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The disc brake is a device for slowing or stopping the rotation of a wheel. A brake disc (or rotor in U.S. English), usually made of cast iron or ceramic, is connected to the wheel or the axle. To stop the wheel, friction material in the form of brake pads (mounted in a device called a brake caliper) is forced mechanically, hydraulically, pneumatically or electromagnetically against both sides of the disc. Friction causes the disc and attached wheel to slow or stop.
Experiments with disc-style brakes began in England in the 1890s; the first ever automobile disc brakes were patented by Frederick William Lanchester in his Birmingham factory in 1902, though it took another half century for his innovation to be widely adopted.
Modern-style disc brakes first appeared on the low-volume Crosley Hotshot in 1949, although they had to be discontinued in 1950 due to design problems. Chrysler's Imperial division also offered a type of disc brake from 1949 through 1953, though in this instance they were enclosed with dual internal-expanding, full-circle pressure plates. Reliable modern disc brakes were developed in the UK by Dunlop and first appeared in 1953 on the Jaguar C-Type racing car. The Citroën DS of 1955, with powered inboard front disc brakes, and the 1956 Triumph TR3 were the first European production cars to feature modern disc brakes. The next American production cars to be fitted with disc brakes were the 1963 Studebaker Avanti and the 1966 Chevrolet Corvette.
These brakes offered greater stopping performance than comparable drum brakes, including resistance to "brake fade" caused by the overheating of brake components, and recovered quickly from immersion (wet brakes are less effective). Unlike a drum brake, the disc brake has no self-servo effect and the braking force is always proportional the pressure placed on the braking pedal or lever.
Many early implementations for automobiles located the brakes on the inboard side of the driveshaft, near the differential, but most brakes today are located inside the wheels.(An inboard location reduces the unsprung weight and eliminates a source of heat transfer to the tires, important in Formula One racing.)
Disc brakes were most popular on sports cars when they were first introduced, since these vehicles are more demanding about brake performance. Discs have now become the more common form in most passenger vehicles, although many use drum brakes on the rear wheels to keep costs and weight down as well as to simplify the provisions for a parking brake. As the front brakes perform most of the braking effort, this can be a reasonable compromise.
The design of the disc varies somewhat. Some are simply solid cast iron, but others are hollowed out with fins joining together the disc's two contact surfaces (usually included as part of a casting process). This "ventilated" disc design helps to dissipate the generated heat and is commonly used on the more-heavily-loaded front rotors.
Many higher performance brakes have holes drilled or cast through them. This is known as cross drilling and was originally done in the 1960's on racing cars. Brake pads will outgas and under use may create boundary layer of gas between the pad and the rotor hurting braking performance. Cross drilling was created to provide the gas someplace to escape. Although modern brake pads seldom suffer from outgassing problems, water residue may build up after a vehicle passes through a puddle and impede braking performance. For this reason, and for heat dissipation purposes, Cross Drilling is still used on some braking components. Rotors may also be slotted, where shallow channels are machined into the disc to aid in removing dust and gas. Some discs are both drilled and slotted.
Slotted discs are generally not used on standard vehicles because they quickly wear down brake pads, however, this removal of material is beneficial to race vehicles since it keeps the pads soft and avoids vitrification of their surfaces.
On the road, drilled or slotted discs still have a positive effect in wet conditions because the holes or slots prevent a film of water building up between the disc and the pads. Poorly-made cross drilled discs (such as those made by simply drilling through a plain faced disc) may crack at the holes under use due to metal fatigue.
New technology now allows smaller brake systems to be fitted to bicycles, mopeds and now even mountain boards. The market for mountain bike disc brakes is very large and has huge variety, ranging from simple, mechanical (cable) systems, to highly expensive and also powerful, 6-pot hydraulic disc systems, commonly used on downhill racing bikes.
Disc brake rotors are commonly manufactured out of a material called grey iron. The SAE maintains a specification for the manufacture of grey iron for various applications. For normal car and light truck applications, the SAE specification is J431 G3000 (superseded to G10). This specification dictates the correct range of hardness, chemical composition, tensile strength, and other properties that are necessary for the intended use.
Historically disc brake rotors were manufactured throughout the world with a strong concentration in Europe, and America. During the period from 1989 to 2005, manufacturing of brake rotors has migrated predominantly to China. Today, almost 90% of brake discs and brake drums are manufactured in China and exported globally.
Leading manufacturers in China include Laizhou Sanli, MAT (Midwest Air Technology), Winhere, Longji, and Haimeng.
In racing and very high performance road cars other disc materials have been employed. Carbon discs and pads inspired by aircraft braking systems were introduced in Formula One by the Brabham team in conjunction with Dunlop in 1976. Carbon-Carbon braking is now used in most top-level motorsport worldwide, reducing unsprung weight and giving better frictional performance compared to cast iron. Carbon brakes have occasionally been applied to road cars, by the French Venturi sportscar manufacturer in the mid 1990s for example, but need to reach a very high operating temperature before becoming truly effective and so are not well suited to road use. Ceramic discs are used occasionally at the very highest end of the road car market. A similar rationale to carbon is claimed for their use, although prestige probably also plays a large part.
Disc damage modes
Discs are usually damaged in one of three ways: warping, scarring, and cracking. Machining the discs to correct these problems also leads to reduced life. It is usually cheaper just to replace the disc instead of repairing the parts.
Warping is primarily caused by excessive heat, which softens the metal and allows it to be reshaped. The main causes of overheating are: undersized/overmachined brake discs, excessive braking (racing, descending hills/mountains), "riding" the brakes, or a "stuck" brake pad (pad touches disc at all times).
Another cause of warping is when the disc is overheated and the vehicle is stopped. When keeping the brakes applied, the area where the pads contact the disc will cause uneven cooling and lead to warping.
Several methods can be used to avoid overheating brake discs. Use of a lower gear when descending steep grades to obtain engine braking will reduce the brake loading. Also, operating the brakes intermittently - braking to slower speed for a brief time then coasting will allow the brake material to cool between applications. Riding the brakes lightly will generate a great amount of heat with little braking effect and should be avoided. High temperature conditions as found in automobile racing can be dealt with by proper pad selection, but at the tradeoff of everyday driveability. Pads that can take high heat usually do best when hot and will have reduced braking force when cold. Also, high heat pads typically have more aggressive compounds and will wear discs down more quickly.
Warping can also be caused by improperly torquing the lug nuts when putting on a wheel. The manual will indicate the proper pattern for tightening as well as a torque rating for the bolts. The tightening pattern varies little between manufacturers and most mechanics are familiar with them. Lug nuts should never be tightened in a circle. Some vehicles are sensitive to the force the bolts apply and tightening should be done with a torque wrench.
Warping will often lead to a thickness variation of the disc. If it has runout, a thin spot will develop by the repetitive contact of the pad against the high spot as the disc turns. When the thin section of the disc passes under the pads, the pads move together and the brake pedal will drop slightly. When the thicker section of the disc passes between the pads, the pads will move apart and the brake pedal will raise slightly, this is pedal pulsation. The thickness variation can be felt by the driver when it is approximately 0.007 inch (0.017 cm) or greater.
Not all pedal pulsation is due to warped discs. Brake pad material operating outside of its designed temperature range can leave a thicker than normal deposit in one area of the disc surface, creating a "sticky" spot that will grab with every revolution of the disc. Grease or other foreign materials can create a slippery spot on the disc, also creating pulsation.
Cracking is limited mostly to drilled discs, which get small cracks around outside edges of the drilled holes near the edge of the disc due to the rotor's uneven rate of expansion in severe duty environments. Manufacturers that use drilled rotors as OEM are doing so for two reasons: looks, if they determine that the average owner of the vehicle model will not overly stress them; or as a function of reducing the unsprung weight of the brake assembly, with the engineering assumed that enough brake rotor mass remains to absorb racing temperatures and stresses. A brake disc is a heat sink, so removing mass increases the heat stress it will have to contend with. Generally an OEM application that is not drilled will crack and could fail catastrophically if used over and above the original equipment design. Once cracked, these discs cannot be repaired.
The brake caliper is the assembly which houses the brake pads and pistons. The pistons are usually made of aluminum or chrome-plated iron. There are two types of calipers: floating or fixed. A fixed caliper does not move relative to the disc. It uses one or more pairs of pistons to clamp from each side of the disc, and is more complex and expensive than a floating caliper. A floating caliper (also called a "sliding caliper") moves with respect to the disc; a piston on one side of the disc pushes the inner brake pad until it makes contact with the braking surface, then pulls the caliper body with the outer brake pad so pressure is applied to both sides of the disc.
Floating caliper (single piston) designs are subject to failure due to sticking which can occur due to dirt or corrosion if the vehicle is not operated regularly. This can cause the pad attached to the caliper to rub on the disc when the brake is released. This can reduce fuel effiency and cause excessive wear on the affected pad.
Pistons and cylinders
The most common caliper design uses a single hydraulically actuated piston within a cylinder, although high performance brakes use as many as twelve. (Some pre-1969 Chrysler and General Motors vehicles had four-piston calipers - usually sought after by restorers.) Modern cars use different hydraulic circuits to actuate the brakes on each set of wheels as a safety measure. The hydraulic design also helps multiply braking force. The number of pistons in a caliper is often referred to as the number of 'pots', so if someone has six pot calipers they mean each caliper has six pistons in them.
Failure can occur due to failure of the piston to retract - this is usually a consequence of not operating the vehicle during a time that it is stored outdoors in adverse conditions. For high distance vehicles the piston seals may leak, which must be promptly corrected.
The brake pads are designed for high friction with brake pad material embedded in the disc in the process of bedding while wearing evenly. Although it is commonly thought that the pad material contacts the metal of the disc to stop the car, the pads work with a very thin layer of their own material and generate a semi-liquid friction boundary that creates the actual braking force. Of course, depending on the properties of the material, disc wear could be faster or slower than with other pads. The properties that determine material wear involve trade-offs between performance and longevity. The brake pads must be replaced regularly, and most are equipped with a method of alerting the driver when this needs to take place. Some have a thin piece of soft metal that causes the brakes to squeal when the pads are too thin, while others have a soft metal tab embedded in the pad material that closes an electric circuit and lights a warning light when the brake pad gets thin. More expensive cars may use an electronic sensor. Although almost all road-going vehicles have only two brake pads per caliper, racing calipers utilise up to six pads, with varying frictional properties in a staggered pattern for optimum performance.
Early brake pads (and shoes) contained asbestos. When working on an older car's brakes, care must be taken not to inhale any dust present on the caliper (or drum).
Sometimes a loud noise or high pitch squeal occurs when the brakes are applied. Most brake squeal is produced due to vibration (resonance instability) of the brake components especially the pads and rotors. This type of squeal does not negatively affect brake stopping performance. Some simple techniques like adding chamfers to linings, greasing or gluing the contact between caliper and the pads (finger to backplate, piston to backplate), bonding insulators (damping material) to pad backplate, etc might help reduce squeal. Many times cold weather combined with high early morning humidity (dew) could make the brake squeal worse and vanishes when the lining reaches regular operating temperatures. However, some lining wear indicators are also designed to squeal when the lining is due for replacement. Overall brake squeal can be annoying to the vehicle passengers, passerby, pedestrians, etc especially as vehicles are designed to be more comfortable and quieter. Hence vehicle NVH (Noise, Vibration and Harshness) is one of the important priorities for today's vehicle manufacturers.
An age-old trick is to put a small amount of copper slip (copper grease) onto the back of the pads where they contact the brake caliper piston. While this will normally stop the squeal, getting grease on the pads or disks will affect braking performance.
Dust on the brakes may also cause squeal, and there are many commercial brake cleaning products that can be used to remove dust and contaminants from the brakes.
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