How Lubrication Excellence Can Make Your Plant More Cost-Effective and Productive

Daniel Rader, Noria Corporation

There is a widely held belief among salespeople and customer-service professionals that it’s easier to maintain a customer than it is to find a new one. Data backs this up, revealing that the process of acquiring a new client can cost as much as 25 times more than investing the same time and resources in keeping an existing customer.

Most research shows that a much smaller investment in maintaining customers can yield even greater results, with as little as a 5 percent increase in spending on existing customers resulting in nearly double the profits.

This also holds true for lubrication practices. It’s far better to wisely invest your time and resources in existing equipment than it is to just swap out “bad” machines for new ones.

The key lies in how you approach maintaining and operating the equipment. Simply throwing more money at the existing problems won’t necessarily help. You need to view improving machinery life holistically.

The three main cost areas most organizations consider are parts, labor and downtime. Everyone budgets these items, but ultimately they are all reactive measurements.

The true cost can only be seen after the maintenance events have already occurred. However, there are ways to project or estimate how the changes made in your procedures and equipment while driving your lubrication program toward excellence will impact overall profitability.

As seen in the chart below, it can be conservatively estimated that a 10 percent reduction in maintenance is equivalent to a 40 percent increase in sales. From a manpower/overhead perspective, it seems obvious that improving maintainability should be the desired goal. In most ways, cost-effectiveness and productivity are tied together.

A machine that runs more often should be more profitable in that it is achieving its desired operational purpose and not drawing the attention of the maintenance team for additional parts or labor. Therefore, it makes sense to approach the larger cost-improvement issue from a standpoint of how to reduce equipment downtime by preventing lubrication-related failures.

Ernest Rabinowicz, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), published a study showing that 70 percent of machine failures can be attributed to lubrication-related problems, with 50 percent for mechanical wear and 20 percent for corrosion.

It’s apparent that using the right oils and greases and maintaining them inside the proper operating conditions will go a long way toward correcting or preventing most mechanical failures at your job site.

Noria generally breaks down the journey to lubrication excellence into six categories: lubricant selection, reception and storage, handling and application, contamination control, lubricant analysis, and environmental disposal. This article will focus on the first five categories and provide examples of how to improve in regard to overall lubrication excellence and cost-effectiveness. While environmental disposal is critical, it’s not necessarily a good place to look for cost savings.

Impact of maintenance on overall profitability

Lubricant Selection

Selecting the proper lubricant from the beginning is the most important step you can take to improve machine productivity. Your equipment’s needs will drive the selection process, but having a thorough understanding of different lubricant properties will allow you to pick the optimum solution.

Three types of base oils make up all lubricants: mineral, synthetic and vegetable. Synthetic-based oils tend to cost more upfront but have more consistent properties and are therefore more stable. Additionally, some synthetics can be used in hazardous plant conditions outside the specific considerations of the machine in question.

For example, many synthetic-based oils have a higher flash point and are thus less susceptible as a fire hazard. If your plant operates at higher temperatures (from the climate or a process), it likely will be beneficial to switch to a synthetic oil.

Similarly, most synthetics have a lower pour point and are better for machines starting up in very cold conditions. Again, synthetics often cost more initially, but by having better fluid properties and a longer useful life, they can pay for themselves in short order.

The most important property to consider when selecting a lubricant is the viscosity, and the first place to look for assistance when choosing the viscosity is the equipment manufacturer. Even if the manufacturer’s recommendation is not always the best advice, it is the best starting point to determine the base range for the machine.

For instance, an oil-pumping system may be designed to operate at around 125 degrees F, but at certain times it can run as high as 155 degrees F due to certain plant conditions. The manufacturer’s guide only takes into account the normal operating temperature of 125 degrees F in its viscosity recommendation.

Reliable Plant Conference

To ensure your lubricant remains viable, select an oil that meets both the minimum and maximum operating conditions and has a viscosity index (VI) that can withstand condition changes. If you work in a climate that is particularly hot or cold, the manufacturer’s recommended lubricant may be incorrect solely because it is assumed the machine is operating in more temperate climates.

Temperature is an important factor to consider, because lubricant life is closely tied to operating temperature. Reducing the oil’s operating temperature by 18 degrees F will double its life expectancy.

This means fewer oil changes as well as less labor and downtime. If the system operating temperatures can’t be changed, a similar (but lesser) result can be achieved by making certain that the selected lubricant has the right VI additive to allow for all environmental and climate conditions.

There are many other additives and fluid properties to be considered for a specific machine application, but accounting for the viscosity and VI is the most effective means to improve lubrication. Some lubricant vendors can supply oil and grease with almost any desired package of properties.

An easy way to produce cost savings at this stage is by simplifying your overall lubrication order. You may discover that you were needlessly purchasing a more expensive oil or grease. More likely, you will find that most machines can safely use the same type of oil and grease, and another area of savings can be established simply by ordering fewer lubricant types overall. Even if it costs a little more to adjust the oils and greases ordered, savings will be realized when machinery downtime decreases.

40% of lubrication professionals consider contamination control as the most important factor in achieving lubrication excellence, based on a recent survey at

Reception and Storage

After selecting the correct lubricant, the next step is to ensure that it remains the correct lubricant. That is, you want to prevent contamination by taking steps to keep it out of the lubricant or removing contaminants as early as possible. You have taken the time to choose the right lubricant and additives, so do not allow the climate, environment or mishandling to disrupt your oils and greases.

The simplest way to control contamination is to not allow it into your lubricant in the first place. You might say this is easier said than done, but keeping your oil and grease clean, cool and dry is not as complicated as some would have you believe.

To prevent contamination, your lubricant storage should be the first area you address. Remember, the act of excluding a gram of dirt or debris will cost approximately 10 percent of what it will take to filter it out once it’s already inside. There’s no way to accurately calculate how much more expensive it would be if it contributes to machine failure, but needless to say it would be considerably higher.

Be sure to check the seals and lids on all drums and totes. Minimize the oil’s exposure to air and weather by storing lubricants indoors or at least under a roof. Verify that all oil systems are properly sealed. Inspect lines and tanks for leaks, rust or other signs of failure.

Hatches and closures should be fully shut and not obstructed by hoses, dipsticks or other instruments. Your lubricant storage area should also be routinely cleaned. After all, if it’s dirty outside, it’s more likely to get dirty inside.

Purchasing new storage equipment or improving your existing storage may not seem like an obvious way to enhance the cost-effectiveness of your site. A study by Monash University estimates that it only costs 25 cents per gallon to get oil to an acceptable level of cleanliness (14/13/11 by ISO 4406) to initially store or use. However, cleaning contaminants out of your oil can significantly increase your equipment’s lifespan.

As seen in the table below, improving your oil by only one ISO 4406 cleanliness level will increase machine life by 35 percent. The cleaner it gets, the longer the machine will not suffer lubrication-related failures. The longer the machine goes without failing, the less downtime, parts and labor are needed. In other words, a small investment in cleaning your oil initially will yield huge savings over time by no other means than a reduced rate of failure and downtime.

Handling and Application

Closely related to storage, lubricant handling and application is another area where a little precaution in your practices can go a long way toward improving your results. The key with any task that involves transporting lubricants is to do whatever it takes to keep them sealed and protected from the environment, as well as to have proper procedures in place.

For example, a common means of contamination is when two lubricants are mixed together. This can happen in storage or application, in large quantities and in small. Different oils have different additives, and mixing lubricants together can cause them to work at cross purposes.

Oils can become mixed from something as simple as using the same jug or filter cart to transfer lubricants. It can also result from poor labeling of drums and totes, so consider a unique lubricant identification system (LIS) to separate and categorize all lubricants in the plant.

Having all containers and ports marked with clearly visible and discrete identification tags helps prevent accidental cross-contamination. If nothing else, seeing the tag will force operators and maintainers to take a second look at the system as well as the lubricants and application tools they brought with them.

The cost-benefit increase in handling has everything to do with not making things worse. As mentioned previously, cleaning your oil is relatively cheap and can help extend lubricant life.

Machine life-extension table

Contamination Control

In most cases, dirt, debris and other unwanted contaminants eventually will find their way into your lubricant. Being prepared to remove them is the next best way to control contamination in your systems.

This can be as simple as installing filtration on existing ports on the tanks, motors, gearboxes and other lubricated equipment. If this level of machine modification is out of reach at this time, connecting a filter cart to your system and setting it to run once a day or even once a week can keep an oil system incredibly clean.

Desiccant breathers offer a passive way of cleaning and improving your oil. These can be installed on most system vents with minimal labor and are great visual aids for determining oil health. It’s easy for any operator to spot when a breather is consumed, as the color changes usually are quite drastic, and swapping out a bad one is not a difficult task.

More extensive equipment changes can be made as well, such as installing permanent filtration and sampling paths. Sight glasses, particularly near the fill point, are excellent tools for viewing the oil without it having to leave the system. Dust protection covers can be installed on most grease fittings, as can purge points to allow for the expulsion of old or bad grease when new lubricant is added.

There’s also a bevy of alarms, gauges, meters, and other bells and whistles on the market. The cost-benefit to you will be derived from how well the machine improvements warn you of a lubricant-related failure or how effective they are in preventing or treating it. Early detection gives you time to decide how to fix the problem. Scheduled repairs are almost always cheaper than an urgent job.

Lubricant Analysis

Analyzing the lubricant is how you can tell if your program is effective. Tracking contaminants and fluid properties over time is not only the best way to determine how your oil is doing but is also the best early indicator of machine failure. For example, a sudden appearance of metal particles in an oil sample is likely due to excessive wear and a pending failure. Without analysis, there might not be a way to detect this failure ahead of time.

Proper sampling goes hand-in-hand with lubricant analysis. Drawing the correct sample size while keeping the sample as sealed as possible is similar to any other lubricant-handling task. Design your analysis program by identifying the questions you want answered about your equipment and lubrication systems.

Adjust the sampling frequency as you see parameters improve or decline. Collect larger samples for more robust analysis and root cause findings. Your lubricant vendor may have a reputable laboratory and be able to analyze your oil at a reasonable rate.

From a cost-effectiveness standpoint, lubricant analysis offers the essential feedback that helps you adjust and budget for work in the future. A steady and predictable lubrication program provides the maintenance team with the necessary information to plan for today and tomorrow. Better planning is more efficient and allows for labor resources to be accounted for on any given day.

Bottom Line

Many of these recommendations may seem more like sunk costs than profitable suggestions. There’s not a lot of instant profit or savings in implementing a labeling system or installing filters, breathers and other equipment. The impact is not always immediately seen. It can take time for your system to adjust to a new equilibrium after improvements have been made, but studies consistently show the bottom-line impact will be significant.

Research published by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers determined that for every $1,000 invested in proper lubrication practices or improvements, the average savings yielded was $40,000, or a return on investment (ROI) of 3,900 percent.

Similar studies comparing lubrication practices to other condition monitoring technologies, such as thermography or vibration analysis, found oil and grease condition monitoring programs to be worth at least four times the other options over a three-year period. As previously discussed, it has also been shown that the ROI for cleaning oil to extend machine life is tremendous.

Ultimately, the proof is in the pudding. There are countless examples of successful lubrication programs making small initial investments and reaping huge rewards. Place your plant on a path toward lubrication excellence and watch it become one of the most cost-effective parts of your organization.

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