39 Current Trends in Lubrication and Oil Analysis

Jim Fitch, Noria Corporation

Lubrication TrendsThe dynamics of the lubrication field today is advancing at an intensity and pace that has not been seen since the early days of the industrial revolution, around the time of the invention of the steam engine.

In many respects, the roots of lubrication still are solidly tied to the products and methods that were spawned during that era. We see this in the types of lubricants that are used and the products, tools and approaches with which they are employed. Still, evolutionary and perhaps revolutionary change is afoot.

Since I first started writing my column in Machinery Lubrication magazine, and previously in Practicing Oil Analysis magazine, I’ve tried to bring to light industry trends that should be important to both suppliers and users alike. These relate to not only what’s new and different but equally to what is being phased out and potentially heading toward obsolescence.

Many of these aspiring methods and ideas were later validated by their continued growth of interest and usage. As is often the case, it is easy to see that some of the trends today are really reincarnations of ideas and concepts that first emerged in the past but were years ahead of their time.

Staying abreast with landscape-changing industry movements can define the difference between success and failure in a world characterized by punishing competition and unforgiving economic conditions. With this as the backdrop, I’m going to compile a list of many of the most promising trends in our industry today. I will stay away from what is simply “in vogue” and flavor-of-the-month concepts. Instead, the trends I want to emphasize are those that meet one or more of the following criteria:

  • they have staying power;
  • they are value-based (reduce costs and/or increase productivity);
  • they are new problem-solvers (overcome previously unresolved problems);
  • they are better problem-solvers (provide measurable improvements over prior methods)

Trends in Lubricant Selection and Use

Correct viscosity: More precise selection of viscosity is getting renewed attention. Viscosity affects a number of important factors, including energy consumption, wear and tolerance to contamination. This relates to not only the ISO viscosity grade, but also to the viscosity index. Getting in the general ballpark on viscosity seems to be no longer acceptable, and for good reason.

Not selecting lubricants solely on film strength: Today’s lubricants need a range of performance qualities, so choosing a lubricant that delivers the complete package is the greater priority. This includes (depending on lubricant type) such features as dispersancy, foam suppression, moisture-handling ability, corrosion protection, oxidative stability, viscosity index and, of course, good lubricity.

Judicious use of premium and synthetic lubricants: The rage to switch to premium and synthetic lubricants as a silver bullet for every problem is winding down. We are now more aware of the true strength of these lubricants and their appropriate application. They can indeed solve a plethora of problems, but not all problems. Precision lubrication means correctly matching these lubricants to the applications to which they are best applied.

Energy-conserving and environmentally friendly lubricants: In the past 10 years, huge strides have been made in this area, but even then, it seems we’ve barely scratched the surface. Brace yourself as the pace of change in this area greatly picks up steam.

Replacing grease with oil in mission-critical applications: The debate continues on the grease vs. oil front. From my vantage point, the balance of power is tilting toward oil in a range of reliability-critical industrial applications.

Dumping economy formulations: Buying lubricants from the lowest bidder is rarely a recipe for achieving machine reliability at the lowest possible cost. It’s time to stop pretending to save money by buying cheap, commodity-grade lubricants to save a quick buck at the expense of tomorrow’s need for reliability. Through greater awareness and education, large user organizations are finally getting the message.

Additive reconstruction: You wouldn’t discard a new car the first time it ran out of windshield wiper fluid. Despite cries of resistance from some industry players, when done using sound practices, many depleting lube oil additives are candidates for a booster shot, as more and more users are discovering.

Halting Contaminant Invasion

Headspace management: Many contaminants enter a lubricant by means of the headspace above the tank or sump oil level. Novel new methods have been introduced in recent years to restrict their ingression. Take a look at Headspace Management - Are You in On This Best-Kept Secret? for more detail.

Smart filter carts: Filter carts can do much more than clean new or used oils. Many are instrumented with computers and oil analysis sensors, enabling them to perform a number of smart tasks while unattended.

Dryer and cleaner targets: Aggressive setting of target dryness and cleanliness levels is more than just a fad. It’s proved to be an active and dependable means to boost and sustain machine reliability.

More focus on a lubricant’s air-handling ability: In the past, entrained air and surface foam weren’t much more than a casual concern. Today’s users are proactively responding to aeration and foam issues before irreparable harm is done.

Addressing contaminant exclusion first: Restoring a contaminated lubricant to a clean and dry state after the fact can be costly. Keeping lubricants clean and dry by proactive contaminant exclusion is a much more economical alternative. Far greater attention and resources are applied to controlling ingression than simply achieving contamination control by filtration alone.

Varnish management: Varnish problems have reached nearly chronic levels in certain applications in recent years. In response, a flurry of new products and services has been rolled out to keep varnish in check. More such products are likely on the way.

What’s New in Oil Analysis

Multiple technologies in condition-based maintenance (CBM): Reliability is a collaborative effort. Tools should work together and not in isolation to achieve reliability. Oil analysis is increasingly being teamed with vibration analysis, infrared thermography and other technologies to enhance the CBM toolbox.

Particle counting of opaque fluids (like engine oil): Fluid cleanliness is as important in machines lubricated with opaque fluids as it is for those that use turbine oils and hydraulic fluids. After all, if it’s important, you measure it. Particle counts of engine oils are currently being performed successfully by labs that have recognized this need.

On-site oil analysis in an instant-information world: Despite frequent claims to the contrary, many oil analysis labs can’t seem to achieve quick turnarounds on oil analysis data. This fact continues to spawn growth in on-site labs for those who want to know now.

Live zone sampling: Pulling samples from sump bottoms and large reservoirs is being phased out. Such defective practices cripple the potential value of oil analysis. Modern programs place primary and secondary sampling ports in active “live zones”.

The database in your filter: The filter is the recipient of a vast amount of root cause and symptomatic information relating to your machine and oil. Get on the bandwagon and start inspecting and analyzing it.

Reporting the RUL: Monitoring the remaining useful life (RUL) of a lubricant is one of the primary objectives of oil analysis. For instance, tracking the progressive depletion of additives provides a relatively good estimate of RUL. This is a great metric to have on an oil analysis report.

Standardized test methods: Through the committee work of ASTM D02.96, the number of new standardized test methods for in-service lubricant testing is at an all-time high. It is a welcome change that is long overdue.

Grease sampling and analysis: Despite its inherent challenges, new methods have been introduced to simplify the sampling of grease for analysis by labs the same way that oil has been done for years.

Online sensors and real-time monitoring: The growth in this category of oil analysis has picked up sharply in recent years. There are now online sensors for nearly every data parameter.

Suppliers Get New Attention

Buying more than lubrication: Users are becoming much more sophisticated and analytical in selecting lube brands and distributors. The emphasis is less on cost and performance and more on a broader range of capabilities and lubrication deliverables, including quality, service, support, contamination control and other important factors within the framework of lubrication excellence.

Chain-of-custody quality control: Many big-brand lube marketers are taking aim at quality at each link within the chain of custody. Included are additive and base oil suppliers, blend plants, distributors, transport companies and jobbers. Cleanliness and dryness now are being included in the definition of quality. Read Lubricant Quality - How Does the Chain of Custody Affect It? for more on this.

Packaging, Storage, Handling

Lubricant expiration dates: Lubricants are not like a fine wine that gets better over time (not even in storage). The use of visible expiration date markings on lube package labels is finally becoming widespread.

Graphical lubricant tagging: The risk of accidental use of the wrong lube in a machine is totally unnecessary. Modern tagging methods for lubes include the use of naming system, shape coding and color coding that make cross-contamination of lubricants nearly infallible. Take a look at Advantages of Using Lube Identification Tags for more detail.

Good housekeeping: Well-designed and well-kept lube rooms set the stage for lubrication excellence. So, too, is the banishment of outdated tools such as funnels, unclean top-up containers, transfer systems, etc.

People and Metrics

The death of the oiler: Pride in one’s profession is good for the employee and good for the employer. Lubrication shouldn’t be treated as a mindless task. An oiler is an oil can, not a living, thinking person. On the other hand, a lube technician is an individual who is trained, has the tools he needs, is empowered, works from the neck up and is paid well.

Working the metric: People respond to measurement (what gets measured gets done). There are all kinds of potential metrics, including those that are lagging and leading (what just happened, what’s going to happen). Good metrics need to provide conspicuous reporting of program performance relative to goals. They need to include overall lubrication effectiveness (OLE) and preventive maintenance (PM) compliance. Leading organizations are way ahead on this front.

The Power of an Educated and Certified Workforce

Thousands are now certified: The International Council for Machinery Lubrication (ICML) has certified thousands of lubrication and oil analysis professionals through ISO-compliant standardized testing. Don’t be left behind.

Multilingualism: Reliability and condition monitoring specialists are adding new technologies to their bag of tricks. Attainment of multiple certifications (in oil analysis, vibration and thermography) by individuals is increasingly more common.

Training on demand: Training on demand is knowledge on demand is best practice on demand. New and more common use of knowledge management systems on corporate intranet servers is making this possible.

PMs, Methods and Tools

Accessorizing machines for lubrication excellence: Most machines aren’t ready for modern lube methods. They lack the basic accessories for live-zone sampling, contamination control, quality inspections, condition-based maintenance and correct relubrication. Most OEMs fail to include these items in the original bill of material. As a result, one of the first steps of lubrication excellence is to select the correct accessory items and retrofit them to the machine.

Not just any procedure: Procedure-based maintenance needs to deploy the “rights of lubrication” (i.e., the right lubricant, the right procedure, the right location, the right frequency, the right tools, etc.). Doing lubrication and doing lubrication “right” are two entirely different concepts and have different reliability outcomes.

Lubrication and the computer age: Many organizations only now are leveraging the power of the computer and the Internet to increase maintenance productivity and optimize reliability. Others still are lagging way behind. The opportunities are enormous and include automated delivery of work plans, dynamic routing, tools management, workforce and skills management, and material management.

One-minute daily inspections: Daily critical lube inspections often can be more effective than even the most sophisticated oil analysis program performed monthly. After all, you can’t catch a fish unless your hook is in the water. Learn the modern skills of doing these daily inspections.

Bottom sediment and water: Nearly all of the things that you don’t want in your oil are heavier than your oil. These include wear particles, sludge, water, antifreeze and dirt. Put BS&W on your inspection route.

Site glass oil analysis: Checking oil color, foam, aeration and water on a daily basis is a smart idea, as many have found out. Put this on your inspection route, too.

Optimizing relubrication frequency: Many users are revisiting past decisions relating to regreasing and oil drain intervals. This includes proactively improving the use of lubricants to extend service life as well as relubricating on condition or at least at intervals more closely relating to actual need. It’s time to optimize your relube practices.

Souped-up grease guns: Today’s grease guns can be instrumented for more precise lubrication and include options such as volume meters, sonic pickups and back-pressure gages. The grease gun is still alive and well in the world of lubrication.

Be a Trend-Setter

The advancement of new technology and the urgent need to enhance plant reliability are altering the face of lubrication today. These are exciting times for those of us who have been patiently waiting for radical change in our field. For users, the opportunity to transform fleet or plant equipment to lubrication excellence is enormous.

Start with education. Follow that by benchmarking your program to best practices. Next, begin the systematic process of transformation. Plenty of help is available for those who don’t want to go it alone. Stay ahead of the curve and reap the benefits.

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About the Author

Jim Fitch, a founder and CEO of Noria Corporation, has a wealth of experience in lubrication, oil analysis, and machinery failure investigations. He has advise...