If you are buying Chinese Bearings, You should read this!
I wasn’t around when Leonardo da Vinci sketched the first ball bearing in the 1500s, or even when Germany developed the first high production bearing factories in the 1940s, however, my short 40 years of experience in the bearing industry has taught me a few things, much of which is beneficial to anyone buying bearings, and particularly, Chinese bearings.
In the late 1940s and 50s, bearing manufacturing in the U.S. took off, with a proliferation of many small bearing companies ranging from divisions of General Motors to the Timken Bearing Company and hundreds of others. Growing up in Connecticut, there were dozens in Connecticut alone. But over time, the number of bearing producers in the U.S. began to shrink. Through consolidation, agglomeration and migration from Europe and Japan, only a few very large players now dominate the U.S. and world market.
It was in the 1960s when the Japanese bearing producers started expanding into the North American market, led by a small number of now well-known names in the industry from the multitude of companies making bearings in Japan at that time. While the rest of the world had gone through a massive consolidation process, it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that China’s policy towards privately owned enterprise changed. The Chinese Government identified the bearing industry, and targeted that market by using their resources in an effort to make China a world-class bearing producer. This resulted in thousands of small bearing companies being started and over time the restructure of many of the large state owned companies.
I started selling bearings from China in 1990 and began working directly with China in 1996. By this time the Chinese Government was well on their way to establishing China as a world-class bearing producer. The government had set up bearing industry standards, most of which were patterned after ISO and ABMA standards. Government run research and test facilities spread around China to help producers make quality product. For comparison, in the early 1990s the product I was selling from China was good for luggage wheels, roller skates, and low speed conveyers, but by the late 1990s, electric motor quality bearings were available for medium speed applications like power tools, vacuum cleaner motors, and other consumer products. These thousands of small bearing companies that were born are now just starting the evolutionary cycle, which has already transformed the US, European, and Japanese bearing industries.
I have personally made over 500 visits to Chinese bearing factories over the past 22 years and it is astonishing to me how far China has come from replacing non precision bearings with precision bearings, to making machine tool spindle aircraft quality products. In my earlier years, I was not surprised to visit factories that had dirt floors and conditions that would give an OSHA inspector a heart attack. In recent years, I have visited state of the art manufacturing facilities with real time data collection of ground raceway dimensions automatically fed into a computer with instantly updated manufacturing statistics of every single piece that is ground. Some factories have become fully automated, without a single person touching the finished parts.
The world bearing industry is dominated by multibillion-dollar multinational bearing producers. China on the other hand is dominated by thousands of bearing producers, all ranging in their capabilities. To give you perspective, there are over 2,000 producers in Jiangsu Province alone. It’s not unlikely for one company or purchasing department to be burned by one or even several Chinese companies before becoming completely turned off by all other Chinese product. When I explain this to my clients, my favorite example is a statement made by my international trade attorney: “99% of lawyers give the rest of us a bad name.” Which, unfortunately, is also a great statement when replacing the word ‘lawyers’ with ‘Chinese bearing companies.’ There are world-class producers in China, but the key is finding them.
Size also doesn’t dictate capability. I have visited companies in the $50 million range that only produce a handful of sizes. Some others that only make 608 ball bearings, no other sizes. Also, the bigger bearing companies will generally quote everything on your list of requirements. You need to figure out which ones they make in house and which ones they outsource as well as the consistency of their outsourcing.
China’s come a long way since the 1990s, but still today there are many bearing companies in China that do not understand the mindset of a potential U.S. customer. They assume everyone wants the least expensive product available and so they start out cheap and when the parts do not pass they expect another chance.
Having spent almost 4 months of my life on a plane, and 3 years of compiled time living in China devoting my life to this industry, my recommendations have afforded me a career worth of knowledge that cannot be confined to this article. However, in order to provide some direction, anyone buying bearings should at least adhere to the following when buying from China.
The key to success is identifying your needs and goals. Evaluate the types of bearings you need. Separate size range, preferably by machine size and volume requirements. Prioritize these groups. Evaluate the dollar potential to see if Chinese bearing companies might be interested, and determine your expectations for savings. Remember, China operates in a mass production mindset. Going to China for small specialized sizes is most likely not in your best interest. This will help make the project feasible. And overall, you must visit the factory. If you don’t travel to China, you are wasting your time. Finally, don’t get discouraged. My original business model, which currently includes two full time offices in Shanghai and Beijing, was to help small to medium size companies save money in China. I believed smaller companies who could not afford the expense of opening offices in China would find benefit from our offered services. Contrary to my original belief, I have spent the majority of my career servicing the needs of Fortune 500 companies who had teams of representatives in China on countless occasions and still came up empty handed. The companies that have succeeded in finding reliable Chinese partners more often than not saved millions of dollars.
The rest of the world has consolidated, however, China is still evolving. If you can navigate your way through the sea of endless suppliers, you will succeed. And if you still don’t believe in Chinese bearings, just remember, unless you haven’t traveled in the last 5 years, you have likely flown on an airplane, ridden in a car, truck, or train with Chinese bearings supporting the most critical components of that vehicle.