What's in the Box?

Jeremie Edwards, Noria Corporation
Tags: lubricant storage and handling

I’ve spent the past week helping a client get their lubrication program back on track. It seems that we visited their site a few years ago, but the company (having been bought by another company) changed over in leadership a number of times; a lack of communication while people were rotating out of their positions left the organization in a bit of a pinch. They did have some things going for them, though: a lubrication room had been built; they had purchased filter carts, sealable and reusable top-up containers; they even color-coded quick connects - all very nice elements for a lubrication program. The issue was that all this equipment was purchased about five years prior. The lube room had been built, but everything just got tossed onto a shelf or into the room. I know you’re asking, “what’s wrong with the lubrication stuff being put in the lube room?” Well, nothing at all is wrong with storing lubrication-related items in a lube room, but everything else that they didn’t know where to put ended up going in there as well: ladders, random parts, empty boxes, paint, exploded batteries - you name it. The lube room just became a collection chamber for random items. Additionally, half of the facility had switched to a national lube supplier since being bought, and the other half was lagging by two years in making the switch. I’m not one to concern myself with the “where” when it comes to companies sourcing their lubricants, but this specific facility brought issues onto themselves. Pails of both oil and grease that were seven or more years old were sitting in the back of this nice lube room; some of these lubricants had been ordered by accident, some due to miscommunication and others because the person tasked with placing the order didn’t understand what they were ordering to begin with. It gets worse. The client had invested quite a bit in very nice hardware and tools: moisture testing kits, acid number test kits, viscometers and even a patch test kit. None of these items were anywhere to be found. Storerooms had changed locations over the years, along with inventory management software and the CMMS. So even though the company had invested in all this stuff, it was either tossed at some point or just vanished into thin air. Now, I understand that when it comes to parts, electronics and tools, things are typically tracked rather well (for the most part), but people tend to treat lubrication-related items as disposable. This is a big mistake. Our lubricants are assets, just like our equipment and tools, and we should treat them as such. This means that by implementing proper inventory control, we never have to ask “what’s in the box.” Inventory management should be approached in a lean manufacturing type of mind frame. We want to minimize loss and maximize effort. This lets you take control of your inventory, control costs and avoid unnecessary downtime. Just as with the manufacturing process, there are key components that we have to start taking seriously:

1. First-in-First-out (FIFO)

When we are in the store picking up milk or items that expire, we typically grab the item that will last the longest or has the most prolonged time before it expires. We don’t really have this luxury in our facilities. We already own the stuff on our shelves, so it is up to us to ensure that we are using the oldest items first so that we don’t end up with old (and possibly bad) lubricants in our equipment.

2. Know what you’ve got

I often go into facilities and ask them where their lubricants are stored. Then I get a tour of the facility, my guide pointing to random places: lean-tos with drums in them, shipping containers with random stuff piled in, a battalion of mechanics’ carts or pallets just sitting outside in a yard somewhere. With everything spread around like this, it is next to impossible to know what you have on hand at any given point.

Taken on June 9th, 2022.
Check out that expiration date.

3. Keep only what you need

Why do we insist on keeping lubricants that we don’t use? If you change from one supplier to a different one, either use up all the previous supply or just get rid of it. By keeping these no-longer-used lubricants on hand, you are facilitating (almost encouraging) cross-contamination. You’re using up precious real estate as well. By having one centralized location through which all lubricants pass, you can more easily keep inventory and know how much lubricant you are actually going through.

4. Know what you need

If you know that you have 25 gear boxes that take the same ISO 220 lubricant, and they all hold 10 gallons of oil, it is pretty easy to go through 250 gallons if you are doing annual oil changes; but how often do you change the oil on absolutely every gear box? Do you need to have 250 gallons of this lubricant on hand all the time? Talk to your supplier/distributor about how often you do these oil changes and compare that with how often you receive lubricant shipments. You may only need to keep 5-55 gallons on hand to meet typical use. This is your minimum on-hand amount, and this technique can be used for all of your lubricants. Take measure of your bearings: how much grease they get and how often they get regreased; compare this to the way you receive the grease (tubes, kegs, drums, etc.), and you can get to your minimum on-hand amount.

5. Know and control who uses the lubricants

Knowing how to properly apply and handle lubricants is a skilled task. Just as you wouldn’t send the average operator into the machine shop and expect them to be able to create parts on a CNC machine, you shouldn’t expect random people in your facility to just know how to properly use and apply lubricants. Have your lubrication tasks performed by those who have the skill and knowledge to do it right. This ensures that the job is getting done by professionals, and we don’t have to ask questions like, “why do we keep running out of our electric motor grease - we only grease our motors twice a year, and they don’t take that much?” (SPOILER ALERT: the untrained folks that you are allowing to apply lubricants are likely putting whatever is handy into whatever is squeaking.)

6. 5S or 6S your spaces

Many people look at 5S/6S as some superfluous thing that just takes time to set up and has no intrinsic value. These people are wrong. Everything about 5S/6S directly applies to lean practices and simplifies inventory management for those controlling stock and those who use the items. A well-stocked lube-room benefits from having everything stored in a manner that allows anyone who walks in to recognize what is kept where, what items are missing, what stock is low and even the condition of our equipment (be it grease guns, single point lubricators or top-up containers).