Is Onsite Oil Analysis Right for You?

Drew Troyer

One of the most active topics of discussion during the “Town Hall Meeting” portion of last year’s conference was the subject of onsite oil analysis. That is not surprising, given the heightened interest in oil analysis that has occurred over the past few years. In my consulting activities, I am often asked to comment upon the viability of onsite oil analysis for this paper mill or that power plant.

My views about onsite oil analysis have evolved into a new understanding of its importance to the maintenance organization. I have recognized that good technologies and well-conceived procedures alone can’t produce a successful outcome. The secret ingredient to success is passion. With it, a marginal technical program can succeed. Without it, a great technical program is destined for mediocrity or failure. Every successful oil analysis program I have observed has passionate technicians performing the work. And almost without exception, each includes some degree of onsite oil analysis. Can onsite oil analysis bring this secret ingredient of passion to your oil analysis program?

In the early 1990s, I published a paper about the deployment of onsite oil analysis to streamline the oil analysis process. In the article, I pointed out the obvious benefits of onsite oil analysis: timeliness of data, the ability to verify abnormally high or low readings, control over calibration and accuracy, and the ability to screen samples prior to submitting them to a laboratory for more detailed analysis. I technically described how onsite oil analysis works well with laboratory oil analysis to provide a complete picture. I still stand by the process I discussed back then; however, experience has revealed to me a more important benefit of onsite oil analysis: its positive impact upon the maintenance organization.

In a conventional oil analysis program, samples are occasionally drawn (often without respect for quality), packaged and sent to the lab for analysis. Results from the lab are then mailed, faxed or e-mailed to the technician. Upon review, the technician, lacking an understanding of the actual data on the report, looks to the report’s summarized recommendation, often advising the oil to be changed or to continue sampling as usual. Then the report is filed, never to be viewed again. This type of oil analysis program sadly leaves a tremendous amount of value on the table.

In contrast, a modern oil analysis program is much different. Technicians who are skillful on the topic of oil analysis routinely sample machines in a meticulous manner to ensure samples are representative and undisturbed. The data produced by oil analysis is understood, thus resulting in targeted maintenance actions. The modern oil analysis technician realizes that oil analysis not only provides information about the health of the lubricant, but it also holds secrets about the health of the machine and its interaction with the environment. Likewise, oil analysis data combined with knowledge about oil analysis technology to arrive at targeted maintenance actions ensuring proper lubrication, proactively builds machine reliability and combines with vibration analysis, thermography and other technologies to paint a clear picture about the health of the machine. In the modern oil analysis program, the data is managed so it can serve future decisions with the benefit of histories and trends.

How does an organization evolve from a conventional oil analysis program to a modern one? Education is one important aspect of success, as are skill competency assurance and certification. Management support is another critical element to success; without it, the program never gets off the ground. Institutionalizing oil analysis best practices, so that the program becomes a permanent part of the organization, helps to ensure continued success. It is an important element of success. Onsite oil analysis plays a critical, but sometimes hard-to-define role; it catalyzes passion within the organization. Passion is driven by involvement and ownership; the things that make people want to go to work every day. A famous researcher named Hertzberg said rewards come in two forms: satisfiers and dissatisfers. Dissatisfiers, when absent, lead to dissatisfaction in the job, but can’t by themselves produce satisfaction. Money is a good example of a dissatisfier. Satisfiers, on the other hand, are intangible aspects of the job that give individuals a sense of accomplishment and involvement, and do indeed lead to job satisfaction. When individuals are truly satisfied in their job, you have a breeding ground for passion, which may be the most important ingredient to success.

Onsite oil analysis produces a sense of ownership, which enhances job satisfaction and creates passion. Here are some reasons why:

  • Reduced Seclusion. Being an oil analyst is often a lonely job. Few organizations have more than one individual assigned to oil analysis in any given location. Because of its technical nature, few of the analyst’s co-workers really understand the job of the analyst. Sometimes the analyst’s contribution to the organization is questioned because of co-workers’ (or managers’) lack of knowledge about the subject. Unless the analyst is a natural teacher, it is difficult to explain why evaluating a few complicated reports is important to the organization. Onsite oil analysis, however, is active and tangible. People are interested in seeing new gadgets their co-worker is working with. The tangible nature of onsite oil analysis equipment facilitates and simplifies the explanation of oil analysis to co-workers. The more others understand about oil analysis, the less secluded the analyst feels. Knowledge increases confidence.

  • Knowledge Creep. As previously stated, people are naturally curious about instruments and gadgets. When they ask questions about the onsite oil analysis program, the technician educates them about the process and the reason why it is being done. Almost by accident, they learn about the importance of getting the right oil into the right machine, what contamination does to the machine and that the lubricant carries information about machine wear, etc. They learn about the relationship between proper lubrication and machine reliability. Often for the first time, they become aware that someone is watching. Collectively, this changes behavior, causing them to replace poor lubrication practices with good ones. The gadgets create the interest; the ensuing informal education process produces the change.

  • Tangibility. Oil analysis reports have an implied intangibility. That is why they have been underused for so long. Onsite testing is tangible, and makes oil analysis seem real. As a result, a change in the way data from an external laboratory is viewed. Because oil analysis takes on a real and tangible persona, the information provided from the laboratory becomes used in the manner that was intended, increasing its value to the organization. In fact, organizations that utilize onsite oil analysis usually choose to partner with high quality external laboratories because they recognize the real importance of laboratory oil analysis for periodic analytical testing and exception-based troubleshooting.

  • Perceived Commitment. Lubrication-related activities have never enjoyed great esteem or prestige at most plants, mines, mills and construction sites. When management commits resources to buy and man equipment for onsite oil analysis, it sends a message that the activity is valued and considered important. This is a fundamental requirement for job satisfaction, passion and success.

There are numerous ways in which onsite oil analysis can be accomplished with varying degrees of financial commitment. Noria produces The Lubrication Field Test and Inspection Guide, written by Jim Fitch, which details procedures for simple tests and inspections that can be performed using low-cost supplies. Several companies have product offerings ranging in sophistication from simple, one-dimensional tests to fully equipped mini-labs (Table 1). Regardless of whether you elect to keep it low-cost and simple, or elect to deploy a more sophisticated package, get your organization into onsite oil analysis and watch the evolution for yourself.

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