Non-linearity effects in rolling element bearings arise from two sources, viz. the Hertzian force deformation relationship and the presence of clearance between the rolling elements and the bearing races. Assuming that centrifugal effects may be neglected and that the presence of axial preload is appropriately reflected in a corresponding change in the radial clearance, this paper analyses a simple test rig to illustrate that non-linear phenomena such as synchronous multistable and nonsynchronous motions are possible in simple rigid and flexible rotor systems subjected to unbalance excitation. The equations of motion of the rotor bearing system were solved by transient analysis using fourth order Runge Kutta. Of particular interest is the effect of clearance, governed in practice by bearing specification and the amount of preload, on the vibration behaviour of rotors supported by ball bearings and on the bearing load. It is shown that in the presence of positive clearance, there exists an unbalance excitation range during which the bearing is momentarily not transmitting force owing to contact loss, resulting in rolling element raceway impact with potentially relatively high bearing forces; and indicating that for long bearing life, operation with positive clearance should be avoided in the presence of such unbalance loading. Once the unbalance excitation is high enough to avoid such contact loss, it is the bearings with zero or negative clearance which produce maximum bearing forces.

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