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A worker operates machinery at a ball-bearing factory in Cixi, a city in China's Zhejiang province that's been a hub for maing the industrial parts since 1984. China's massive ball-bearing business brought in $34-billion of total revenue in 2019.

Photography by Wu Hao/The Globe and Mail


This is part of a Globe and Mail series in which Beijing correspondent Nathan VanderKlippe looks at China’s present and future challenges before his return to Canada.

Inside the dim corridors of the Xinghuan Bearing factory, a procession of machines gives shape to one of the basic components of the industrial age. Round donuts of steel are heated to harden them before they pass through a mechanical gauntlet that grinds, polishes and assembles an outer ring, inner ring and spherical balls into a lightly oiled device that spins effortlessly at the flick of a finger.

That movement lies at the core of the modern world. Without a way to ease friction, motion itself would slow, and with it the manufacturing machines, cars, dentist drills, jet engines, heavy-lift cranes and myriad other devices that have achieved progress through easy rotation.

Ball bearings are to the industrial age what microchips are to the digital – and for China, with the world’s largest manufacturing industry and biggest automotive market, every bit as important.

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They also offer a cautionary tale about how the ambitions of this capital-rich, entrepreneurial country can founder against the shoals of fundamental science. China has manufactured ball bearings for as long as the Communist Party has been in power. And yet, its products largely occupy the bottom tiers of the market, unable to match the reliability and performance of the global leaders headquartered in Western countries.

Perfecting these building blocks of innovation is a priority for China. At stake is its future growth and its ability to defend against competitors such as the United States.

Washington has used sanctions to bar the country’s companies from buying leading-edge microchip technology. Beijing, in response, has marshalled every resource at its disposal to catch up. Chinese companies, governments and investors poured nearly $43-billion into semiconductor development in the past year alone. The imperative to conquer the microchip is a quest to accomplish in the digital age what it has failed to do in the industrial: master a fundamental technology.

President Xi Jinping has urged the country to become a global centre for science and innovation. “Only by holding these technologies in our own hands can we ensure economic security, national security and security in other areas,” he wrote in a widely publicized article earlier this year.

In the city of Cixi, the manufacture of ball bearings began in 1984. Today, it calls itself China’s “kingdom of bearings,” with an industry with 21,000 employees. Ball bearings are big business across China, with $34-billion in total 2019 revenues for an industry that counted 1,300 medium to large-scale companies and output of 19.6 billion bearings.

Mainland factories have made ball bearings since before the dawn of Communist China. Bearings are such a critical component that a factory was opened in Harbin, in the country’s north, to support Chinese forces fighting the U.S. in the Korean War. Later, Soviet engineers helped build new manufacturing plants.

Mao Zedong personally approved construction of a ball-bearing factory in Luoyang, an industrial outpost so important that its production lines drew personal visits by a procession of early Communist China’s most powerful men, Chairman Mao included.

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At top, ball bearings come through the production line in Cixi; at bottom, a worker operates one of the making machines. The manufacturing process for an individual bearing can take five or six days.

Ball bearings are a “national basic strategic industry” for China, Zhou Yu, chairman of the China Bearing Industry Association, said in a major speech in December, 2020. Mr. Zhou, however, spoke not to praise a bedrock industry, but to lament its weaknesses. The problems he identified included weakness in research and development, inadequate steel quality and shortfalls in equipment. It’s time, he said, for industry and government to work together in “moving from the low end to the high end of the global bearing industry chain.”

But firms in China often do “not have what I call deep, deep, deep knowledge, and a lot haven’t been willing to make the investment to acquire that knowledge because they often didn’t see the payoffs,” said Loren Brandt, a University of Toronto economics professor who has extensively studied the ball-bearing industry.

It’s a problem common to different areas of the Chinese economy. “There’s lots of other industries where they get to a certain point, and they kind of hit a dead end,” he said. “Ball bearings in some sense are fundamental.”

The seeming visual simplicity of a ball bearing belies great complexity. Tolerances for manufacturing defects are measured in billionths of a metre and components are made with highly specialized materials. The most sophisticated ball bearings stand at the apex of metallurgy, industrial design and tribology, the study of friction and wear.

Even in basic form, the manufacturing process is surprisingly involved. At the Xinghuan factory in Cixi, a single bearing takes five or six days to move through as many as 30 manufacturing steps. The company makes 90,000 to 100,000 a day. They sell for between 80 cents and $1.20 and will be used in relatively undemanding applications such as washing machines and vacuum cleaners. “We make mainly low-end and mid-level bearings,” said production manager Sun Jianhui.

To make top-flight bearings would require reimagining this factory as a laboratory. Production lines with doors currently open to the outdoors would need to be replaced with a facility built to space-age standards of cleanliness and dust control. “It’s extremely hard,” Mr. Sun said.

The manufacturing process for an individual bearing can take five or six days.

It is only in recent years that some Chinese-made ball bearings have attained the exacting standards of automotive and aerospace buyers, for whom a defect can be catastrophic.

Among the successes is Paragon Bearing Ltd., one of the few in the Cixi area to make higher-end products. Its customers include Porsche, Volkswagen and even Boeing.

Still, general manager Wang Zili acknowledges gaps with the Swedish, German and Japanese companies that dominate the upper echelons of the industry. “Just like with microchips, defects in equipment are the main problem,” he says.

It mainly comes down to money, he said. A standard piece of Chinese-made ball-bearing production equipment might cost tens of thousand of dollars. Foreign equipment can cost hundreds of times more. That is “too expensive for us to use, so we are looking forward to seeing further performance improvements of the domestic equipment,” he said.

But money is only part of the problem, given that Chinese companies already match their foreign peers in spending in key areas, such as research.

In Cixi, it is “normal” for companies to invest 3.5 per cent of revenue on research and development, according to Lu Songze, general secretary Cixi City Bearing Association. “You can even find companies here that spend 5 per cent of their budget on investment,” he said. SKF, the Swedish company that is among the industry’s leaders, spends 3.1 per cent of revenues on research and development.

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For Chinese manufacturers like the Cixi plant, high-performance steel for bearings can be hard to come by.

Materials are an issue, too. A dearth of high-performance ball-bearing steel in China forms a key “bottleneck” to improvement, the Chinese Academy of Sciences has warned.

For the most high-performance steel, “we haven’t found a way yet to make it exactly the way it’s made overseas. Just like in microchips, we are spending a lot on research, but remain some distance from our goal,” said Mr. Lu.

The inability to access top-flight steel in China, the world’s biggest steelmaker, illustrates the depth of the issue. Even as Chinese people and companies grow wealthier, the gaps between domestic and foreign technology in some areas are “getting bigger and bigger,” said Ming Xinguo, a scholar of industrial engineering and management at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

He traces the roots to the country’s path of industrialization over the past few decades.

With the advent of China’s opening up some four decades ago came an embrace of foreign capital – and a lust for foreign products. That hurt the fortunes of state-owned companies. As they slashed work forces, the state-backed industry research institutes they once supported also grew starved for cash.

“More and more, people who once did fundamental scientific research embraced the market and relocated their focus to engineering projects. Scientific research institutes and teams began to shrink in size,” Prof. Ming said.

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It all made perfect economic sense at the time. But “now, our country may need to rethink this,” he said.

In Cixi, a worker shows one of the accessories for the ball bearings.

China’s ball-bearing industry is hopeful that it has solutions. Across the country, industry and government leaders are knitting together complicated partnerships between researchers, publicly funded institutes and even foreign groups. In Cixi, the ball-bearing association has partnered with a local outpost of the Frantsevich Institute for Problems of Materials Science, under the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, in hopes of bringing in more international expertise. A separate co-operation deal has been struck with a local university.

The hope is that such partnerships can foster improvements in materials and manufacturing that can lift the entire industry, not just its biggest and best. “As our goal is to attain the same level as foreign countries, companies and government must work together until that day comes,” said Mr. Lu.

This approach comes with its own risks, Prof. Ming says. Local governments are prone to protectionism and rivalries that can harm, rather than help, scientific advances. He prefers an approach in which the central government invests in fundamental research for use by the private sector. “If government interferes too much in the application,” he said, “industrial development could be hindered.”

The long-standing state of Chinese ball bearings underscores how difficult it has proved to get that right.

So, for now, a country that boasts about its bullet trains must still rely on foreign ball bearings to keep them running. “There are,” said Mr. Lu, “many problems to be solved.”

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Visual guide

How are ball bearings made?

Balls start as steel wires that a machine cuts into pieces

Steel wire

The piece of wire is placed between two steel dies

And pressed into a rough sphere called a “raw ball”

Raw ball

The raw ball comes out with an uneven surface and excess material called “burrs” on its poles and circumference

Burr

Burrs

In a process called “flashing,” the burrs are removed by passing the balls between grooves in two metal plates, one rotating and one stationary

Rotating wheel

Stationary wheel

Raw ball

The balls are then heat-treated and further ground and polished to a mirror finish

Ball bearings are assembled with a cage holding the balls between an outer and inner race. Both sides of the bearing are sealed or shielded to keep out contaminants

Outer race

Inner race

Seal

Cage

Ball

Seal

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: HOW IT’S MADE; ENGINEERING360

Balls start as steel wires that a machine cuts into pieces

Steel wire

The piece of wire is placed between two steel dies

And pressed into a rough sphere called a “raw ball”

Raw ball

The raw ball comes out with an uneven surface and excess material called “burrs” on its poles and circumference

Burr

Burrs

In a process called “flashing,” the burrs are removed by passing the balls between grooves in two metal plates, one rotating and one stationary

Rotating wheel

Stationary wheel

Raw ball

The balls are then heat-treated and further ground and polished to a mirror finish

Ball bearings are assembled with a cage holding the balls between an outer and inner race. Both sides of the bearing are sealed or shielded to keep out contaminants

Outer race

Inner race

Seal

Cage

Ball

Seal

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: HOW IT’S MADE; ENGINEERING360

Balls start as steel wires that a machine cuts into pieces

The piece of wire is placed between two steel dies

1

2

Steel

wire

And pressed into a rough sphere called a “raw ball”

The raw ball comes out with an uneven surface and excess material called “burrs” on its poles and circumference

3

4

Burrs

Raw ball

The balls are then heat-treated and further ground and polished to a mirror finish

In a process called “flashing,” the burrs are removed by passing the balls between grooves in two metal plates, one rotating and one stationary

5

6

Rotating wheel

Stationary wheel

Raw ball

Ball bearings are assembled with a cage holding the balls between an outer and inner race. Both sides of the bearing are sealed or shielded to keep out contaminants

7

Outer race

Seal

Cage

Ball

Inner race

Seal

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: HOW IT’S MADE; ENGINEERING360


Video

A parting view from Beijing

Nathan VanderKlippe has been The Globe’s Beijing-based correspondent since 2013 and has seen the ambitions and discontents of Xi Jinping’s China take shape. He outlines some key areas to watch around China’s political and economic ambitions as it also represses ethnic minorities and holds two Canadians captive. The Globe and Mail

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