What to Expect from the MLE Exam

Paul Hiller, ICML
Tags: industrial lubricants

With practitioners around the world now having taken the Machinery Lubrication Engineer (MLE) exam for more than a year, those interested in achieving this engineering-grade, management-level certification from the International Council for Machinery Lubrication (ICML) may be curious as to what the early adopters thought about their exam experience. Therefore, ICML contacted everyone who passed the exam in 2019 and asked a few key questions about their assumptions, expectations and difficulties.


When questioned about their assumptions for the exam, some test-takers found the online guidance ICML provided by linking to cross-referenced resource materials in all 24 areas of the MLE body of knowledge (BoK) to be quite helpful. Pathiri Sampath, senior condition monitoring tech at Qatargas Operating Co., studied the BoK as part of his strict regimen and indicated nothing surprised him about the exam’s contents.

“ICML’s website clearly stated about subjects and preparation,” Sampath recalled. “It guided me to concentrate on (relevant) topics.”

Another candidate unsurprised by the topical scope was Loren Green, senior technical representative with Industrial Oils Unlimited. Although the MLE is not a continuation of the Machinery Lubrication Technician (MLT) or Machine Lubricant Analyst (MLA) certification tracks, it does overlap content while also expanding into new territory.

“I expected that it would be a much broader view of lubrication overall, and it was,” Green said.

Roger Story, maintenance manager at DSM Chemicals, discovered that his previous certifications helped pave the way for his MLE comprehension.

“I assumed that lower-level certifications such as MLA III and MLT II would be represented on the test, and that was correct,” Story remarked. “My career as a reliability engineer prepared me for the rest of the exam.”

Tough and Challenging

Just because the candidates thought the topical distribution in the exam corresponded well with the MLE BOK doesn’t mean the actual questions met their expectations. A non-scientific survey yielded a consensus that the exam can offer both pleasant surprises and rude awakenings, even for the most experienced and prepared candidates.

Those who were expecting a challenge certainly found it. Michael Holloway, president of 5th Order Industry, assumed there would be a lot of material to absorb and remember, which he soon learned was accurate.

“The exam was a beast,” Holloway said.

Nurudin Bn Mochamad Djamil, technical specialist for Pertamina Lubricants, had one word to describe the questions: tough. Petrosave Integrated Services’ Nnamdi Achebe used that same word to explain his own experience.

“My assumption that it was going to be a tough exam proved to be very true,” Achebe noted. “I used up the entire four hours allotted, and after that exam I felt mentally drained. I slept all through my travel back from Texas to New York on a Greyhound bus.”

Jose Camilo Valest Sandoval, technical support engineer at Tritech, thought some of the questions dealt with details that caused him to struggle.

“I felt difficulties in topics of asset management, waste and used lubricant management, environmental compliance, and storage of spare parts conditions,” he reported.

Because MLE content overlaps with oil analysis and lubrication practices covered in the MLA and MLT certifications, Sandoval realized he should have spent more time reviewing those basics rather than assuming such knowledge would come back to him during the MLE test.

“There were some basic concepts (e.g., about lubricant films) that I believed were learned, and I didn't give them enough importance,” he added.

Oxy USA’s Nathan Thomas agreed that the MLE questions address more of the lubricant life cycle than one might anticipate. He, too, was challenged on the same areas as Sandoval.

“I assumed the exam would require a relatively high-level understanding of the lubricant life cycle, especially around formulation and disposal as they relate to environmental and disposal concerns,” Thomas explained. “(But) I underestimated the extent to which these areas would be covered on the exam and found myself struggling on these questions.”

Thomas also observed that his specific career path had not exposed him to all possible applications that could be formulated into test questions from BoK resources. Of course, not all machinery is used across all industries, but two hours into an MLE exam is an inconvenient time to realize this.

“I underestimated the lubricant selection and application for all types of machinery, some of which I have not yet been exposed to in my career, such as turbomachinery or certain types of compressors,” Thomas commented. “So, trying to identify an optimal lubricant for these applications was difficult for me and something I was unprepared for.”

Similarly, Gabriel Delgado, senior technical instructor at Freeport McMoran, found the scope of the exam met his expectations and was up to date. However, specific questions still posed a challenge. Like the others, Delgado ran into unforeseen emphases.

“I did not anticipate the knowledge base of refining used lubricants, oil reclamation,” he said. “I also had an excessive amount of questions on seal designs I did not anticipate.”

Cameco’s Brad Owen had a similar run-in with the unexpected.

“With my other ICML and maintenance professional certifications, I felt comfortable that I would be able to pass the exam,” he stated. “(But) there were a few questions on statistical analysis that I was not prepared for.”

Gaps in the Test?

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a couple of respondents suggested that some BoK topics were somewhat underrepresented. For instance, OilDoc’s Rüdiger Krethe assumed the exam would have included more about lubricants and lubrication in the MLA and MLT overlapping content. Wojciech Majka, president and CEO of Ecol and Ecol North America, expressed similar concerns.

“I thought more tribology/lubrication engineering issues would appear,” he noted. “That was a wrong assumption.”

In all fairness, there are 24 areas in the comprehensive BOK and only 150 questions on the exam, so some areas receive less attention than others. Because the MLE is not explicitly a continuation of the MLA or MLT tracks, the overlap of those other bodies of knowledge is not meant to be robust.

Echoing this sentiment in a broader sense was ICML technical contributor Mike Johnson, who assumed there would be a more obvious correlation between the exam’s BoK and the certification’s name.

“The certification is titled, ‘Machinery Lubrication Engineer,’ (but) a substantial amount of content with this certification is about maintenance group/program management, not lubrication engineering,” Johnson pointed out.

ICML does, in fact, promote the MLE as a management-level certification, which is consistent with Johnson’s assessment. His fear is that candidates might alter their study plans based on the title alone. (ICML recommends candidates review all 24 BoK areas and assume nothing as they prepare.)

Trick Questions?

Just like the questions on all other ICML certification exams, MLE exam questions are in the multiple-choice format. However, both Majka and WestRock’s Jeffrey DesArmo expressed concern over questions that pose multiple possible solutions. One of them used the phrase, “more than one correct answer,” and the other labeled these questions as “tricky.”

While a question technically cannot have more than one correct answer, it may present a scenario where the test-taker can discern multiple realistic solutions among the available choices. Any such question instructs the candidate to identify a “best” solution. In this way, there is still only one correct answer for scoring purposes. Of course, if a question is irredeemably vague, ICML would want to know about it to consider revising it.

As Optimain’s Danny Shorten learned, none of these questions is ever intended to be a so-called trick question.

“Knowing how other lube analysis certification tests work, I was concerned that the multiple-choice questions might be structured to catch me out, which I found they did not,” Shorten said.

In real life, every lubrication scenario may present multiple options involving many variables, parameters and business priorities that must be considered to identify an optimum solution. It only makes sense that the MLE test questions reflect such realities.

Other Concerns

ICML allows up to four hours to take the MLE exam, while the organization’s other certification exam sessions end at three hours. Because candidates for different certifications may share the same exam room, ICML currently mandates a short break at three hours to release the MLA, MLT or Laboratory Lubricant Analyst (LLA) test-takers before any remaining MLE candidates can proceed with their exams for an additional hour. This arrangement necessitates splitting the MLE exam into two parts: Part 1, which is roughly 110 questions, is turned in at the end of three hours, while Part 2, which is approximately 40 questions, is turned in at the end of the fourth hour.

Only DesArmo mentioned this break in his response, suggesting that its configuration may require ICML’s further attention.

“I was concerned about the allotted time split, and it did have an effect on the exam,” he explained. “(There was) too much time on the first part and not enough on the second."

With this in mind, MLE candidates should be prepared to pace themselves accordingly.

Finally, Majka expressed concern for candidates whose native language is not English, worrying that they would experience difficulties until such time as the MLE is translated into more regional languages. (As of this printing, the MLE exam is available only in English and Spanish.)

“Language makes it more difficult for non-native speakers,” Majka added.