Volume 8 | Issue 4 | Year 2005

When Rolls Royce needed custom bearings for its STOVL (Short Takeoff Vertical Landing) variant of the Joint Strike Fighter(JSF), it looked to Kaydon Bearings, not the biggest manufacturer of bearings in the world but one of the best at custom work.

“They needed bearings made of a unique steel that will retain strength and integrity in high heat and stress situations,” says Mike Purchase, vice president of business development for Kaydon Bearings. “These bearings will play a critical part in the JSF’s 3 Bearings Swivel Module (3BSM) which enables the plane to take off and land vertically by redirecting the engine exhaust from a horizontal to vertical orientation.”

The JSF is the largest military program ever commissioned by the U.S. Government and involves a multitude of countries including Great Britain, Italy, Australia, Spain, Finland, Sweden, and others who will purchase the JSF to replace aging F16, F/A18, AV-10 and AV-8 aircraft. Because this new jet fighter is breaking engineering and design ground, there really is no hardware store that sells the kind of components needed. So sub-contractors working on specific parts of the project, such as Pratt & Whitney, which is building the engines, and Rolls Royce, which is building the 3BSM, and Kaydon which is building the bearings for the 3BSM, are going through an extensive design and development phase which will cost more than $1 billion.

Given Kaydon’s long history and expertise in large diameter custom bearings, Rolls Royce selected Kaydon as a key partner in this very important design and development effort.

Bearing foundations
Kaydon Bearings, headquartered in Muskegon, Mich. is a division of publicly traded Kaydon Corporation with annual revenues of $330 million. Kaydon Bearings was the original company upon which the corporation was built.

Kaydon Corporation is a leading designer and manufacturer of custom-engineered, performance-critical products, supplying industrial, aerospace, medical and electronic equipment, and aftermarket customers. The products include thin-section and custom bearings, spit roller bearings, linear deceleration products, gas springs, specialty balls, retaining rings, wave springs, slip rings, fiber optics rotary joints, shaft seals, piston rings, filter elements, compressor filters, lead free solders and metal alloys. These products are used by customers in a wide variety of applications including medical, aviation, instrumentation, material handling, machine tool positioning, aerospace, defense, construction, electronic and marine.

Kaydon Bearings was started in the 1941 when the United States Navy had difficulty acquiring large diameter bearings for its ship gun mounts. The supplier until then was a company in Germany; however, World War II sent the U.S. government looking for a domestic supplier of large-diameter bearings. The Navy selected A. Harold Frauenthal who started Kaydon Bearings, named after his children Kay and Don, to build bearings to meet the government’s need.

“We’re glad he didn’t name it the other way around,” jokes Brian Lage, marketing manager for Kaydon Bearings.

A slim niche Kaydon Bearings is probably best known and respected globally for its thin bearings technology and engineering, sold under the Reali-Slim(r) brand. Reali-Slim ball bearings are provided in several configurations that include radial contact, angular contact and four-point contact or what is sometimes referred to as “gothic arch” bearings. These bearings are available in a wide variety of cross sections and diameters along with a multitude of options for materials, coatings, balls, cages, cleaning, lubrication and internal fitups.

Kaydon’s Reali-Slim range provides open and sealed options in both inch and metric measurements. Kaydon also provides a range of catalog turntable bearings including the RK lightweight series, MT heavy-duty series and KH high duty, high-precision series. These bearings can be found in applications ranging from radar mountings and weapons platforms to cameras, satellite equipment and robotics applications.

“We think of ourselves as fitting into niche markets,” says Purchase, “and in some of those markets, especially custom design slim bearings, we’re a dominant player. Overall, bearings are a multi-billion industry and we are not as big as a lot of bearings companies out there when you look at total quantity. But what we do, we do very well.”

Most of Kaydon Bearings’ work falls into one of four major markets:
• Defense and aerospace. Rotary wing aircrafts, weapons systems and turreted vehicles are key applications for Kaydon. In addition, long term contracts such as the vertical landing bearing system for Rolls Royce are a mainstay for the company.
• Heavy equipment and earthmovers. Kaydon Bearings makes the turntables that allow the operator’s compartment on cranes, excavators and other large machines to revolve 360 degrees.
• Medical devices. Diagnostic devices such as CAT scans and blood analyzer machines often move on Kaydon bearings. “We were the pioneering company on a variety of CAT scan applications,” Purchase says. “It’s a difficult field because the requirements for precision and low noise are critical. That sort of demanding technology is what we’re best at since we can combine our engineering and manufacturing expertise with the customer’s engineering to find the best overall design option for the application.”
• Semi-conductor industry. Many of the robots that transport wafers through the extreme processing environments during the fabrication process utilize Kaydon bearings. “Because of the high temperatures, corrosive gases and demand for ultra-clean environments, the bearings used can be very unique and require special processing for which Kaydon is well known,” Purchase says. “Our contribution is that we can work very closely with the customer to provide a product that allows them to optimize their design for overall cost and performance utilizing a wide variety of configurations, materials, special processes and flexibility which many other bearings companies can not provide.”

Kaydon’s versatility and ability to custom design bearings sets it apart from the field. Kaydon makes bearings from a variety of specialty materials, including ceramics, non-ferrous alloys and high temperature steels and diameters many other companies cannot provide. “We can provide miniature bearings that require tweezers to pick up to large diameter bearings that you can drive your car through,” Lage says.

Global reach
Kaydon Bearings has five manufacturing plants, all in North America, which supply distributorships around the world. The company employs approximately 650 people.

Kaydon Bearings headquartered in Muskegon, Mich., is connected to the original bearing plant started in 1941. Kaydon Bearings also has plants in Mocksville, N.C., two in Sumter, S.C. and a fifth plant in Monterrey, Mexico.

“The U.S. had a recession in the manufacturing world for several years that made things difficult for a lot of companies, us included,” Purchase says. “But given our diversification into many industries and applications, our fluctuations are somewhat limited and things are going strong now. In addition to strong sales in the U.S., Europe and Japan we see real potential in other parts of the world and are active in India and China, for instance.”

To facilitate its operations, Kaydon Bearings has adopted a couple of new philosophies in the manufacturing process: lean manufacturing, which reduces costs and increases efficiency, and the Six Sigma approach made popular by Motorola and General Electric several years ago.

“The Six Sigma program has been a huge investment for us,” Purchase says. “We think it’s paying off in improved communication, better problem solving, cost reduction and productivity gains throughout the corporation. It’s not the sort of thing that produces changes overnight but it’s becoming ingrained in our culture putting us in good shape for the future.”

So it seems Kaydon Bearings has set the stage for its own vertical takeoff.