How to Design Lubrication Task Routes

Bennett Fitch, Noria Corporation
Tags: lubrication programs

Are your lubrication task routes optimized? To many, the idea of a task route might seem simple and straightforward. Can’t you just create a list of machines that need to be lubricated?

What else is there to consider? If everything is designed correctly and managed routinely, when it comes time to perform the lubrication route, it should be quite simple. However, before that state of lubrication excellence can exist, some preliminary work is required.

While creating lubrication routes from scratch can be overwhelming, working from something that has been poorly created or is in disarray and full of uncertainty may be worse.

As you assemble the miscellaneous lubrication requirements for your machines, sequence the intervals when they need to be completed, ensure manpower is available to perform the tasks and keep track of everything that must be documented, the complexity quickly emerges.

Fortunately, the design of lubrication task routes can be optimized when a few key prerequisites are established. For instance, there must be a set of lubrication task plans. This means having a clear understanding of exactly what needs to be done and how often. It should include details for each type of lubrication activity, the machines that require it, the necessary tools, etc.

There must also be a routinely optimized schedule of activity. This provides information on when routes should be scheduled, when on-condition activities should be triggered and which lubrication technician is qualified to perform each task.

In addition, there must be a management system. For most, this means some sort of computer-based data management system that has the capability to organize routes and machine details, define machine groups, and offer sequencing and optimizing tools.

Another prerequisite would be for the machine to be equipped to allow best-practice lubrication activities. This may involve installing inspection devices, sample ports, quick connects, etc.

The individual performing the tasks, such as the lubrication technician, must also be qualified for the tasks through training and certification. Remember, the success of a lubrication program (including the lubrication task routes) often hinges on a champion who is entrusted by management.

Finally, lubrication task routes must be designed to collect feedback and communicated to the appropriate personnel to ensure corrective action and optimization of the tasks and routes.


What is the biggest problem or area of
opportunity for lubrication tasks in industrial facilities?

Problems and Opportunities for Lubrication Tasks

Management must be involved in the initiation of a lubrication program. They set the expectations and fortify the responsible personnel to create action to achieve benefits on the bottom line.

A recent poll at MachineryLubrication.com asked, “What is the biggest problem or area of opportunity for lubrication tasks in industrial facilities?” The most popular responses were human error (28 percent), management oversight (26 percent) and training deficiency (23 percent).

Although human error may not be completely unavoidable, it can be minimized, as will be discussed later in this article. Second on the list of problems/opportunities was management oversight. While there is much effort to make improvement at this level, too often there is uncertainty of the expectations for the lubrication task routes.

Good management sets the tone for the importance and impact that lubrication routes have on overall equipment reliability. Otherwise, it is common for lubrication to be underappreciated and devalued. This generally is due to limited root cause analysis and the challenge of uncovering the evidence linking machine failures with improper lubrication. Effective management, personnel training and due diligence will help ensure this focus on lubrication is kept intact and aligned expectations are established. The survey further validates this problem and opportunity.

Setting a Foundation for Good Lubrication Task Routes

A lubrication route encompasses a group of machines or maintenance points typically sequenced for performing one or several types of lubrication tasks. This primarily consists of lubrication tasks that are completed routinely, such as weekly or monthly, but may include specific on-condition or by-exception tasks.

Before a lubrication route can be created, you must first have a breakdown of all the various types of tasks for each maintenance point. This may involve inspections, lubricant replenishment, lubrication hardware change-outs, lubricant drain and fill, oil filtration, and oil or grease sample extraction.

Reliable Plant Conference

If a machine has moving parts, it more than likely uses a lubricant of some sort. If there is a lubricant, some number of routine lubrication tasks must be performed. At minimum, an inspection usually is warranted for even a sealed lubricated component, although most equipment demands several lubrication task types.

For example, an agitator gearbox that contains 35 gallons of oil may require monthly oil sampling, bi-weekly oil level and desiccant breather inspections, and weekly oil filtration with a filter cart. Depending on the feedback mechanisms (inspections, oil analysis or online sensors), on-condition tasks may need to be added to the route. These might include a breather change, oil top-up or additional oil filtration. Keep in mind, these are just the lubrication tasks.

Lubrication Task Plans

Each lubrication task should have scheduling properties and procedure details. The scheduling properties provide guidelines on how and when the task should be assigned to a route. They may specify the task frequency (or interval), required machine operating state or estimated time to complete. This will be essential in the scheduling state, so if machine-specific information is unavailable, begin with values that are standard for the task type and optimize later.

The procedure details offer step-by-step instructions for the lubrication technician to perform the task. Even the simplest task should have specific steps to allow it to be completed consistently and accurately by anyone. Task details are often deficient in many lubrication programs where inspections are kept vague and identify requirements in just a few words, such as “replace gasket, inspect machine, replace other parts if needed, lubricate as needed,” etc.

This can occur when task routes are rushed or blended together, with important details left out. Training and experience can sometimes make up for this deficiency, but they are not a guarantee. Providing the necessary specifics will be the best practice for long-term route performance.

Take the time to develop these procedure details. Several departments or individuals should be involved, including engineering, maintenance (specifically lubrication technicians) and operations. It’s also a good idea to create a baseline by conferring with a lubrication consultant who can identify best-practice procedures. This generally is a good place to start.

When fine-tuning the procedures, some contributors may provide guidelines that are too specific or theoretical, but this will be balanced by those who are more familiar with the equipment and can offer adjustments to the steps that are more practical.

Even after the procedure details are outlined, they should be routinely updated based on the effectiveness of the task experience. This concept of using feedback to make improvements should be followed on a larger scale with the lubrication task routes as a whole.

Form Factors in Route Creation

There is no single correct way to create a lubrication task route. In fact, routes are better optimized when the methods used to develop them are not too rigid. Normally, the lubrication task type or equipment location will take precedence in defining the theme of the route.

For example, the route may be a weekly lubrication inspection on 10 agitator gearboxes located on the southside ground floor. Routes usually can be optimized when the tasks are focused on equipment near each other and involve the same type of activity, tools or materials.

The design of a lubrication task route can be based on a combination of factors from the task properties, equipment information or other relevant details. The primary factors used to create an overall route theme and designation may include the task type, interval/frequency, required operating state, estimated time to complete, lubricant type, necessary tools, equipment type, maintenance point type, equipment location, lubrication technician qualifications, and criticality or downtime risk.

Without these factors, the route may be unorganized or lack definition. For example, not knowing how often to add grease to a number of bearings will make it difficult to optimize the planning and scheduling of this activity. As a result, inadequate lubrication may lead to premature bearing failure.

The lubrication technicians may overgrease or undergrease the bearing, or the need to grease the bearing may be disregarded because the fundamental properties of the task were never documented. A similar analogy can be made with most of the other factors. Defining all the elements for every task and piece of equipment will be essential when developing the route.

Structuring Routes

Once these task and equipment factors are known, a route can be arranged and optimized. First, organize the routes that can be described as “frequent and general,” or those that have common activities or a large number of maintenance points. Next, assign the remaining tasks. An example of these “frequent and general” routes would be the general inspections on all lubricated equipment.

Typically, the number of machines at a plant will make one general lubrication inspection route impractical. Thus, secondary or tertiary factors for the general inspections will be necessary. This could involve the physical location, process line or other element that defines a smaller group of machines in close proximity.

An inspection is an activity that usually can be completed in as little as a few minutes per machine, so a larger number of machines will likely be on this route. On the other hand, a filtration route with a filter cart should have fewer machines, since it will take more time to transport and set up the filter cart for each machine. In any case, it’s important that route size is based on the estimated time to complete and is no more than a few hours. By keeping this constraint, the scheduling of routes can be optimized more freely.

After the majority of tasks are assigned, the remaining tasks can be designated to their own smaller routes or included strategically in one of the main routes. For example, a route at a paper mill for weekly inspection of 15 pumps in the basement room may consist of a monthly oil sample extraction on four of the pumps during every fourth occurrence. Or, the monthly sampling of the four pumps could be on their own route and tasked simultaneously with the inspections when they occur at the same time.

Manpower Study

Once the routine lubrication tasks have been added, all the routes may be ready for scheduling. However, before this schedule can be assigned, the available manpower must satisfy the estimated manpower required by the routes. This should not just be a rough idea of which maintenance personnel will be available but rather a more comprehensive study on the number of individuals qualified for each of the lubrication technician activities and how many hours per time period they can dedicate to lubrication activities.

For example, if the lubrication tasks add up to 2,000 hours required annually, this does not mean that someone who works 2,080 hours a year can satisfy all the lubrication requirements. Usually there are other daily requirements, such as meetings, trainings, administrative tasks, scheduled breaks, etc., that limit their available hours. With those remaining hours, only a percentage (normally no more than 80 percent) should be considered for true utilization. Overtime should also not be part of the initial schedule of lubrication activities.

This manpower study should provide confidence that an appropriate number of hours will be available during every cycle of the lubrication routes and that they can be performed by qualified lubrication technicians. These estimates should be for all routine tasks in addition to an estimated amount of time for any on-condition tasks that might occur.

Lubrication technician qualification is another important factor in the manpower study. A matrix of required training and certifications should be defined for each set of lubrication task routes. If qualifications vary, the manpower study should be task-type specific. For instance, oil sampling requires a specific skill and may only be performed by one or two designated lubrication technicians. In this case, the availability of these individuals must be analyzed to allow appropriate scheduling.

Scheduling Routes

With the initial routes structured and adequate manpower available, the routes can now be scheduled. This can be done by using the required qualifications and blending experience levels, but the preferences of the lubrication technicians (or those performing the activities) should be considered. Those more familiar with an area of the plant are more likely to be assigned to the lubrication routes for that area, although it is best practice for more than one qualified lube technician to be familiar with each task route. The shared experience and knowledge across all the lubrication technicians support long-term sustainability by minimizing risk with decentralization.

23% of lubrication professionals say training deficiency is the biggest problem or area of opportunity for lubrication tasks in industrial facilities, according to a recent survey at MachineryLubrication.com

Route Feedback, Compliance and Optimization

A management system for lubrication task routes should be designed with self-​improvement in mind. The first part of this involves compliance of each lubrication task route’s completion. Not only should confirmation of the route completion be sent to the management system, but feedback details should be provided as well.

This feedback may include verification of each inspection point (with finding of abnormal results), consumption of materials used or disposed of (such as lubricant volume), start time and completion time, deviations from task steps and reasons for added time, suggestions for step improvements (including tools, materials, etc.), and recommendations for route sequencing or optimization improvements.

Of course, compliance is also about task completion. It is best when there is built-in flexibility. For example, a weekly inspection route may not need to be completed on the exact day it is assigned but instead may have a compliance window of two to three days. If the route is completed within this window, assurance is given to the schedule.

Otherwise, performance measures should be tracked to indicate those that do not meet compliance and where the backlog of uncompleted routes can be assigned. If there continue to be challenges with completing routes within the compliance window, adjustments should be made to the route schedule. The lubrication technician’s competencies and other influencing factors should be reviewed as well.

Feedback is also required to schedule corrective actions and assess suggestions for route optimization. Working with this feedback is primarily the job of planners, schedulers and lubrication champions. This feedback upon route completion has several key benefits.

First, with each abnormal inspection result (along with feedback from oil analysis, sensors, etc.), justifications should be made for follow-up on-condition actions. Some may require immediate attention, such as reporting and fixing a leak. Others may result in actions being added to the schedule, like a filter or breather change.

Secondly, the lubrication technician performing the route should be given an opportunity to provide recommendations to improve the specific tasks or the overall route design. If justified, the appropriate adjustments should follow.

Finally, route compliance tracking is a fundamental measure for performance. This type of metric should be routinely reviewed to validate the micro and macro efficiencies for each machine, task type, route, technician or any other variable in question.

Managing and Optimizing Task Routes

For most industrial plants, lubrication task routes are best managed through a computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) with the oversight of a lubrication excellence champion. Not all systems are created equal, and many are not designed with lubrication best practices in mind.

If you are in the process of selecting a CMMS for general planning and scheduling of all routes and work orders, consider the fundamental elements discussed in this article for lubrication. Otherwise, a complementary software that can handle the lubrication requirements should be considered. With many outdated or deficient management systems still in use, the latter option is often the preferred choice.

At this point, it may be difficult to believe that highly optimized lubrication task routes are possible and that there will be enough manpower to perform the work. While periodic resource limitations, unexpected machine failures and other unknown variables always seem to create barriers, this is where the lubrication champion and route management personnel can step in.

At times, the scheduled routes can be redistributed based on the varying levels of prioritization. Routes may also be modified to ensure completion of the most critical tasks on the most critical equipment. These periodic adjustments are necessary to meet short-term demands.

The lubrication champion should have a weekly meeting to discuss these updates and deviations. However, in the end, these adjustments should not be considered the status quo. Lubrication task routes must strive to achieve completion as long as it is in the best interest of the machine’s overall reliability objectives.

The key is that lubrication maintains its importance. The systems in place to plan, schedule, act, improve, manage and measure the lubrication task routes are long-term investments to promote this cause.

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About the Author

Bennett Fitch is the director of product development and lubrication program development (LPD) services for Noria Corporation. He is a mechanical engineer who holds a Machine Lubricant Analyst (...