Overcoming the Most Common Lubrication Misconceptions

Eric Rasmusson, Generation Systems

In working with industrial operations over the years, I've encountered some key misconceptions about equipment lubrication. They are worth noting because they can carry significant costs. By overcoming them, industrial facilities can reap tremendous opportunities while greatly enhancing operational excellence and profitability.

Misconception #1: Lubricating Industrial Equipment is of Little Consequence

This misunderstanding says that the role lubrication plays in industrial facilities is relatively minor and therefore doesn't warrant special attention. What does research tell us?

Dr. Ernest Rabinowicz, professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, estimated that repairing the effects of friction and mechanical wear on industrial equipment costs the equivalent of 6 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). Applying that calculation to last year's GDP results in losses of more than $1 trillion. Would you consider that a minimal impact?

Researchers and manufacturers agree that the primary cause of friction and mechanical wear is poor lubrication. In fact, studies have shown that improper lubrication leads to 43 percent of mechanical failures, 54 percent of bearing failures, 50 percent of roller bearing damage and 70 percent of equipment failures.

Industrial lubrication is a common problem — and a big one. Whatever the total losses may be worldwide, the more immediate concern is how much inadequate lubrication is costing your organization. Among the factors to consider are your annual spending on bearings, how many replacement bearings are needed in a given year, the cost to replace just one bearing, and the costs involved in replacing your motors and gearboxes.

You should also determine expenses from unplanned downtime, repetitive cycles of time-intensive reactive maintenance, lost production, safety issues, environmental impacts and higher energy costs.

Fact #1: Rather than being of little consequence, lubricating industrial equipment has a significant impact on operational excellence.

Misconception #2: Lubricating Industrial Equipment is Simple

On the surface, it's easy to see why this misconception is so commonly held. After all, "oil is oil and grease is grease." How hard is hitting a few fittings with a grease gun? The "five rights" of lubrication spell it out — get the right lubricant in the right place in the right amount at the right time using the right procedure.

While this may sound simple, it isn't when you consider the sheer volume, variety and complexity of tasks it takes to keep industrial machinery properly lubricated.

Start by asking the right questions. Consider how many pieces of equipment you have in your plant. Next, look at how many separate components each one contains that involve lube-related tasks (e.g., motors, gearboxes, shaft bearings, couplings, filters, etc.).

How many individual lube tasks are associated with each of these components? Keep in mind that some components may require many different tasks that go beyond simply applying grease, such as checking fluid levels in reservoirs, monitoring filters and seals or taking oil samples.

In addition, many of these tasks must be conducted at varying intervals (e.g., daily, weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, annually, etc.). Across several thousand lube points, the multiple tasks at varying frequencies add up fast.

If you haven't done this sort of assessment in your facilities, the yearly totals can be a real eye-opener. A few years ago, after seeing the results of such a survey, managers at a paper plant were quite surprised when they discovered their plant required more the half a million individual lube tasks each year. In my experience, individual lube tasks for typical manufacturing operations total anywhere from 50,000 to more than 1 million annually.

So maybe it doesn't sound so simple after all. But let's say you're still not convinced. Perhaps you're in the camp that says, "Lube tasks are lube tasks," so what could possibly go wrong? Plenty. The wrong lubricant could be specified or applied at the wrong interval.

Or maybe the lube tech simply uses too much, too little or the wrong lubricant. Let's not forget contamination, blown seals, etc. The list of what could go wrong is endless.

Then there's the skill level of lube personnel. The best lube techs are rapidly aging out, and their replacements may not have the same level of knowledge or experience. According to one survey, only 12 percent of lubrication personnel from all industrial sectors are professionally certified.

How well do today's lube techs really know their jobs? More to the point, how well is management supporting them? Do they have access to the right knowledge and toolsets?

Fact #2: In contrast to the impression that it's simple, lubricating industrial equipment is actually highly detailed and complex.

Misconception #3: Lubricating Industrial Equipment is a Problem Best Avoided or a Cost Best Cut

Maintenance budgets remain on the chopping block. Staffing levels are way down. Skill positions are being lost to attrition. The mantra continues to be "do more with less." Instead, wouldn't it be great if you could just do more with what you already have? That's precisely the opportunity that lubrication provides.

With lubrication best practices and appropriate management tools, industrial facilities are able to reduce unplanned downtime and reactive maintenance, eliminate the primary cause of equipment failure at its source, achieve higher productivity from existing equipment assets and personnel, and minimize oil waste and environmental costs.

For example, a leading lubrication products producer realized that it needed a new mindset to make lubrication foundational to reliability and achieve the breakthrough savings it sought. With its new commitment to best practices and the use of lubrication-specific software, the company was able to gain complete control over its lubrication activities and track every task on each lube point.

With just 1,350 lube points in the facility, the plant reduced man-hours by 82 percent, cut oil purchases by 85 percent, decreased overall costs by 70 percent, and saved $200,000 in the first full year as well as $160,000 over the next three years.

Fact #3: Instead of being a drain on resources, lubricating industrial equipment offers a substantial opportunity.

Lubrication: The Key to Driving Operational Excellence and Profitability

Which lubrication misconceptions are hurting your operations? It's well worth your time to find the answers. Addressing lubrication issues can provide any industrial facility with significant financial opportunities and a rapid return on investment.

Keep in mind that lubrication is 100-percent proactive maintenance, which makes it an ideal approach for those seeking to break the profit-draining cycles of corrective and reactive maintenance.

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