CANTON, OH – With the search for fuel-economy enhancements in high gear, more than a few auto suppliers are opening their lab doors to reveal projects they think may look a lot more appealing in an environment of $3-per-gallon gasoline.

Count longtime bearing maker Timken Co. in that crowd, as the company recently showed off a host of new ideas to generate incremental fuel-economy gains.

Some are based on maximizing the potential from its primary product, sophisticated roller and needle bearings that are already used throughout the vehicle, from wheel hubs to engines and transmissions.

But many of Timken’s latest innovations demonstrate the company’s new initiatives to expand beyond its mature products and into areas one might consider foreign to a supplier that’s had bearings as its bread and butter since 1899.

Some of Timken’s new thrust leverages products and advances gleaned from its acquisition of the Torrington Co. from Ingersoll-Rand Co. Ltd. in 2003.

In essence, Timken is extending to electronic controls and sensors to add new value to its experience in friction management and power-transmission components for numerous industries. The company hopes to meld new electronic advances with its deep expertise in things mechanical.

Perhaps most intriguing is Timken’s shaft torque sensor, a new, non-contact system using Hall-effect technology to enable minute measurement of the amount of torque acting on a shaft.

This may sound esoteric, but “We think it’s game-changing,” says Al Deane, senior vice president-technology.

With little more than a magnetic disc and a microcontroller chip, the shaft-torque sensor enables all manner of potential advantages, Timken engineers say.

Place it in the transmission, and shift strategy can be optimized according to real-time torque information at the input or output shaft, helping to maximize fuel economy.

Or place the sensor directly on a halfshaft and traction-control and ABS sensing is taken to a new, more precise level, says Stephen Johnson, Timken’s director-friction management technology.

Johnson says the sensor gives such precise torque information that it can determine the coefficient of friction under the tires at any given moment. “We can change the way a machine is controlled,” with the shaft-torque sensor, Johnson says.

Deane cautions, however, the system “is not fully developed,” although the chip already is being produced in automotive-type volumes.

Deane says Timken may have to license the technology to see it more quickly deployed in the auto industry, but “the way it’s being done is very auto-market friendly.”

Timken also shows at its technical center here a similar sensor, its ASIC (application specific integrated circuit) steering torque sensor that engineers say can enable better electric power-steering systems.

By receiving and delivering more precise information about torque on the steering shaft, Timken says it can improve the “feel” of fuel-saving EPS, generating improved feedback to the driver.

Johnson says Timken constantly is refining its foundation roller-bearing products, as well; for example, working with Timken engineers from the design phase, Mercedes-Benz recently specified an advanced, low-friction rear-axle bearing for the E-Class line that measurably improves fuel economy.

And Timken is seeking to make future bearing assemblies more “intelligent” with potential incorporation of electronics.

“Bearings tend to occupy interesting real estate,” Johnson says. Future advances in the engine and driveline dictate that “you need data; you need intelligent input. The bearing area is a good place to get that.”