Managing Lubrication Tasks for Greater Reliability

Industrial facilities often believe they have equipment lubrication covered with existing tools and systems — from spreadsheets to condition analysis to sophisticated preventive maintenance (PM) and corrective maintenance (CM) programs. However, despite millions of dollars spent to improve machine condition and reliability, improper lubrication is still cited as the primary cause of premature equipment failure today.

“It is generally accepted in the lubrication community that 60 percent of all mechanical failures are due to inadequate or improper lubrication practices,” states Kenneth Bannister in his book Lubrication for Industry.

More than 50 percent of all bearing failures are due to inadequate lubrication practices, declares the Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers. In another survey from a prominent plant-management magazine, 80 percent of the respondents stated lubrication was a problem.

Yet such equipment failures continue to prove very costly in terms of lost production, labor and equipment life. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “6 to 7 percent ($14 billion) of the gross national product ($240 billion) is required just to repair the damage caused by mechanical wear” that results from poor lubrication practices.

“Lubrication is the neglected stepchild of equipment reliability and doesn’t get the attention it deserves,” says James Wanstreet, reliability engineer and lubrication supervisor at KapStone Paper and Packaging Corporation’s Charleston Kraft paper mill in Charleston, S.C.

As the limits of existing lubrication tracking methods become more apparent, separating lubrication from traditional PM and CM efforts to focus on lubrication reliability is increasingly being adopted as a solution.

Lubrication-tracking Methods Fall Short

Performing lubrication seems elementary and has been approached the same way for many decades. However, it is much more complex than it is given credit for when a single plant can have thousands of pieces of equipment, multiple lubrication points per piece of equipment and multiple activities per lubrication point, each done at different intervals. From daily lubing, to semi-annual oil sampling, to yearly tank draining/replacement, the required lube tasks can number in the hundreds of thousands per year.

“With almost 500,000 lube tasks a year in our plant on almost 8,000 pieces of equipment from fans, pumps, valves and turbines to gearboxes, hydraulics and paper machines, it’s critical that the correct lubrication get done without fail,” says Wanstreet. “Lubrication is the life blood of plant equipment and foundational to keeping it working correctly.”

While lube tasks are considered routine and often assigned to the newest techs at the plant, it is critical to get the right lubricant in the right place at the right time using the right procedure or technique every time to ensure machine condition and equipment reliability. Yet it is far too easy to miss lube points, mix up lubricants or over/underlubricate when relying on traditional lubrication-tracking methods.

Traditional Lubrication Methods

Many plants rely on a technician armed with a grease gun and human memory to track lube points. Although these technicians do a stellar job with the tools they are given, human memory is fallible, and mistakes can be made and lube points missed. Also, what happens when the technician is sick, leaves the company or retires? Replacing his expertise and knowledge can take considerable time, training and expense.

“Even the smartest, most meticulous technician can forget things from day to day,” says Wanstreet. “Even the best techs may not remember that one pump takes a certain type of oil because it is running hot, and another pump takes different oil because it is not. This is even more of an issue when a tech is filling in for someone else and is not familiar with the equipment. And missing or getting lubrication tasks wrong for any reason can cost a plant unnecessary wear and tear, repair and ultimately production downtime.”

Another solution used in many plants is the ubiquitous spreadsheet. Spreadsheets can be utilized to store or change information such as an inventory of equipment, lube points and lubricants used, but they are inherently static and offer no real lubrication point tracking or history. For example, spreadsheets do not calculate and schedule future lubrication tasks based on completing a current task. In addition, if a lubrication task is missed, there’s no record of it.

Although early detection tools such as oil, thermographic or vibration analysis are used to identify and address a problem before it worsens, this approach is really more reactive than proactive. After all, if lubrication is poorly managed, early detection tools are going to repeatedly indicate a problem. Proper lubrication, on the other hand, can prevent damage or excess wear before it begins.

Although computerized maintenance-management systems (CMMS) work very well for managing PM and corrective work at the equipment level, they are not built for detailed tracking of individual lube tasks, particularly at high volume. Even so, CMMS programs are often utilized for this very purpose, and this is where the difficulty begins.

To compensate for a lack of lubrication focus and detail, most CMMS software relies on a series of lubrication PMs, arranged according to lubricant type, frequency and plant location. However, it can be time-consuming to sort through multiple PMs to view lubrication requirements for a specific piece of equipment. Furthermore, if a change is required to the frequency or type of lubricant, which is typically stored in a text field, each applicable PM must be found and each detailed line item requiring a change corrected.

CMMS programs can also fail to record if an individual lubrication task is completed or not, since such information is usually embedded in block PM lists of many tasks. If a technician completes several of the lubrication tasks, but not all of them, he must decide to clear the entire work order or leave it open. If the work order is cleared, which is often the case, once again human memory comes into play and lube points are missed.

“We have a CMMS system, but it doesn’t give us the in-depth lubrication data we need,” says Wanstreet. “We need lubrication data not only for each piece of equipment but also for each lube point, when it’s due and who did it. If it’s late, we need automatic follow-up so nothing is missed.”

New Focus on Lubrication Reliability

Because hundreds of thousands of annual lubrication tasks are virtually impossible to adequately manage through human memory, a spreadsheet, early detection tools or lists of PM work orders, the latest dedicated lubrication software is designed to transform industrial lubrication management from an error-prone manual chore or inadequate CMMS effort into a predictable, automated process.

By managing every lubrication task so responsibilities are always clear and known, lubrication-management software can improve machine condition and equipment reliability. It is also helps to maximize staff productivity, safeguard mission-critical lubrication knowledge, cut energy costs and reduce reactive corrective maintenance.

For instance, LUBE-IT by Generation Systems offers task-specific scheduling and tracking management to ensure that the right lubricant gets to the right place at the right time in the right amount, using the right procedure or technique, all the time.

With this lubrication-specific tracking and management software, each lube point and related tasks are inventoried including location, capacity, activity type, procedure, frequency, route and shutdown requirements. From this information, the software manages all these lube tasks automatically and simplifies changes to any of the variables as needed. Once it has all the lube points, the software will reschedule a task based on when it was completed. Uncompleted tasks are presented with the next week’s activities until they are completed.

In this way, the software takes responsibility for hundreds of thousands of lubrication tasks annually, essentially ensuring that none are left behind as a result of the tracking/organizational system itself.

KapStone Paper and Packaging Corporation’s Charleston Kraft paper mill recently turned to dedicated lubrication-management software and has seen positive results.

“LUBE-IT eliminates the issue of missing or incorrect lubrication and keeps our techs working at maximum efficiency,” says Wanstreet. “It allows our techs to focus on what needs to be done and take over without missing anything if someone is out. If I need to change a lubrication task, I can do it in seconds, and everything is updated so we’re on the same page.”

With the software, reliability engineers and plant managers can quickly view the details and history of any lubrication point, including notifications of any equipment issues identified during the lubrication activity.

Details for each lube task are available via paper-based lists or rugged mobile computing devices so lubrication tasks that need to be completed are clear and known each week. Since the software dynamically releases that work for individual tasks, the lube tasks will only appear when needed based on its frequency.

“We’re a 24-hour operation, so if my techs need to know what type of oil goes into any lube point in any piece of equipment in the middle of the night, they can look it up in the software and get the answers they need,” says Wanstreet. “It’s helped me with scheduling, prioritizing and coaching and training my techs. I estimate we’re getting about 25 percent more equipment uptime with fewer staff.”

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