Analysis Lubrication Non-Destructive Testing Vibration monitoring

These Techniques Find Bearing Faults

EP Editorial Staff | April 10, 2023

Six condition-monitoring technologies can help you prevent catastrophic motor-bearing failure.

By Chris Johnson, SMB Bearings

It is estimated that bearing faults account for approximately half of all failures in electric machines. The consequences of failure can result in unplanned downtime, machine breakdowns, equipment damage, and financial losses. To prevent this and ensure consistent performance, effective bearing maintenance is essential. However, when a single machine can contain numerous bearings, how can this be managed?

Of the often hundreds of bearings found in machines, most of them will outlive the machine itself. In fact, very few bearings actually fail in service. Unfortunately, when they do, the impact can be significant. Having an effective condition-monitoring strategy in place helps to mitigate this risk.

Vibration analysis

Vibration monitoring and analysis is one of the most common ways to measure bearing performance and implement predictive maintenance. Machinery emits vibration signals, as does the movement and interaction between components within the bearing itself. Any changes in these signals that aren’t caused by changes to operational conditions can indicate an issue with machine health. 

Typically faults in moving components such as bearings are responsible for signal changes. These changes can be detected using equipment such as accelerometers and vibration velocity transducers. These defective signals may be caused by geometric imperfections, surface roughness, improper lubrication, or contamination.

Vibration monitoring is an acceptable and reliable form of condition monitoring, with standards such as ISO 10816 available for vibration evaluation. When implemented correctly it can be an extremely effective way to detect bearing faults, but it can be costly to set up and requires direct access to the machine to install sensors. 

It may also not be suitable for low-speed machines or environments with high levels of noise, where defect signals may be weaker and harder to detect. This has been found to be the case in applications such as turbines, engines, and transmissions. For these cases, other methods might be more appropriate. 

Acoustic emission

In environments with high levels of noise, low-frequency vibrational changes caused by such small parts are often almost undetectable. However, these defects produce waves in higher frequency ranges (100 kHz), known as acoustic emission (AE). 

These transient elastic waves are produced by releasing energy caused by defects on the surface of a material or component. They can be generated by faulty or damaged bearings and picked up by an AE transducer with little interference from surrounding machinery. Though this can be a little more costly and the signals require expert analysis, this method can provide a high signal-to-noise ratio and be used in a range of environments to monitor bearing condition. 

Chemical analysis

Bearings often rely on oil and grease to lubricate them and to ensure their function. Exposure to heat can degrade lubricants and produce chemical byproducts. General wear can also produce debris. Oils and greases can be analyzed to examine the debris present and to determine whether it has resulted from the wear or the bearing itself, which may suggest a wider fault and can be used to monitor conditions. 

Performing chemical analysis on oils and greases is a simple and effective way to detect degradation, but this method is most suited to larger machines with lubricated bearings. 

Temperature analysis

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers standard IEEE 841 states that, at a rated load, the stabilized bearing temperature rise should be no more than 113 F (45 C). Many factors can influence temperature rise, including bearing or lubricant degradation, operational speeds, or the temperature within the motor itself. 

Monitoring this temperature increase for unusual levels can alert engineers to a fault within the bearing and allow investigation. This method is traditional and effective as it allows quantitative measurement of specific parameters, but it does require the installation of embedded temperature sensors. 

Stator current monitoring

Current monitoring is most often used to measure the condition of bearings in electric machines and motors. A faulty bearing in a motor can cause changes in flux density, which will lead to stator current variation. This variation can be measured to identify bearing faults and is very straightforward and non-invasive to implement. 

The required parameters can be measured using existing systems in electromechanical operations, meaning that additional sensors are often not necessary, and the implementation cost is lower. In some cases, it can be carried out remotely from a control room. 

Measuring stator current can also give a wider overview of machine health, rather than just that of the bearings. The main limitation is that signal-to-noise ratio can be low, and signatures can be harder to detect in some applications. Though research has identified frequencies associated with single-point faults, more general issues, such as roughness, are not as well characterized. Overall, however, this is an effective method for electric machinery and motor systems. 

Infrared thermography

Measuring infrared emissions can provide insight into bearing performance. Using thermography equipment or infrared cameras can measure the release of infrared energy and highlight areas where temperatures vary. Improper lubrication and other faults that affect speed or load can induce heat variation or overheating. Infrared can visually identify areas of concern, allowing engineers to see the exact location of the potential fault. 

This technique relies on the defect producing excess heat, meaning that it’s not always sensitive enough to detect early issues or those not severe enough to generate infrared emissions, but it does allow rapid analysis of bearing condition in many cases. 

With bearings such a crucial component of many machines, effectively monitoring their condition should be a priority for any industrial operation. There are many techniques to achieve this, depending on the industrial operation, the type of machinery used, and the equipment available. 

The best method to monitor bearing conditions will depend on the operation itself. Implementing a suitable method to measure bearing health and to detect and identify faults before they become more serious is an invaluable way to ensure bearing performance and to prevent failures, costly breakdowns, and unplanned downtime. EP

Chris Johnson is Managing Director at specialist bearing supplier, SMB Bearings, Oxfordshire, UK (


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