A combined experimental and numerical method is developed to estimate the continuously evolving cyclic plastic strain amplitudes in plastically deformed subsurface regions of a case-hardened M50 NiL steel rod subjected to rolling contact fatigue (RCF) over several hundred million cycles. The subsurface hardness values measured over the entire plastically deformed regions and the elastoplastic von Mises stresses determined from the three-dimensional (3D) Hertzian contact finite element (FE) model have been used in conjunction with Neuber's rule to estimate the evolved cyclic plastic strain amplitudes at various points within the RCF-affected zone. The cyclic stress–strain plots developed as a function of case depth revealed that cyclic hardening exponent of the material is greater than the monotonic strain-hardening exponent. Effective S–N diagram for the RCF loading of the case-hardened steel has been presented and the effect of compressive mean stress on its fatigue strength has been explained using Haigh diagram. The compressive mean stress correction according to Haigh diagram predicts that the allowable fatigue strength of the steel increases by a factor of two compared to its fatigue limit before mean stress correction, thus potentially allowing the rolling element bearings to operate over several hundred billion cycles. The methodology presented here is generalized and can be adopted to obtain the constitutive response and S–N diagrams of both through- and case-hardened steels subjected to RCF.

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