May 2012 Baselines: Timken Bearings

Friction's Worst Enemy Comes In An Orange And Black Box

Bill SenefskyMay 6, 2012
Friction’s Worst Enemy Comes in an Orange and Black Box
In 1850, a young Henry Timken began his apprenticeship in the carriage business at the age of 16. St. Louis, Missouri, the gateway to the West, was a thriving metropolis that offered much to a young teen on his way to a viable future. Within eight years, Timken opened his own carriage shop. In 1877, he applied for and received a patent regarding his Timken Buggy Spring. The success of this product, along with increased popularity of its design and comfort, led to several royalty agreements for its production by other manufacturers. As a result, the Timken brand became well known in the carriage and wagon industry across America. Henry Timken continued to look for new ways to improve both his company’s position and develop innovative products for this specialty market.
Photo 2/4   |   Timken made history in 1911, equipping the first winner of the Indianapolis 500— a Marmon-Wasp— with its bearings.
Among his early interests was the development of the Timken tapered-roller bearing. The product was developed in the mid-1890s and targeted the elimination of friction created in wagon and carriage hub designs. This new bearing product was a massive improvement over existing ball-and-straight-roller bearings of the period. A patent was issued for this unique product in 1898. Within a year, the father and his two sons, William and Henry, established The Timken Roller Bearing Axle Company.
By 1901, with the arrival of a new century and its automobile, the family quickly realized a much broader future market was opening up. In addition, their production capability was near full capacity with the carriage business. The move east to Canton, Ohio, was both logical and productive, as the company placed itself between the new motor city of Detroit, and the steel-producing plants of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Timken began a close working relationship with Detroit’s automakers to develop products that accurately met their future needs. Timken’s timing could not have been better, because by 1908, when Henry Ford launched his famous Model T, Timken was there to profit from the sale of almost a million bearings annually by 1909. The company also entered into its first European licensing agreement in England. This same year also witnessed the passing of Henry Timken Sr.
The company moved its axle division to Detroit and formed the Timken Detroit Axle Company. Son William Timken was put in charge of the new operation. The company’s other established bearing company remained in Canton, Ohio, under the title of The Timken Roller Bearing Company.
Alloy-Steel Production
In 1915, Timken entered into the steel production business. The main reason was to be able to source quantities of steel to avoid the steel shortages the company faced during hostilities of World War I. The company added a steel tube manufacturing division, with a melt shop added a short year later. Steel supplies were then in place for the company’s own products. The company management found another plus with these operations: the selling of excess steel capacity to other manufacturers. One of Timken’s first customers for its alloy steel was Mack Trucks.
Timken went on to form a new industrial division in 1919 to broaden the firm’s product line. The old emphasis on tractor and farming operations was now further directed to industrial markets, including machinery, electrical motors, and elevators.
The Rolling ’20s
The automotive industry boomed for manufacturers and suppliers alike during this period, with more than 300 automotive nameplates competing for sales. Timken expanded with the addition of a new bearing plant in Columbus, Ohio, along with an assembly plant opening in Canada in 1922. The company’s first stock offering was launched that same year. Its stock symbol was TKR.
Photo 3/4
A new Timken bearing offering targeted the rail industry in 1923 using its trademarked tapered bearings, which allowed for an increase in railcar speeds. By 1926, most of the other rail lines in America were purchasing this Timken product.
Following the trend of other successful ’20s producers, the company began acquiring other firms. Gilliam Manufacturing, another bearing concern in the city, was purchased in 1925. Bock Bearing of Toledo followed a year later. Vickers Ltd., the famous British concern, had been producing bearing products and axles under license from Timken since 1909. A large portion of this operation, British Timken Ltd., was purchased in 1927. A piercing mill was obtained from the Ohio-based Weldless Steel in 1928. The French Subsidiary, Societe Anonyme Francaise Timken (SAFT), was set up in Europe that same year.
Rounding out the decade, the company built two new facilities in 1929 near its main Ohio complex. One of the buildings was a new steel plant, and the second was a new bearing production unit.
The Depression Years
Timken seemed to weather the ’30s better than most because of its specialized product line. The company continued its R&D efforts to expand its product base. In 1930, the transportation industry witnessed the launch of the Timken-equipped Four Aces locomotive, which demonstrated its railroad bearing and steel offerings. This period also saw the company equipping the famous Burlington Zephyr and Santa Fe Super Chief passenger trains with much fanfare. In 1932, the company entered the marine market with its bearing line for propeller driveshafts. Obviously, the U.S. Navy was a prime customer, and the Department of Defense contributed to Timken’s growth.
The company was also a player in the rock bit drilling market for the mining and construction fields. In 1932, removable rock bits provided increased profitability and use for Timken’s in-house-produced steel.
That same year found the company expanding into the South African market through its British subsidiary.
War Rolls In
Like other American concerns, the outbreak of hostilities was both a curse and a blessing. The company experienced faster growth and profitability due to meeting wartime demands for its principle products. New facilities were constructed to quickly double its bearing output. In addition, the Timken Ordnance division produced more than 80,000 gun tubes and large barrels for the war effort.
Photo 4/4
The company began a closer look at factory automation methods in 1947, with a pilot operation located in Bucyrus, Ohio. Its success led to another facility being erected in 1950.
Timken next found itself embroiled in a series of lawsuits brought forth by the government regarding price fixing. These antitrust proceedings finally reached the Supreme Court in 1951. In short, the company was found guilty of conspiring with its British and French affiliates in restraint of trade. The final ruling resulted in a multi-year investigation of agreements regarding the exchange of exclusive information, price coordination, and sales territories. Timken was thus forced to compete with its subsidiaries that it did not completely own.
Sealed Bearings, Improved Distribution, and Global Markets
On the product side, the company introduced its AP bearing line in 1954, which was aimed directly at the rail industry. This new product was preassembled, pre-lubricated, and self-contained. It also could be integrated into a variety of existing railroad car platforms, reducing the number of units facing downtime due to unavailable parts. Timken’s Columbus plant was expanded due to the increased volume.
In 1956, Timken opened a huge distribution center in Canton. Dubbed the Bucyrus Distribution Center, the facility allowed rapid distribution to all corners of the globe. The last two years of this decade found the company further expanding its reach into global markets as well as strengthening its brand operations. Australia saw the beginning of operations in 1958, with the Ballarat, Victoria plant. Timken’s French (SAFT) operations, along with its British concerns, were purchased outright in 1959.
South American operations were begun initially with a sales office in Argentina in 1959. A year later, a bearing plant was opened in Brazil. Another manufacturing facility was finished in France in 1963. Closer to home, the company opened its new research center near the Akron-Canton Airport in 1966. This would be the first of 12 such centers constructed globally.
Timken’s railroad business continued to prosper. Its tapered bearings were a hit, with more than 90 percent of the railcars equipped with this design. Foreign sales tripled during this period, but North American sales leveled off. Two more new plants were added to the company’s real estate (totaling 16 units in operation) by 1971. During this period, Timken was producing 35 types of roller bearings in more than 11,000 sizes.
The ’70s brought a name change to The Timken Company. Another highly automated operation was completed in South Carolina in 1971. During this period, however, the company experienced sales losses due to a strike at General Motors as well as a strike within the trucking industry. By 1972, Timken saw a rebound, with revenues increasing due to the brand’s 50 percent dominance in the automotive field. Timken formed another subsidiary, Nihon Timken KK, in Japan in 1974. Latrobe Steel, a specialized producer of steel and alloys, was purchased in 1975.
The UNIPAC bearing was the big news in 1979. This new series featured pre-adjusted and pre-lubricated bearings that were easier for the manufacturers in their final assembly operations. Another highly automated bearing plant was opened in North Carolina that year.
The ’80s
Timken controlled the American market with 25 percent in bearings along with a full 75 percent of the tapered bearing business. By 1981, company sales reached $1.4 billion. Cheaper products from offshore competitors affected the balance sheet by 1982, exposing Timken to a $3 million loss. Company management continued to thrive with an expansion program that doubled the size of Timken Research and included a new $500 million Faircrest Steel plant. This state-of-the-art facility allowed the company to increase its in-house steel production by 50 percent.
In 1986, the company sold off its rock-bit division, reorganized its corporate offices, and made reductions to its departments and staff. A new Original Equipment Bearings Group was formed by combining Timken’s automotive, industrial, and railroad divisions into one.
By 1988, the company again began to roll forward. Net sales of $1.5 billion allowed Timken to begin another program of modernization and expansion. Four new sales offices were opened globally in Italy, Korea, Singapore, and Venezuela. A joint venture was added in India.
MBP Corporation was purchased in 1989. This firm brought super-precision bearings utilized in aircraft, computer disc drives, and medical equipment into the product mix. A global recession affected sales in the early ’90s, but the company continued forward. In 1993, Timken opened a new sales office in Europe, followed by two new facilities in North America, another bearing plant in North Carolina, and a steel parts plant in Ohio. The company’s Latrobe Steel unit also built a new facility in Franklin, Pennsylvania, in 1994.
By decade’s end, Timken had an established presence and joint bearing manufacturing units in England, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, China, and the United States. In 1999, the company celebrated its 100th anniversary.
The Next 100 Years
In 2005, the company hit $5 billion in sales. Two years later, it announced another joint Chinese venture regarding production of ultra-large-bore bearings for the wind energy market. Aerospace power transmission products were added with the purchase of Purdy Corporation. This same year, Timken reorganized itself once again by forming two new business groups: Steel and Bearings and Power Transmission.
The company saw big growth in 2008. Two new global manufacturing facilities were opened—one in China, and one in India. Closer to headquarters, a steel rolling mill utilizing small steel bars was opened. The company purchased EXTEX Ltd., a Federal Aviation Approved (FAA) parts manufacturer for the company’s aerospace interests. Production capacity at the Tyger River Facility was expanded for the wind energy market. A new thermal steel treatment facility was added in Canton, Ohio. Finally, Timken’s needle roller bearing division was sold to JTEXT Corporation in 2009.
With its rich heritage, Timken Bearing Company remains widely respected globally. In recent years, some end users have complained that the Timken brand has not been visible enough for the automotive market. Based on a historical record of trendsetting advertising, innovation, and high-quality manufacturing, we hope it will return with more visibility.

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