CHERRY POINT, N.C. –
Fleet Readiness Center East’s Bearing Shop is a place where success or failure can be measured in thousandths of an inch. In this shop, bearings—used on vehicles that operate in the air, on land and at sea—are inspected, measured and analyzed with a painstaking attention to detail by a small team of highly trained professionals.
These artisans refurbish hundreds of bearings each week, turning out several thousand each month. The Bearing Shop handles nearly 5,000 different part numbers.
“FRCE has many shops that can vary in size, but they all play a crucial role in supporting the Fleet,” said FRCE Commanding Officer Capt. James M. Belmont. “Our Bearing Shop is a great example of a small shop that has a huge impact on our operations. There are only four artisans working there but they supply components that are absolutely essential to what we do here throughout the depot.”
The four artisans working at the Bearing Shop are responsible for cleaning, polishing, lubricating, preserving, inspecting, and packaging everything from wheel bearings to gearbox bearings. Due to the vital nature of these components, their work needs to be perfect. A defect imperceptible to the naked eye could lead to a potential failure in an aircraft.
“A supervisor once told me that when flying an aircraft, there’s nowhere to pull over if there’s a problem,” said Chad Bogdahn, a bearing reconditioner at the depot. “That’s why it’s so important that we make sure everything is done right. There’s no room for cutting corners here. In our job, it’s pass or fail. There is nothing in between.”
This pass or fail process begins when bearings enter the shop. They are meticulously cleaned, buffed, sanded and polished. The bearings are then put through rigorous pre-inspection and inspection processes. In addition to in-depth visual inspections using tools such as inspection lights and microscopes, the artisans precisely measure the outer and inner diameters of each bearing that passes through the shop.
To aid in the process, the Bearing Shop utilizes a $1.6 million computer system and other sophisticated equipment.
“We’re measuring things down to ten thousandths of an inch,” said Bearing Shop work leader Justin Parrish. “A lot of the tolerances are within thirty thousandths of an inch from pass to fail.
“Machines in the shop read to the nano range,” he said. “Everything is on a micro-scale. All this equipment is calibrated and we trust it. Everything has to be exact because these bearings leave this shop and they’ll be put on an engine. People’s lives are in your hands.”
According to Bogdahn, training and attention to detail are crucial when handling bearings during the refurbishing process. To protect the bearings, they must maintain a meticulously clean working environment. Artisans take precautions such as wearing gloves and hair nets.
“We’re checking extremely tight tolerances and inspecting for almost imperceptible damage,” said Bogdahn. “We also have to ensure the bearings stay clean and damage-free during the process. We have to make sure we don’t get hair or any other particles such as lint in our clean room. We take tremendous steps to make sure that these bearings are immaculate when they leave here.”
Parrish said that although these precautions may sound excessive, they are a necessity when working with bearings. He said a stray hair falling from an artisan’s beard or even a fingerprint could lead to a bearing failure.
“That’s why we go take so many measures in here with rubber gloves, the clean room, and the lubrication process,” Parrish said. “It might sound tedious but we have to do it. We even have a chemical that removes fingerprints. We’re one of the very few shops that has its own manual to dictate what we’re doing on a day-to-day basis for each individual process. There is an entire chapter that deals solely with the cleanliness of personnel in the shop.”
Once bearings pass the various inspections and are certified by the artisans, they are lubricated, preserved, and packaged. During the packaging process, the bearings are sealed in air-tight bags and labeled. When packaged, the bearings have a three-year shelf life.
“To me, the packaging process is the most stressful because every single thing has to be perfect,” Parrish said. “Everything done before the packaging process is now riding on you because you’re touching it last.”
Once packaged, the bearings are utilized by other shops performing maintenance, overhaul, and repair work within the depot. Some are sent out directly to the Fleet.
“We pride ourselves on the amount of time it takes us to induct a bearing and then tag it, bag it, and send it out for the war fighter,” Parrish said. “We turn them out quick and we do it right. It feels good to do that. It means a lot to us.”
Artisans in the shop turn out several hundred bearings each week. According to Bogdahn, the shop supplies bearings for a variety of aircraft, vehicles, and applications.
“Some of these things you’d never think of,” Bogdahn said. “We’re talking about bearings for things like cargo hooks that go on winches mounted underneath the aircraft. These utilize a pulley bearing. We deal with a huge variety of bearings. Some are tiny and weigh just a few milligrams; others can weigh more than 60 pounds.”
Both men say there is a steep learning curve due to the wide variety of bearings they handle in the shop and the exacting nature of the work. According to Parrish, it takes two to three years for an artisan in the Bearing Shop to become fully trained and certified.
“Two years is about the norm from start to certification,” he said. “You really need the recommended time learning the dimensional and visual processes in here. After that, it’s another year of going through the clean, pre-inspect, lubrication, and packaging process.”
Parrish said that having trust in his teammates alleviates the potential stress that can come when performing work that leaves no room for errors. He also cited the job’s unique demands as one of his favorite aspects of working in the shop.
“The guys in this shop work their tails off,” Parrish said. “I mean, they come to work and we get it done. They’ve been trained and know exactly what they need to do.
“I also like the challenge. We get to do things that nobody else gets to do. Not only are we dealing with the Marine Corps, but we support the Navy, Army, and the Air Force. We even support the State Department from time to time. Not every shop in this facility can say that.”
In addition to the unique nature of the work they perform, both men also credited a family tradition of supporting America’s warfighters as a motivating factor. Their fathers both worked at FRCE supporting the F-4 Phantom. Additionally, Parrish’s mother worked as an artisan in the Bearing Shop.
“She trained me,” Bogdahn said. “She built this program. After she retired, I had the honor of training Justin when he came in.”
Parrish said he welcomes the opportunity to add a bit of his own legacy within the shop.
“My mother wrote the reference guides for all these aircraft platforms over the years,” he said. “Many are still in use today. Now, with the F-35B Lightning II coming in, I have an opportunity to do the same thing.”
Parrish said that although aircraft platforms may have changed since their parents worked at the depot, the mission at FRCE has remained the same.
“Just like back then, our job is to support the warfighter,” Parrish said. “That’s exactly what we are doing at the Bearing Shop; making sure that this country is protected, one bearing at a time. It’s our job. They put these bearings in an aircraft and expect it to fly when they go to the desert, to the jungle, or when they’re on an aircraft carrier. They expect it to work and their lives depend on it. We can’t let them down.”