Rolling contact fatigue is a particular type of fatigue that occurs in heavily loaded, non-conformal contacts, such as gears and rolling element bearings. It is primarily a failure mode associated with repeated cyclic loading that generates high local Hertzian pressures, leading to local plastic deformation and substantial surface or sub surface stress. This in turn leads to crack formation and propagation. In some instances this results in sudden and often critical mechanical failure of contacting parts. This failure mode can, to a certain degree, be controlled by the appropriate choice of lubricant; in terms of both the physical and chemical properties of the films formed at the surface.
A three contact disc machine has been used to examine the rolling contact fatigue of motorcycle lubricants in such heavily loaded contacts. Three counterface test rings of equal diameter (54mm) are mounted 120° apart with a smaller (12mm diameter) test roller in the centre. Using this configuration, a large number of contact cycles are possible in a short period of time (up to one million per hour), which greatly accelerates the testing test.
Using appropriate test conditions, the rig is able to replicate the tribological conditions typically found in both gears and bearings, giving the macropitting failure mode prevalent in such components. The magnitude of the applied stress may well be below the yield strength of the material, but it is the repetitive application of load which is sufficient to cause fatigue failure. By its very nature, any form of fatigue is a statistically random process and any finite collection of similar specimens, run under a fixed set of conditions (load, speed and lubricant) will belong to a population defined by the manner in which the fatigue lives of individual members are distributed. The results are presented in the form of a single mode Weibull distribution.
In this paper it is shown that lubricants within the same viscosity grade can give statistically significant differences in rolling contact fatigue resistance. This is shown to depend primarily on lubricant composition (additive/base oil combination), which give quite different friction performance, particularly in the mixed lubrication regime. The paper will conclude with a discussion of the statistical significance of the fatigue results and its applicability to real engines.
Keywords: Fatigue, tribology, bearings, failure modes and effects analysis