Afterthought – Losing My Bearings

by Lloyd Graff

“Where have all the bearings gone?” This is the sad refrain of anybody looking to rebuild a machine whose mechanical joints depend on Timken tapered roller bearings. As far as Timken and most of its resellers are concerned the new chorus is “so long, it’s been good to know you…”

At Graff-Pinkert we were recently confronted with this serious issue when we sold a National Acme 15⁄8″ 8-spindle screw machine with new spindle bearings. This is still a very popular piece of machinery in the fittings world, and ironically, still a staple of some bearing manufacturers. Rex Magagnotti searched the usual suspects to buy the cups and cones in the well-branded orange boxes wrapped in oily paper, only to hear the words every buyer fears: “Out of stock, 18-week delivery.” To an Acme guy, this is like hearing that McDonald’s is out of french fries, or Wal-Mart is sold out of D-batteries.

I have always regarded Timken as a basic utility of the industrialized universe. I never thought they would ever fail to keep all of those zillions of balls – excuse me – tapered cylinders in the air. But the Timken scions in North Canton, Ohio have pulled the plug on their lifelong customers in their homage to the lean gospel and the bottom line. Now it’s 18 weeks, if you’re lucky, to secure spindle bearings for that growling Acme or centerless grinder that may be the core of your operation.

I talked to people at Timken, and the customer relations lady was frank. She told me that Timken has limited capacity so the part numbers that do not sell in significant quantities get pushed out until the run justifies a new setup.

They are rationing bearings in the marketplace, challenging their resellers to expand orders and daring them to stock the increasingly pricey cups and cones. The big resellers of bearings, also worshipping at the temple of lean, are reluctant to stock the expensive orange boxes that may sell in double digits each quarter.

If the real demand is out there, the market will eventually correct itself. I would not be surprised to see prices double for scarce spindle bearings like those for the workhorse 1-5/8” RBN-8 Acme Gridley as users decide to hoard them and specialty sellers see an opportunity for profit. We will see orange boxes of Timkens mysteriously emerge from dusty Vidmar cabinets around the world as industrious prospectors search for gold in the orange flotsam of defunct automotive plants.

Spindle bearings are high precision bearings in matched groupings. Taper Roller Bearings of Lexington, Ky. has developed a thriving business by purchasing standard grade Timkens and, by using sophisticated measuring techniques, matching them up to get the equivalent of Class 3 precision bearings. They are now suffering in this market because they cannot obtain enough standard or commercial grade bearings to meet the demand.

After years of shrinkage and neglect, the old screw machine world has reached a period of equilibrium, according to Andy McCarty of Taper Roller Bearings. Almost all of the workhorse machines are producing product, which means they are wearing themselves out. It also means more cash flow available for replacement bearings.

Meanwhile Timken, which makes its own steel in its own mills, is short of raw material for its bearing plants. They blame overwhelming global demand, especially China, which puts more pressure on the bosses to ration bearings to the statistically insignificant buyers of high precision spindle bearings, slighting National Acmes that aren’t even being made new anymore. Hard to blame them for concentrating on sexier, higher volume product streams.

It is hard for me not to lose my bearings when I’m struggling to fill an order from a vital customer. From experience, I know that if you search hard enough and are willing to part with serious money, commodities will suddenly materialize, but this is a hard way to run a business. I could also journey to Timken in North Canton and beg. Meanwhile, can anybody spare a set of bearings? I’ll replace them with interest in five months – I hope.

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