What do a vending machine, paintball gun, blender, and F14 jet fighter have in common? They all contain ball bearings from Alpine Bearing, a Boston-based distributor whose motto is, “We make the world spin.” With more than $10 million worth of bearings in stock — 600,000 parts — Alpine Bearing, a second-generation family-run business led by Jim Levin, includes a manufacturing clean room to reassemble bearings for custom applications. The Globe spoke with Levin about how his business is rolling along.
“There’s a scene in the [Chevy Chase] movie ‘Fletch’ where he’s posing as an aircraft technician. He’s looking at a Cessna that needs repair, and states, ‘I’m gonna need some pliers and, uh, a set of 30-weight ball bearings.’ Another mechanic suspiciously asks, ‘What the hell do you need ball bearings for?’ And Fletch replies, ‘Ah, come on. It’s all ball bearings nowadays!’ And that, in a nutshell, is how I feel about ball bearings. Ball bearings go in anything that rotates, or just about anything that moves from point A to B. They reduce friction and make it easier for an axis to spin.
“Alpine was started by my father six decades ago. He traveled around New England selling ball bearings. He named the company Alpine after a nearby town — he wanted it to start with the letter ‘A’ so it would be one of the first in the phone book. I started in the back doing grunt work — wrapping bearings and other tasks. We carry bearings, and that’s all we do, unlike our competitors who carry sockets, bolts, sprockets, gears. Some even do toilet and tissue paper. Alpine strictly sticks with bearings. That’s what we know and understand. The smallest bearing has a bore diameter [hole] of 4/100 of an inch and is used in jewelry, gyroscopes, and computer equipment. The largest has an over-9-inch bore and is used in the paper industry.
“Not all bearing applications are the same. One company may be using it at minus 30 degrees Celsius and other at 260 Celsius; the bearing might be rotating at 100 or spinning at 10,000 rpm. These variations demand different lubricants, and we can take a bearing, wash it, and relubricate with sophisticated greases to tailor to customer needs. The inside cavity of a bearing is filled with rotating balls. A retainer keeps them equally spaced so they don’t step on each other, like feet in a line.
“I’ve been doing this for a while and bearings haven’t changed much, although some of the newer configurations allow bearings to rotate at a higher speed.
“What’s our most unusual bearing? We have some that were Made in Occupied Japan. We’ve only sold one or two of them — we almost keep them as a relic or souvenir. I keep a ball bearing on a key chain as a conversation opener. If someone asks me what a ball bearing is, I pull it out, blow dust out of the cavity, and show them how it works.”
Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.