Member profile: BNL Bearings

21 January 2021 #Uncategorised

Richard Bramham, sales and marketing director

Tell us a bit about your business. When were you founded, where are you based and how many people do you employ?
BNL was founded in 1970 – we celebrated our half century last year. Our founder was David Garnett, who, experiencing the limitations of machined plastic bearings, developed a way of successfully moulding them for higher quality and better performance. To this day, BNL bearings is known for being the first to pioneer use of the injection moulding process for effective production of plastic bearings suitable for a growing number of automotive and commercial vehicle applications, including in the interior and steering column. Based in Knaresborough, North Yorkshire, we are a major employer of more than 100 people, plus we have a second factory in Thailand, with production, engineering and sales sites in Massachusetts in the USA, Tokyo in Japan and Shanghai in China. Overall, we employ nearly 300 people worldwide and support a global customer base.

What does the business do?
BNL’s first products were moulded plastic bearings, of industry standard sizing, for markets such as material handling, food processing and shower enclosures – but we have developed into a designer and manufacturer of custom plastic bearings and mechanisms, with a large automotive client base. Our custom bearings integrate features and functions, and are injection moulded as a single product. They became increasingly popular among automotive clients, including for commercial vehicle applications, offering component reduction, inventory simplification, fewer assembly steps and overall cost reductions. Our moulding process creates bearings with a hard-wearing surface for a longer life and better performance than machined plastic bearings, and they are lighter, corrosion resistant and do not need lubrication, so are an alternative to metal bearings in some situations.

We have a symbiotic relationship with the automotive industry, who have been an enthusiastic supporter of our exclusive designs – and we in turn, have been driven to develop our design and moulding techniques to meet strict automotive industry specifications and IATF certification. For example, our steering column bearings are now designed with many features developed to meet a specific automotive requirement: integrated crush ribs and soft-touch silicone labyrinths to handle load and impact; twin-shot casings for extra strength; custom-designed diametrical clearance to handle variable temperatures; fine tuning of specific bearing features to influence factors such as noise, vibration and harshness in customers’ steering systems.

What are the big issues or technological advances that fill you with positivity?
One of our most dynamic business areas is our development work for automotive control products. Our rotary control knob bearings are single, plastic-moulded bearing mechanisms, with custom-integrated haptic features, such as moulded detents, castellations for optical sensors and custom springs. As with our steering column bearings, we design them to meet the specific torque and haptic requirement of the customer.

As automotive cockpit technology has advanced, we have been involved in the development of on-screen rotary controls in collaboration with our Tier 1 customers and the leaders in capacitive screen technology, Microchip. Touchscreen displays are very popular, but drivers have shown a preference for the accuracy and feedback confirmation they get from a rotary control knob; so, we are seeing a growth in demand for these types of combined rotary knob and capacitive screen controls.

Another exciting area for us is the pushing of boundaries for plastic bearing capabilities in applications where they would traditionally be discounted. By investing in new design techniques, manufacturing methods and material innovation we are overcoming the temperature and load restrictions in upper steering column and firewall applications, which we expect to lead to opportunities in new applications in other markets also.

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