Japan's Bearing Industry: Prospects and Challenges

 As bearings reduce the energy loss caused by friction in the rotary motion section of machinery, they help to save energy and protect the global environment. Here we look at the challenges and prospects for the bearing industry, including the development as eco-friendly product toward economic recovery.
1. The functions of a bearing 
When Egyptians built up the pyramids in ancient Egypt, as you know, in order to make it easier to move a large stone, they used to put a number of logs beneath the stone and pull it so that it slid over the logs. Generally, it is useful to place something round between the ground and the object you want to move, for making the object easier to shift through reduction of the friction.

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Bearings as machine parts embody this principle. The shape is like a doughnut with a hole in the center, and bearings set on the rotary axle, which pierces the hole. As to its structure, several balls are inserted between a larger outer ring and a smaller inner ring. These balls play the same role as those logs in ancient Egypt. Bearings are generally made of steel. In cars, for example, there are bearings set on the axle that connects the wheels with the tires. It avoids energy loss caused by friction to place bearings between the axle and the part which supports the car’s axle. Without bearings, the axle would grind the supporting part and this friction would cause it to burn out and break down.
Bearings are virtually always used in the rotary motion section of machinery, that is, bearings are typically installed inside machinery as their parts. Therefore we seldom see bearings. However many bearings are actually working around you. They are installed inside all motors and engines, and also inside various machines, for example, computer hard disks, air conditioners, chair castors, electric vacuum cleaners, trains, airplanes and rockets. In a car, around 100 to 150 pieces of bearings are used. As above-mentioned, bearings avoid friction-based energy loss everywhere, helping to boost energy efficiency. As such, bearings are vital element in energy saving and playing an important role in improvement of the environment.
The bearing industry contributes to the global environment by providing high-quality bearings.
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2. High quality and advanced technologies
Bearings are produced to meet severe quality standards, and are required advanced technologies. For example, to minimize friction of rotary movement, bearing ball and ring surfaces are precisely polished to a mirror-like smoothness. Advanced heat treatment processes are used to make steel sufficiently hard to be able to support heavy weights. In addition, because bearings are used in massive quantities all over the world, manufacturing technologies must be able to achieve both mass-production and extremely high quality.
Using of poor-quality bearings not only increase energy loss but also damage the rotary motion portion of the engine, causing breakdowns and accidents. If these bad bearings were installed in a car, it could lead to an accident resulting in an injury or death of driver. In the case of a factory, machinery could suddenly stop working. Bearings are essential not only to the environment but also to safety and reliability.
3. Current state of the bearing industry
With the world economy shrinking in the wake of the Lehman shock in 2008, Japan’s bearing industry was also severely impacted, dropping 40 percent year-on-year for the January-November 2009 period. Since bottoming out in February 2009, it has been gradually recovering. Eventually, in October 2009, it has recovered to the level of 30 percent down to the previous year. However economic conditions for the industry obviously remain severe.
While the industry is looking forward to an economic recovery, it cannot survive if it continues to manufacture its traditional product. In order to ride the new economic wave, several challenges should be overcome, such as improvements in quality.
4. Industry challenges and prospects
(a) Eco-shift

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Movements to esteem the global environment are gaining momentum worldwide. With user industries shifting to eco-products, bearings industry also needs to make the ‘eco-shift’. In the case of cars, bearings are required to become lighter, smaller and more durable, at the same time, new types of bearings are to be developed for hybrid and electric cars. For wind turbines, which will be key in preventing global warming, bearings need to be larger—up to one meter across—and also maintenance-free. To meet these needs, bearing industry should endeavor much more to boost quality and undertake highly R&D. The global eco-shift offers good opportunities for the growth of the bearing industry. As above-mentioned, bearings have originally functioned to save energy, and as such, the current trend of eco-friendliness will give bearings industry a vast playing field.
The efforts are also being made to save energy and reduce carbon emissions in the bearing industry’s manufacturing processes.
(b) Developing toward newly-emerging markets
Because of a machine part, bearings are desirable to be produced in the areas where users locate, and consequently bearing manufacturers began to shift offshore before several decades. Generally speaking, in the first, many bearing factories have been set up in the developed areas as Japan, Europe and the US. In the next step, in accordance with economic development in China and other newly-emerging economies, the bearing industry is reaching out worldwide. Currently, gross world sales stand at around three trillion yen.
Japan’s bearing industry has currently manufacturing bases around the world mainly in Japan, the US, Europe and China, resulting in an offshore production ratio of more than 30 percent. From now on, the industry will further develop its supply system in China, which has become the world’s growth center, and also in other emerging markets. This will mean not only establishing production bases but also covering total supply system, including sales networks, as well as R&D centers through which Japanese bearing firms will have face to face contact with users in each area.
(c) Contributing to the development of international standards
Amid ongoing globalization, in the bearing industry too, it is necessary to set up international standards. Japan continues to contribute actively to work in the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). While most ball bearings are made of steel, ISO standards have been already set up for ball bearings made of ceramic which is new material and lighter than steel. Creating standards that incorporate such new technologies will be critical to the development of the industry. (d) Strategy toward preventing counterfeit products
As seen above, bearings must be eco-friendly and absolutely safe, but unfortunately there are a large number of counterfeit bearings in world markets. The quality of these counterfeit products is naturally poor, causing unexpected damages for users. Bearing industry in Japan and all over the world have spent many years working to eradicate counterfeit products, through public awareness campaigns, appeals to foreign governments, and briefings for governmental enforcement organizations. It will be vital to persist in these efforts.
(e) Prospects
To address the challenges above, the Japan Bearing Industrial Association will continue to provide support from various angles for industry efforts such as global warming measures and the development of ISO standards. Recognizing the eco-shift in economic structures along with economic recovery, the Japan’s bearing industry will make efforts to supply eco-friendly bearings and to contribute to the development of the world machinery industry.