Understanding Spiders and the Role They Play in Jaw Couplings

Material Selection

One of the most widely applied type of flexible couplings is an elastomeric design known as the jaw coupling. This design is characterized by two hubs, each having two or more thick, stubby protrusions around their perimeters, called jaws, pointing toward the opposing hub. These jaws mesh loosely when the two hubs are brought together. Filling the gaps between the jaws are blocks of elastomeric material, usually molded into a single asterisk-shaped element called a "spider."

Just as coupling designs vary to satisfy different application criteria, so do the spiders in jaw-type couplings. However, the spider is the key determinant of the torque rating of each jaw coupling. Its design also can make a significant difference in the coupling's response to vibration, temperature, chemicals, misalignment, high revolutions per minute (RPM), space limitations and ease of installation or removal.

Selecting the right type of spider is just as important as selecting the right type and size coupling. For that reason, users will benefit from a fuller understanding of the different spider constructions and materials available, when specifying new or maintaining existing couplings.

Basics

Jaw couplings generally are recommended for continuous-duty electric motor-driven machinery, pumps, gearboxes, etc. They typically are limited to an angular shaft misalignment of 1 deg and tolerate up to .015 inches of parallel misalignment. Jaw designs usually are not recommended for engine-driven or frequent start-stop-reversing applications because of backlash (the amount of free hub movement allowed by the spacing between the jaws and spider legs).

Elastomeric couplings classify into one of two categories, determined by the way their elastomeric element transmits torque between driving and driven hubs (i.e., the element is either "in compression" or "in shear").

In jaw couplings, the element is in compression, because the jaws of both the driving and driven hubs operate in the same plane, with the driving jaws pushing the driven jaws. Here, the legs of the elastomeric spider serve as cushions between the torque force of the driving jaws and the resistance of the driven jaws, absorbing that force by being compressed between them.

This contrasts with shear-type designs, in which driving and driven hubs operate wholly in separate planes, with the driving hub pulling the driven hub through their mutual connection to an elastomeric element suspended between them. The element serves as a link between the torque force of the driving hub and the resistance of the driven hub, absorbing that force by being stretched between them through twisting.

Jaw Coupling Advantages

Both compression and shear type designs offer advantages that guide them into different applications. Where compression couplings are preferred, it is generally because of four main advantages. The first is that elastomers (especially synthetic rubber) have a higher load capacity in compression than they do in shear. Therefore, compression types can transmit higher torque and tolerate greater overload than shear types. The greater the surface area of the elastomer in compression, the higher the torque rating of the coupling. Heavy-duty jaw models with up to seven jaws can accommodate nominal torque ranges up to 170,000 inch-pounds.

Compression types also offer a greater degree of torsional stiffness (less "twist" between hubs) than shear type. Some designs come fairly close to the very stiff positive-displacement transmission of torque that is characteristic of metallic couplings. These offer near-equal movement of the driven shaft for each incremental movement of the driving shaft. With most jaw couplings, however, even small amounts of backlash can make them inappropriate for true positive-displacement applications.

Jaw designs are considered "fail-safe" because the coupling is not necessarily destroyed or rendered inoperable if the spider breaks away. The driving jaws simply advance to contact the driven jaws directly, and the coupling continues to function (albeit with considerable noise and accelerated wear), preventing critical system downtime until the spider can be replaced. For this reason, in a quality jaw coupling, the jaws are designed to withstand at least ten times their coupling's torque rating.

Another benefit is that a simple design with only three parts (a spider housed between two metal hubs) permits easy installation, disassembly and visual inspection. The specially contoured spider usually allows "blind fit" even in the most confined spaces.

Compared to couplings made entirely of metal, jaw and other elastomeric types generally offer additional advantages including greater radial softness (allow more misalignment between hubs and/or less reactionary load on bearings); no metal-to-metal contact between driving/ driven parts (less internal wear and no need for lubrication); lighter weight and lower cost, when comparing torque capacity to maximum bore capacity; quieter operation; and easy field-replacement of the torque-transmitting element (element failure does not cause loss of the entire coupling).

Elastomeric Alternatives

When elastomeric coupling elements break down, it is often due to cyclic loading caused by hysteresis (internal heat build-up in the elastomer) exceeding the material's limits. Some elastomerics also are more vulnerable to high ambient temperatures and some types of oil, chemical or atmospheric exposure. For this reason, elastomeric couplings offer a selection of element materials to suit specific operating conditions:

  • NBR (Nitrile Butadiene Rubber) - sometimes called Buna N - the most economical and widely used standard coupling element material, resembles natural rubber in resilience and elasticity; is resistant to oil, hydraulic fluid and most chemicals; and operates in temperature ranging from -40 deg to +212 deg F (-40 deg to +100 deg C). With a hardness of 80 Shore A, NBR provides the best damping capability among elastomeric elements.
  • Urethane - has 1.5 times the torque capacity of NBR with very good chemical and oil resistance, but less damping capability (90 Shore A hardness) and a narrower operating temperature range of -30 deg to +160 deg F (-39 deg to +71 deg C). Urethane spiders are good choices when the application calls for greater torque in a confined space, or for resistance to atmospheric effects such as ozone, sunlight, and hydrolysis in tropical conditions.
  • Hytrel® - designed for high operating temperature from -60 deg to +250 deg F (-51 deg C to +121 deg C), with excellent resistance to oils and chemicals; can carry three times the torque of standard NBR. It also provides resistance to ozone, sunlight, and hydrolysis in tropical conditions. However, with a hardness of 55 Shore D, Hytrel cuts angular misalignment ratings in half and the damping capacity is low.
  • Bronze - Not exactly elastomeric, these rigid, porous, oil-impregnated metal inserts are used only for slow speed (250 RPM maximum) applications requiring high torque or high temperature resistance. Bronze spiders can withstand virtually all chemicals and temperatures from -40 deg to +450 deg F (-40 deg to +232 deg C), but their rigidity offers zero damping capacity.

Spider Designs

In addition to the variety of materials, four basic mechanical designs allow further choices to suit specific applications:

  • Standard Solid-Center Spider - This is the most commonly used design in general power transmission applications where the BE dimension (distance Between Ends of driving and driven shafts) can spare a suitable gap and will remain fairly constant.
  • Open-Center Type (OCT) - This design often suits close BE situations where equipment must be positioned as closely together as possible. However, because the spider's legs are joined only by a thin segment of material, this design has no full-diameter support. Accordingly, it has maximum speed limitations of 1,750 RPM for NBR and 3,600 RPM for Urethane/Hytrel. Also, the hole in the center is not as large as the maximum bore of the hub. This is because while the maximum bore of the hub approaches the inner edge of the jaws, a certain amount of elastomeric material must extend around the inner edge of the jaws to connect the legs of the spider.
  • Snap-Wrap - This flat-strip, open-end design connects the spider legs around the perimeter of the coupling rather than at the center, allowing easy removal or installation without disturbing the alignment of either coupling hub. Without center connections, this design does not overlap into the bore, therefore shaft ends are allowed to extend at maximum bore diameter to a minimal BE. Radially "wrapped" around the jaws, this type of spider must be held in place by either a ring or a collar. When retained by ring, it has a maximum RPM limit of 1,750. The collar configuration achieves the same RPM rating as the standard coupling because the collar is attached to one hub.
  • Load Cushions - As small, separate blocks, these cushions may easily be installed and removed radially, which can be helpful for maintenance in heavy-duty applications. Typically available in NBR and Hytrel materials, but only for certain models of couplings, load cushions must be held in place by a collar.

Maintenance Tips

Some degree of permanent compressive set is normal as elastomeric elements age in service. For jaw couplings, (when permanent set reduces the element's original thickness by 25 percent) this feature provides a visual signal that the element should be replaced.

Another feature unique to jaw couplings is that compression is applied only to the spider legs or load cushions forward of the driving jaws - trailing legs or cushions behind the driving jaws remain relaxed. Accordingly, when the compressive set reaches the maximum in the driving cushions, the spider's trailing legs or cushions can be advanced into the driving position. Thus, in most applications, jaw couplings carry a built-in set of replacement elastomers that can be used to reduce replacement costs. Couplings applied in reversing drives or those with frequently varying torque usually relinquish this benefit.

Jaw coupling installations never should permit the jaws of one hub to contact the face of the opposing hub. This would cause a noisy, "grinding" action. For that reason, spiders and load cushions often are equipped with spacer dots designed to enforce a suitable separation between metal components. When no dots are provided, extra care should be taken to assure that the two opposing halves of the coupling do not touch each other.

Conclusion

When replacing the elastomeric element in jaw couplings, it is always easiest to simply find something similar to what was there before (if not identical), and perhaps apply a fudge factor based on torque, just to be conservative. However, too often this approach only invites a repeat failure or equally short service life.

The better approach is to first give some thought to why the previous spider failed or wore out sooner than expected. Always consider that the material or design that failed might have been the wrong choice in the first place.

The following application criteria are helpful in determining the correct choice of spider:

  • actual torque needed at the driven shaft (note variable torque resulting from cyclical or erratic loading);
  • vibration (linear and torsional); experienced vendors can assist you with vibration analysis;
  • shaft-to-shaft alignment (angular and parallel) - and note whether driving/driven units are or can be mounted on a common base plate;
  • ambient conditions (temperature range, exposure to chemicals, oils, etc.);
  • start-stop-reversing requirements;
  • axial movement, BE or other space limitations;
  • installation or maintenance restrictions.

As with all couplings, it is important to resist the temptation to overstate service factors. Coupling service factors are intended to compensate for the variation of torque loads typical of different kinds of driven systems. If chosen too conservatively, they can misguide the selection of both coupling types and their elastomeric materials. Aside from raising coupling costs to unnecessary levels, "over service-factor" selection very often causes damage elsewhere in the system.

Thoroughly review the above operating conditions with your coupling vendors and seek not only their recommendations for the right type of spider, but also the reasons behind those recommendations. With the variety of elastomeric materials available today, careful selection usually leads to an excellent, long lasting match between coupling characteristics and the demands of the application.

Hytrel® is a registered trademark of E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co.

About the Author:

Mark McCullough is a Product Manager with Lovejoy, Inc., Downers Grove, IL

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