The littlest things and a big challenge

Recently I had meetings in the Akron-Canton, Ohio area and a friend of mine suggested I ought to stop in and see Timken for a fuel saving idea they have.  Immediately I thought, Timken equals wheel bearings, what opportunity could there be for fuel savings on an 80,000 lb. tractor trailer on such a little thing as wheel bearings?

Well, I was wrong! I had a great three hour discussion with their product development, engineering and sales teams exploring what can be done with something as small as bearings.

The visit confirmed the little I already knew about bearings: they are a crucial part because they help keep the wheels on the tractors and trailers, haven’t had any significant change to their dimensions in over 90 years and are pretty well integrated inside the wheel ends.

But I learned some stuff too. With test capabilities, modern engineering analysis methodologies, and advanced materials, these wheel bearings can be redesigned to be smaller, saving weight and their rolling resistance can be significantly improved.  All four SuperTruck programs have incorporated these newly designed bearings into their fuel-efficient prototypes and are testing them for the Department of Energy.  I also discovered that even these tiny parts can offer some pretty mighty improvements. 

Timken leaders shared that their current design iteration saves about 35 lbs. across the tractor and trailer, and even more weight can be saved with a change in hub design.  Also, the torque is decreased by 40% on a test stand, bringing about a small but not insignificant fuel savings.

Of course there are challenges.  First and foremost is the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  When something hasn’t changed much in 90 years it’s hard to convince folks that the change you are making is not only good but necessary.  But given the challenges of high fuel cost and the demands from fleets wanting to lightweight their vehicles to add payload, every little bit counts.  All four of the major truck builders believe so. 

This high performance bearing story started me thinking about what other parts on the truck might be improved with better test methods, new engineering analyses and advanced materials? 

I’m guessing probably all of them! If that sounds like a challenge to industry suppliers, it is. I’m curious to see what the brilliant engineering minds in the trucking industry can come up with when the gauntlet has been laid down.

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