The Inevitable, And With Luck, The Only Bearing Article...
Reader "R" asked me a few questions about bearings via email. I wrote a longer reply to him than I expected, so since it is an almost acceptable overview of the world bearing business, I post this reply to him:
My best take on the bearing business at the macro level would be that it tracks the economy, a coinciding (current?) indicator. More global activity, more bearings being used (and burned out).
I would speculate that bearings, again as a whole, would be an industry that is growing SLIGHTLY less than the world economy. Technology, a big part of global economic activity, uses few bearings.
Bearings and machines are also becoming slightly better each year. When was the last time you changed your wheel bearings? Here in the USA, hardly anyone does that before 100,000 miles on a car. But, in Lima, the cars come in (mostly) used. The streets are bad. Taxis (a LARGE part of the fleet there) are often run 24 hours / day as are buses and vans. Mechanics there often do not mount them right or they might be working in dirty garages, etc. So, Peru is a place where they DO replace wheel bearings, more so than here.
15 or so years ago I read something from SKF (the world's biggest bearing company, out of Sweden, but they have plants everywhere) that said that about 50% of rolling bearings are used in vehicles and 50% are used in industry (mines, manufacturing washing machines, construction equipment, etc.).
Most of the bearing manufacturers are fairly large companies, but not huge, only Timken is in the "Fortune 500" for example. The bearing manufacturing business requires big capital expenditures (precision machinery) and yet is very competitive. So, it is not a particularly attractive business to be in. The industry is slowly consolidating (our KBC brand (Korea) was bought out by the Germans (FAG) and then FAG was bought out by the other German bearing company (INA). As I have not done any real research in the past several years about the industry as a whole, the list below (from largest on down) is only approximately right:
NTN (Japan, NTN years ago bought Bower/BCA (part of Federal-Mogul) of the US)
Koyo (Japan, Toyota's bearing company, we call them "Koyota" in Peru)
SNR (France, but they may just been bought by NTN of Japan)
ZWZ (China, their most respected brand, ZWZ makes railroad car bearings)
Kaydon (USA, special bearings like slewing rings -- think rotating turrets on tanks...)
Iljin (Korea, wheel bearings and some special bearings)
Lots of Chinese companies!
MBS (Japan, specialized bearings for cars, owned by the Maekawa family)
The biggest change I see in the bearing industry is that everyone is moving their plants to China (what else is new).
There are only two, maybe three, areas where certain bearings are growing in sales: