tolerances. Air bearings, on the other hand, are well suited to the high-precision machining often needed in the finishing steps of manufacturing.

In the optics industry, air bearings are often used for diamond-turning lathes and in grinding processes. Manufacturers typically use a contact-bearing machine for the initial processing, followed up by an air-bearing device to shape their lenses with ultra-precision.

The Durability of an Air Bearing

Certainly, one point in favor of contact bearings is their durability. Contact bearings (ball, roller, etc.) could be the best choice if an application demands heavy loading on a linear slide or rotary table. However, bearings with internal contact will never offer the consistent, sub-micron precision of an air bearing.

Both durability and accuracy are important to the optics, aerospace, and semiconductor industries. A precision motion supplier who works with customers will be able to select materials and design factors that increase the robustness of an air-bearing machine for demanding applications.

 The Price Difference

The cost of a precision motion machine, whether it uses contact bearings or air bearings, depends on the application, design, materials, and more. 

Though the price of a solution that uses contact bearings and one that uses air bearings may not be that different. It’s important to examine the advantages and disadvantages of both approaches in order to make an objective, informed decision.

 ABTech’s Precision Motion Solutions

If your manufacturing process is pushing the limits of what a contact-bearing machine can do, consider switching to air bearings—the benefits can be enormous, especially for attaining sub-micron accuracy and near-perfect repeatability.

At ABTech, we always start with a thorough understanding of a customer’s process. Together we work through the options, considering both contact and air-bearing solutions.

Get in touch if you’re looking for a precision motion machine for your application. We’ll help you find the best way to achieve the results you want.

Click here to get started: Get a quote



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