Specialty Manufacturing: Choosing Between Custom and Standard Air Bearing Devices

air-bearing device

As a machine tool builder, you face tough-to-make decisions; one is where to source the precision motion components for machine tools. Should you opt for an off-the-shelf supplier or choose a specialty manufacturer? Truthfully, both options have a place.


Standard, or off-the-shelf, air bearing devices are readily available from online suppliers in set configurations with relatively little flexibility in design. 

Custom air bearings can deliver precise performance characteristics and require a development phase before the building begins.

First, we’d like to acknowledge that standard-issue air bearings are ideal in many situations – pricing is straightforward and picking from a catalog is easy; even buying without ever talking to an engineer or sales representative is possible. 

However, ordering a custom component from a specialty manufacturer has subtle (and compelling) benefits. It’s worth considering:

Equipment Performance

While off-the-shelf air-bearing suppliers offer easy selection and fast sourcing, their one-size-fits-all approach may lead to unnecessary costs for features you don’t need or missing out on those that don’t come standard. Custom components, though requiring more upfront development, deliver tailored performance and seamless integration for machine tools.

See Single Point Diamond Turning: How Air Bearings Improve Optical Accuracy

Product Support

A tool builder may fail to capture support revenue on standardized parts because customers can go directly to the catalog supplier for troubleshooting. Alternatively, engaging a specialty manufacturer for custom parts helps safeguard aftermarket revenue, as you (the machine tool builder) will be the obvious first choice for customer care. 

Whether using standard or custom, it’s wise to gauge a manufacturer’s level of aftermarket commitment before purchasing. Precision motion expert Chris Abbott suggests asking parts suppliers about their preventative maintenance programs and whether they’re able to provide standard replacement components down the road.

Competitive Edge

Using components with publicly available specifications may increase the risk of other companies reverse engineering your tool’s design. Alternatively, integrating one-of-a-kind, specialty-manufactured components acts as a strategic defense against competitors seeking to replicate your product. 

Discover our approach to air-bearing design at ABTech

Verification & Testing

Both standard and custom air-bearing components require application-specific testing. Working with a specialty manufacturer, you can expect agile problem-solving during development, which reduces the risk of last-minute rework. On the other hand, when ordering from a catalog, that air bearing isn’t developed alongside your machine tool; hence, it’s possible shortfalls won’t surface until the final stages of assembly.

ABTech’s test procedures and processes are traceable to the National Institution of Standards and Technology. Following this practice, results can be recreated in the field by an ABTech representative, the customers themselves, or a qualified third-party calibration company.


Although standard air-bearing devices may help you complete a machine tool quickly for a fast market entry strategy, lead times depend heavily on each situation. 

Chris Abbott, COO of ABTech Inc., recalls a past experience when a precision machine tool manufacturer, dissatisfied with a competitor's lack of customization and support, approached ABTech. The manufacturer was seeking alternative spindle solutions since the ones they had been using were off-the-shelf and non-customizable. The spindle was a crucial component for this client, and changing suppliers was a significant decision for them. ABTech was able to design a custom spindle, match the catalog manufacturer’s pricing, and shorten lead times, resulting in a highly successful machine tool and the development of a customized spindle line, which ABTech still produces today.


Custom-made air-bearing parts, like spindles, linear slides, and rotary tables, don’t have to be costly—they can be cost-effective as long as you work with the manufacturer to align your performance needs and budget.

Look for a specialty manufacturer who knows the art of controlling costs. An experienced supplier will know how to:

  • Avoid reinventing the wheel every time
  • Include cost-saving standard parts where possible
  • Balance your top requirements (cost, schedule, performance)

Standard or Custom? The Choice is Yours

Every machine tool builder has priorities driven by their business strategies, customer needs, target markets, and technological capabilities. What’s most important to you: Maximizing machine performance? Developing a new type of tool? Being first to market? Meeting a budget requirement? Expanding into a new customer segment?

Ultimately, whether a standard or custom device will work best depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. A specialty manufacturer of air-bearing devices should be there to support you, no matter the objective.

At ABTech, we focus on more than the device itself, to include the company behind the decision of standard vs. custom. We’ve had many companies choose to go with our engineer-to-order products by showing them that ABTech is a partner that will help them achieve what they’re trying to do. 

Contact ABTech to learn more.






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