As your engine runs, the intake valves need to open up to allow air into the engine. They remain closed while the air and fuel is compressed and ignited, powering the piston. Then the exhaust valves open to release the exhaust. This all has to be timed very precisely. It is the job of the timing belt or chain to make sure all of this is synced up properly.
Timing belts are made of a very tough compound that can last for a long time. Timing chains are made of metal and last for a very long time as well. If your vehicle has a timing belt, your vehicle’s owner’s manual has a schedule for replacing the belt. If your vehicle has a timing chain, there may not be a specified schedule for replacing it, but that doesn’t mean that the timing chain system is indestructible and never needs attention.
For example, the chain runs on sprockets on the crankshaft and the camshafts. A broken tooth on a sprocket can cause the chain to slip. When timing is off, even a little, your engine won’t run at all and could even be severely damaged. There is also a tensioner that keeps appropriate pressure on the timing chain. This keeps the chain tight while allowing it to absorb pulsations from the engine. The tensioner can wear out. There are also guide rails that keep the chain on the proper path that can become worn.
The bottom line is that at some time, one or more of the timing chain system components will become worn to the point that they are no longer performing within specifications. Your service adviser can help you with recommendations for when timing chain components should be replaced on your vehicle and for signs of timing chain system wear.
Since timing chains and dozens of other parts, are lubricated by engine oil, smart drivers stay on top of regular oil changes to prolong their life. Always use a high quality oil filter and oil of the recommended type and grade.