Unravelling Polymers

The Definitive Blog on Polymers by Poly Fluoro Ltd.

PTFE Sliding Bearings: Calculating Coefficient of Friction

PTFE is a preferred material in sliding bearings for three very specific reasons:

  1. Load bearing capacity
  2. Weather ability (due to its overall chemical inertness)
  3. Low coefficient of friction

The first two factors are well accepted and easily tested. The vertical load on a bearing is simply tested by placing the bearing under a hydraulic press of suitable capacity, applying 1.25 times the rated load of the bearing and holding this load for a period of 1 hour to observe any adverse impact on the bearing material. In our own experience, it is very rare that pure PTFE would fail in this instance, since:

  1. Pure PTFE genuinely does have a very high load capacity and even in the event of over-loading, would tend to deform rather than break down
  2. The design load for most bearings incorporates a safety factor of up to 60% – implying that while PTFE may be able to withstand a load of up to 40Mpa, it is designed with a load of only 16Mpa and is thus well within its own capacity to take the load applied

Weather ability is difficult to test, as this is a long-term guarantee that the material can stay in outdoor conditions without experiencing any degradation in properties. However, most clients are happy to take this assurance at face value – as long as they can satisfy themselves that the material being used is in-fact pure PTFE. Its should be mentioned here that in the event that reprocessed or recycled PTFE is used in sliding bearings (a gross violation of quality norms, but one that may occur all the same, especially if the bearing manufacturer is buying their PTFE from a third-party and is therefore not directly in control of the quality), there will definitely be a failure of the bearing after installation.

As mentioned in earlier articles, we have witnessed many deviations from expected performance when presented with reprocessed PTFE. Amongst these is the tendency of the material to become brittle and even crumble after being kept outside for a prolonged period (usually over a few months). No doubt, a similar effect would be experienced by a material used in a bearing that is installed on a bridge or flyover – with the result that the bearing may fail after only a year of service.

Coefficient of friction

The problem with the coefficient of friction is that most people are not fully familiar with what it implies. So let us start with defining it and then look at the misassumptions surrounding it.

The coefficient of friction between two planes is defined as the ratio of the force needed to move one plane over the other divided by the force pushing the two planes together.

So in the case of a block resting on a table, coefficient of friction between the block and table would simply be the force needed to slide the block across the table, dived by the weight of the block itself.

Since the coefficient is a ratio of two forces, it does not have any units. A common mistake clients make is to ask us to define the unit we have considered for the coefficient of friction.

In the case of the PTFE sliding bearing, the coefficient of friction being considered is that between PTFE and polished stainless steel. Here again, a mistake is often made asking what the coefficient of friction of PTFE is. There is no such thing as a stand-alone value for coefficient of friction for any material. The coefficient between PTFE and polished stainless steel will no doubt be much lower that between PTFE and concrete. In other words, it would take more force to move a slab of PTFE across a concrete surface than it would to move the same slab across a polished stainless steel surface. Thus, when we talk about a coefficient of 0.04 between PTFE and stainless steel (the commonly accepted value for bearing manufacturers), we are saying that for a 1Kg PTFE block to slide across a polished stainless steel surface, it would require only 40 Grams of horizontal force. (Note: we are aware here that Kgs and Grams are units of mass and not force, but seeing as these are ratios of force, the values in Kgs/Grams against the values in Newtons would yield the same results).

Measuring coefficient of friction

We have already described that the value for the coefficient is derived by dividing the horizontal force over the vertical force. However, in practice, this is less straightforward. We would like to look at some of the methods that are used around the world to check these values as pertaining specifically to PTFE bearings, before describing what we feel is the most straightforward and easily implemented method.

  1. Two-press methodIt is not possible to test the bearings simply by applying a vertical load and seeing at what horizontal load the bearing slides. This is because the bearing plate on which the horizontal load is applied also has another surface, which would be in contact with the vertical press and therefore be subject to friction from the press itself (which is likely to be very high).Therefore, the accepted method is to place 2 bearings, back-to-back and exert load on the centre.This process is technically sound, but practically not always feasible. For starters, the bearing shape itself may not lend itself to being placed back to back. It may have welded guides attached to it or be of an unusual shape. In addition to this, the process in expensive – requiring two hydraulic presses.
  2. Load indicator method (laboratory)In this method, the stainless steel plate is placed horizontally with the PTFE plate on top. The PTFE plate is connected to a steel wire which is in-turn connected to a load indicator. The load indicator has a motor, which causes it to move upwards very slowly. As the indicator moves up and the wire gets tight, the load reading starts to show the horizontal load being applied. Once the PTFE platestarts to move, the reading is recorded and divided by the weight of the PTFE plate to give the coefficient of friction.This method is possibly the most accurate, as load indicators can offer values in milligrams, if required. However, it again suffers from the issue that if the bearing plates are not totally flat or are too big for the equipment, they cannot be accurately tested. Furthermore, it is debatable whether such accuracy is needed in the realm of sliding bearings
  3. Poly Fluoro method (inclined plane)In an attempt to find a quick, repeatable, logical and universally applicable method to check the coefficient of friction, our method follows the rather simple process of gauging the angle of inclination. For starters, we do not believe that getting an accurate value of the coefficient of friction would add any value to the product. If we can confirm that the plates slide at a coefficient of friction set to 0.04, then it does not matter whether the coefficient is in-fact 0.032 or 0.036, as the product has met its required specification.

    The diagrams  show that when the planes are inclined, the coefficient of friction takes the value of the tangent of the angle of inclination. This allows us to easily check the coefficient of friction, as we simply set the ratio of Y to X to equal 0.04 and check if the PTFE plate slides down the plane, when placed on the SS plate. Again – note here that only in the event that the PTFE plate does not slide, can we conclude that the coefficient is greater than 0.04 (and hence outside tolerance). Whether the plate slides slowly or very fast, is of no consequence – as either way it confirms that the coefficient is at least 0.04.

    In the event that the client specifies a higher or lower coefficient, the same method can be employed, by simply changing the value of Y. So we first assess what the value of Y should be by multiplying the length of the bearing plate by 0.04 and then use a calibrated slip gauge to prop up the bearing on one side (preferably on a flat bed) so that the angle is attained.

    The method employed here is useful to check PTFE bearings as it can be applied to any design and multiple bearings can be checked from one lot if needed, without the hassle of making separate fixtures and modifications. Furthermore, it can be checked even before the bearing is assembled so as to confirm that the PTFE material being employed meets the parameters.

Static vs Dynamic coefficients

It must be mentioned that both static and dynamic coefficients of friction are relevant metrics and that the inclined plane method only measures the static coefficient. However, this is of no concern for PTFE bearings as PTFE is known to exhibit nearly identical values for both static and dynamic coefficients (a property unique to PTFE and not universally applicable).

We believe that the method described above is a more effective way to check for a very important parameter that bearings are based on.

PEEK in India - A Growing Market with Many Challenges

At Poly Fluoro Ltd. we started our journey with PTFE and gradually expanded into other polymers. Initially, this was at the behest of existing customers, but over time our expertise in machining plastics meant that we were comfortable offering a variety of options to our clients, rather than try and force fit PTFE into their application.
We discovered the benefits of PEEK in one such exercise. Although we have already blogged extensively on the benefits and properties of PEEK, our own experience in dealing with this material serves to explain much of the commercial and technical queries surrounding this material.

PEEK in India is a small market in terms of volumes. The total consumption is only about 35 Tonnes. Of this, most of the material is imported as semi-finished rods and sheet, with only 12-15 Tonnes being processed from resin indigenously. Small as these numbers are, keep in mind that semi-finished PEEK sells at anywhere between US$275-US$400 per Kg – so in value terms, the market is not as small as the volumes suggest. Nonetheless, it is very much a niche market – even among speciality polymers.

Being present in the PEEK market as a processor poses many challenges. Some of these are technical in nature, while others relate to the commercial issue (PEEK is very expensive) and how clients respond to PEEK. Again, we have touched on some of these points in our earlier article – but as we have delved deeper into PEEK processing, many new findings have arisen.

Compression moulding PEEK not a simple affair

There are many challenges in compression moulding PEEK and most of these do not get explicitly highlighted in manuals and guidebooks. In most manuals, the process is outlined in 5-6 basic steps, which at first glance make PEEKappear a very friendly material to deal with.

In reality, the process is time-consuming, highly sensitive to the exact process needed and very specific in the type of tooling required.

The benefit of compression moulding PEEK over, say extrusion is that we are able to make customized dimensions based on the customer drawings. The stock piece for a part measuring 70mm in diameter can be moulded as 72mm, rather than using a 75mm rod. Over a 50mm length, this saves almost 25 Grams per part – which is significant when we consider the cost per Kg. Furthermore, if the part has an internal diameter the saving is even more, as the same cannot be attained in extrusion for large diameters.

However, against this saving, the time consumed to make a 50mm part would be many times what extrusion would take. Compression moulding is known for low productivity and even a large processor is only able to consume 20-25 Kgs per day of production. In India, however, where labour is inexpensive, this is not a huge cost factor – it only limits volumes. And since PEEK is still a low volume polymer – even processing 4-5 Kgs a day can be significant.

The actual process of compression moulding PEEK is also not straightforward. The 5-6 steps mentioned in the manuals each contain nuances that need to be fine tuned until you reach a process that most suits the equipment available. In our own experience, we have found that over 25-30 trials had to be taken, each using up between 250-800 Grams of resin. After each trial, some parameters were changed before taking another trial. Parameters such as pressure, peak temperature and soak time all need to be varied to control issue such as porosity, cracking, black spots and cold spots.

In addition to this, the selection of dies is critical. PEEK, in its molten form can be a very aggressive material and we have had many steel dies get corroded during moulding. Again – finding a balance between a strong die metal and the correct process is critical in obtaining a final process that is both economical and productive and which yields a high quality final product.

Variants and substitutes do exist for the price conscious

We have had some success in blending PTFE with PEEK ratios of 5%, 10% and 15% by weight (ie: PTFE+5/10/15% PEEK). Again – the process of blending is not straightforward and the PTFE itself needs to be processed slightly differently owing to the fact that PEEK melts at a higher temperature than PTFE. However, the final blend has proven to be useful in applications involving sealing and needing high wear resistance, with a low coefficient of friction.

Another alternative to PEEK is PEKPEK is very similar to PEEK and is processed in much the same way. As far as properties go, some have even suggested it is slightly superior on some parameters. Commercially, it is roughly half the price of PEEK – which makes it a very tempting alternative. However, PEK is still being proven in OEM applications, whereas PEEK has been around long enough to give any OEM designer confidence in its properties.

Marketing PEEK is a challenge

In a market like India – which is highly price sensitive – PEEK is a difficult product to win customers over with.

PEEK is usually the last choice of any OEM due to its price, and if someone has not come across the material before, it takes some educating before they are convinced that any polymer exists at such a price. And while PEEK is well established in the West – in India, it is still very nascent in comparison and clients do not always see the long-term benefits of using it.

Furthermore, the relatively recent introduction of PEK into India is threatening to take some of the long-term market share from PEEK, as in a price sensitive market, people may be willing to make the gamble on a cheaper substitute.

Mapping the PTFE Price Increase - An Update

We have been receiving many mails asking us to map or at least project the PTFE price trend going forward. Since our last post on PTFE pricing was about a year ago (Feb 2012), it is a valid question to ask whether there has been any further volatility in this market and what that implies for prices as a whole.

To lay any suspense to rest right away – we can firmly say that prices have indeed been stable this past year and it is due to this stability that our own interest in analyzing the prices has dimmed somewhat. However, that is not to say that things would continue along this vein indefinitely. PTFE is a complex material and the dynamics involving its manufacture and sale are constantly in flux – meaning that the next shock may just be around the corner at any time. So we would like to look at some of the buzz surrounding the industry in a hope to at least demystify the future to some extent.

Prices are expected to remain stable throughout 2013

This is the general consensus as of now and is due to two primary factors:

  1. There is a general slowdown in global demand (much in line with most other industries) that makes it risky for resin manufactures to experiment with pricing like was done early in the price escalation of 2010-11
  2. There was a significant over supply of resins when prices were high and this led to huge inventories which manufacturers are still offloading

In some areas it is believed that there is still some scope for prices to fall further. However, it is most widely accepted that the current rates are stable and should be for the foreseeable future

China still a key player – but not the only price maker

Back in 2010, it was largely a price war between manufacturers that led to very low PTFE prices. Much of this was driven by China – where the abundance of fluorspar and the support from their government allowed Chinese PTFE manufacturers to scale up very quickly.

Although China remains a key player still, a few factors are affecting their economics and scale right now:

  1. The government support has reduced for PTFE resin manufacturers in China. With the clamping down of R22 within China (for environmental reasons), there is a subsidy of US$0.5 per Kg of R22, which is no longer being offered by the Chinese government.  Owing to this, Chinese manufacturers have had to pass on this cost increase of about US$2 per Kg on to PTFE processors
  2. Due to quality issues with Chinese resins, many OEMs have started specifying that their parts be made from resins such as DuPont, Daikin or AGC. Many semi-finished PTFE processors have also shifted away from Chinese resins due to the instability of the material. It was long believed that China reserved the good quality resin for their domestic manufacture and preferred to dump the off spec Chinese resins was upheld by the Indian government). This has hit the volumes of Chinese resin manufacturersgrades into other countries (one of the reasons why the anti-dumping duty on
  3. Another key issue is repro material. While India earlier had significant imports of Chinese semi-finished PTFE materials, most of this was repro material but was being passed off as 100% pure virgin PTFE in the local market. This high intake of semi-finished PTFE was affecting the local semi-finished manufacturers as well as local resin suppliers. However – owing to the major quality issues with repro and the lack of accountability and transparency in the percentage of repro being incorporated, many companies have had to stop procuring semi-finished PTFE from China and have started buying domestically – where it is easier to monitor quality and also return material if found defective. This has led to a resurgence in domestic PTFEsemi-finished goods production and also an increased off-take from local resin manufacturers.

With China on the back foot due to the reasons listed above, it may be safe to say that price manipulation and/or competition is for the time being not a threat – since it is usually with China that most of these issue do arise. Hence, the current view is that of stability – and we should enjoy that while it lasts.