Why bearings will be essential to Agriculture 4.0 - Specialty bearings support precision in smart actuators and intelligent sensors

According to the European Commission (EC), “The digitalisation of the European agricultural sector has the potential to revolutionise the industry, promoting efficiency, sustainability and competitiveness”. New technologies, including smart actuators and intelligent sensors will be vital to Agriculture 4.0 and ‘precision agriculture’. But a vital component in these technologies mustn’t be overlooked: bearings. Here, Chris Johson, managing director at SMB Bearings, explains how speciality bearings support smoother movement, reduced friction and a great precision on Agriculture 4.0 farms.


The EC predicts that everything from artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics to the Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G will all “offer invaluable support for farmers and agribusinesses”. This is reflected by changes in the markets, as reported by Forbes: “[The] autonomous-farming industry is beginning to boom, with approximately 200 AI-based agricultural startups in the US alone”.


The Forbes report cites “self-driving tractors and combine harvesters, robot swarms for crop inspection and autonomous sprayers” as being among key Industry 4.0 technologies that will revolutionise farming — or ‘Agriculture 4.0’. These technologies can converge with smart actuators, intelligent sensors, electric motors and alternative drive systems.


For instance, AI can help optimise crop management thanks to real-time data analysis from intelligent sensors. This data can then guide smart actuators, which produce a motion by converting energy and signals going into a system like an autonomous sprayer. The actuators can control the height or angle of the crop sprayer, positioning the nozzle to work more effectively. Another example would be an electric motor controlled by a variable speed drive (VSD). The motor’s performance can be guided by AI algorithms to optimise its performance and energy consumption, again based on real-time data.


These processes are being referred to as ‘precision agriculture’, where automated Agriculture 4.0 devices operate more effectively and accurately based on a hotbed of real-time data. Essential variables like soil conditions, crop health and other environmental factors can be monitored to optimise yield, resource efficiency and sustainability. Moreover, this data management and remote control of equipment can be accelerated by high-speed 5G connections so farmers can make faster and more valuable decisions.


However, precision agriculture is also putting farmers under pressure. Higher demands are also being placed on equipment; while self-driving tractors may seem like a magic solution, they are still machines that require ongoing maintenance. The onus is on maintenance engineers to guarantee high quality equipment, in order that modern farmers can stay competitive and get the most from Agriculture 4.0.


Precise movement

This brings us to an essential component in Agriculture 4.0, which the latest technologies like smart actuators, intelligent sensors and alternative drive systems all rely upon: speciality bearings.


For instance, bearings are essential for providing smooth and precise linear motion in smart actuators. They support the movement of the actuator shaft or rod, ensuring minimal friction and efficient operation. Bearings distribute the loads applied to the actuator evenly, which prevents excessive wear and facilitates consistent performance. This is especially important in applications where precise force and positioning are required.


In electric motors, bearings support the rotor and shaft, allowing them to rotate with minimal friction. This is crucial for the efficient and reliable operation of the motor. Bearings handle both axial and radial loads in electric motors, ensuring stability and smooth rotation. This is particularly important in high-speed Agriculture 4.0 applications where precise control is necessary.


Speciality bearings can help maintain the alignment of Industry 4.0 sensor components, for more accurate data collection. This information is especially useful to modern farmers. Forbes reports, “To survive today, farmers need to be experts in fertilizers and soil, insecticides specific to different crops, planting and irrigation cycles and weather impacts, among other things”.


Elsewhere, smart bearings with built-in sensors — which gained popularity in automotive anti-lock braking systems (ABS) — are now being increasingly adopted by industry. Smart bearings can be affixed to Agriculture 4.0 technologies to gather various data, including measuring force and torque measurements or external factors like weather conditions, crop characteristics and more.


But which speciality bearings should engineers choose for faster, more precise Agriculture 4.0 tasks?


Equipment longevity

First, engineers should consider non-conductive bearings that resist corrosion and can withstand damp outdoor farming conditions. Second, the bearings should have an extended lifespan to significantly cut down on the maintenance of precision agriculture equipment.

Plastic bearings are less suited to this environment, as this type of bearing tends to wear down quickly. Instead, ceramic bearings are a more durable option due to their non-conductive properties and the material’s stiffness. Both the rings and balls are entirely made from ceramic, and are not to be confused with hybrid bearings, which have steel rings and ceramic balls.


Various types of ceramics are worth considering for precision farming applications. Zirconia is a popular option because of its high density and wide temperature range. Moreover, full ceramic bearings in zirconium oxide (ZrO2) typically handle 65 to 75 per cent of the load of a steel bearing, which is crucial for heavyweight farming machinery. Unlike plastic bearings, full ceramic ones need minimal upkeep, resulting in much longer intervals between replacements.


Specialty bearings play a vital role in facilitating smooth movement, reducing friction, and ensure precise functionality in smart actuators, intelligent sensors, and electric motors. Their proper selection and integration contribute significantly to the overall performance, efficiency, and longevity of these electromechanical systems and will be integral to Agriculture 4.0.


For more information on SMB Bearings’ full ceramic bearings and other bearings suitable for use in precision farming equipment, visit its website or email sales@smbbearings.com.


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