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If you were to visit 20 different plants, you likely would find 20 different ways of managing machinery lubrication, some of which would be less than ideal. There is no need for this situation to exist. This article outlines 60 best practices that a good lubrication program should contain. These practices cover five major categories: people, methods, lubricants, hardware and problem solving. They are intended to help you minimize gear and bearing failures as well as reduce lubricant costs and lube-related downtime.
In the past, most of the individuals who oversaw the lubrication requirements of industrial plants were self-taught. Even today, there are few schools where you can obtain an education in the art and science of lubrication practices. The theory of lubrication is better served but usually by courses within other degrees. However, information on applied lubrication is available, and people charged with keeping their employer’s equipment running smoothly should avail themselves of it. Oil companies continue to upgrade their training programs, and independent firms specializing in lubrication training have emerged to fill the gap. Still, maintenance organizations must make a concerted effort to educate their teams on lubrication best practices.
There’s an old saying that the only people in the maintenance department who truly earn their keep are the oiler and the painter. The logic for this statement is that these are the only individuals who prevent bad things from happening. Everyone else fixes things after they break. It could be reasoned that the lubrication mechanic’s pay should be on par with the repair mechanic’s salary. Many who argue with this position may have seen the oiler job filled with the lowest skilled person on the crew. To them, it was an entry-level job. Often, the job was taken by a dedicated individual who liked the freedom the job offered. Getting this person extra training is critical. Sometimes paying these individuals more money than millwrights may conflict with union rules. Seniority can also play havoc with your attempts to get the right person in the job, but persistence will pay big dividends.
Normally, only one person is assigned to lubrication duty in a department, so this individual must be effective. One way to ensure this is to list the duties and require checklists be followed. This work is not so much about things being put right as it is about making certain that things go well. The distinction is important. Verifying that tanks are at the proper level, grease systems are firing properly, and parts orders are placed are examples of ensuring things don’t go wrong. When things do not go wrong and downtime is minimized, shortsighted management may get the idea that the workforce can be reduced. However, cutting the lube technician is like canceling your insurance. If downtime occurs as a result of a lube failure, it generally means the lube technician is not doing his or her job. At this point, an investigation must be conducted, and the person chastised or given further training. Incompetence must be weeded out, because this individual is your first line of defense.
Years ago, no recognition was given to people who acquired lubrication education on their own initiative. This is no longer true. Organizations such as the International Council for Machinery Lubrication (ICML) are now dedicated to give recognition to these valuable people. Certification exams are available to anyone for a fee after a minimum of experience. These exams have become quite popular and emphasize the knowledge needed by those involved in daily lubrication decisions.
Most industrial plants would benefit from the establishment of a committee that is responsible for overseeing all lubrication questions, but who should participate on such a committee? Maintenance people who ultimately are charged with downtime reduction are at the top of the list, and this includes hourly workers. This latter group is a terrific source of ideas and precautions about what will and won’t work. Production management should attend if only to learn the rudiments of keeping machinery in top operating condition. Their decisions should benefit from their participation on the committee.
Many plants have union agreements that demand a review when outsiders are brought in to perform work. However, if specialized equipment is involved, the necessary skills are not possessed onsite or the job will be of short duration, a contractor makes sense. On the other hand, when the job will be continuous and requires a low skill level, in-house personnel likely will be the better option. If it is difficult to find motivated people who are willingly to take on the responsibility of lubricating the equipment, it may be time to consider contracting out this important function.
Lubrication practices in any industrial plant can become outdated and preserved due to inertia. To get a fresh perspective, it is wise to allow an outside company to examine your plant’s practices for improvement recommendations. The audit may be free or at a nominal cost, but it should be done by someone with no vested interest.
Lubrication practices do not change rapidly, but a new one will come along periodically. Technical developments change more rapidly than practices, and together they warrant regular training. All training participants should attempt to return to their job with at least one usable idea to justify the costs. This should be an easy goal to achieve.
Lubrication technicians are the unsung heroes of industry and should be recognized. Keeping these individuals energized is important. How can one counter the management tendency to blame the lube specialist when things go wrong but give no credit when things go right? The best way is to set specific standards, such as keeping lube-related downtime below “X” per hour of production time.
Just as the people involved in lubrication tend to be forgotten, the entire field suffers the same fate. Production is king, and management’s attitude often seems to be, “Don’t bother me with these boring details.” However, concentrating only on production eventually will cause production to suffer. Attention to the details that are crucial to production is a derivative (and more effective) way of accomplishing the same goal. Of all the specialties that industry looks to recruit, a lube specialist is the only one you can’t find in a college or technical school. You must look for someone who is self-taught or has been through a training program, which makes these individuals quite rare. Even if you must hire outside contractors to perform this service, recognize that it is not something that can be picked up quickly and should be given respect.
One of the worst situations an industrial firm can have is antagonism between the maintenance and purchasing departments. Frequently, the decision to switch to total fluid management (TFM) is made unilaterally by purchasing, ignoring the needs of maintenance. There are several ways to avoid this problem. One is to standardize lubricants instead of buying by brand name. Another is assuring that both departments participate on the lubrication committee. Whatever method you choose, endeavor to establish good communication between these two groups.
No one likes paperwork, but in lubrication, it can pay great dividends not only in identifying trouble areas but also for documenting routine maintenance. Items to record include oil losses, lab tests, lube maintenance, tank level checks, bearing and gear losses, investigations, etc. Comparing losses with previous periods to demonstrate improvement is important. Photos of gear deterioration can be proactive. Keeping records of the proper lubricant to use in each piece of equipment preserves continuity. Any department that ignores paperwork and reports contains the seeds of its own destruction. The lube department should always justify its existence, since it is a necessary evil in some people’s eyes.
If you are lucky enough to have someone on staff who enjoys lubrication work and is talented at it, try to hang onto that person. These individuals are rare and deserve special treatment. Visualize them as an insurance agent for your equipment, which they truly are. They generally are self-starters and do not need much motivation. They see things that need to be done to prevent problems that others might miss. Again, look for a committed employee, not the time-server, for lube work. Avoid the alienated employee like the plague.
Even talented people must have goals to assure their efforts are productive. These goals also need to be translated into sub-goals to truly affect day-to-day activities. Periodic assessment of how you are doing will keep you on track. Never give up the practice of goal establishment or you will simply drift. Any accomplishments will be accidental if this occurs.
Purchasing lubricants on an objective basis is nearly impossible when doing so by brand name. Every manufacturer wants to differentiate its products from the competition, but almost all have a degree of interchangeability. While the details for buying lubricants based on specifications are beyond the scope of this article, 95 percent of all lubricants can be purchased this way. Suppliers also may be willing to cut prices appreciably when faced with this situation.
Buying lubricants in bulk can save you money in several ways. First, suppliers can offer lower prices simply because of reduced packaging cost. Eliminating a lot of smaller packages that eventually must be disposed of can offer savings as well. The lubricant is also kept cleaner if transferred directly from the bulk package to the point of use. Finally, getting the lubricant to the point of use can cost 10 times more in labor with drums than with bulk packages. Critics claim bulk usage encourages waste due to more being available, and this can be a disadvantage if not monitored closely.
Over time, as new equipment is brought into a plant and lubricants are purchased, it is inevitable that several identical products with different brand names may find their way into inventory. By encouraging personnel to think in terms of performance specifications instead of brand names, you can make lubricant consolidation easier. Fewer products mean less confusion, fewer mistakes and the opportunity to lower costs through larger purchases.
Every piece of plant equipment should have its own listing of lubricants and lube points. This information may be stored on a computer and accessed from anywhere. These survey sheets comprise the plant’s “book” on lubrication and ensure continuity over time. They also assist in consolidation efforts. Not using this system encourages a free-for-all among departments and undermines the idea of a central lube authority.
With larger plants and illogical equipment layouts, routing sheets assist new personnel in assuring nothing is forgotten. These sheets also allow someone to design the routes for best efficiency. As plants continue to operate with fewer personnel, making good use of one’s time helps the bottom line.
As most equipment for condition monitoring has been miniaturized, personnel can now take vibration and temperature readings with a handheld computer and analyze it back at the office. This is a great timesaver. Portable oil analyzers are becoming more dependable for field work. Sending samples to a lab may be reserved for more critical and costly items. Common condition monitoring technologies include infrared thermography, ultrasonics, oil analysis, vibration analysis and acoustic emission.
If your plant has costly equipment that depends on a charge of high-quality oil, lube sampling (including new shipments) should be part of your routine, regardless of the size of your plant. This should be done regularly so trends can be monitored. Wear and contamination control are important for most equipment. If outside lab work becomes too costly, consider the portable equipment mentioned above. In addition, checking new lube shipments for compliance with performance specifications will help keep your suppliers honest and careful.
Large gearsets that are expensive to purchase and to change will benefit from periodic inspections. Because everyone’s memory tends to be less than perfect, having a photo on file to compare with today’s gear teeth condition will pay dividends. Some tooth surface damage progresses to a point and then stops. Other conditions may be progressive until failure. A photo can help detect how much useful life is left or if the condition is terminal.
You can enhance your lube program by attaching barcodes to various points of inspection and providing technicians with a handheld reader and computer. Valuable information from the site, such as the tank level, temperature or oil additions, can be fed to a central site for decision making. These devices help to ensure inspections are completed and eliminate paperwork.
Oil losses can be a considerable expense for some plants. These losses should be recorded per hour of operation, not by unit of production. The reason for this is that productivity improvements can give the impression that oil loss corrections have been made when they have not. Remember, the cost of tolerating oil losses generally is more extensive than most people imagine.
A critical aspect of usage management is the control of buying by a central authority. This may be a maintenance individual, committee or purchasing agent, but multiple buying sources must be discouraged. Decisions made by several people in any facility can cause product proliferation, outrageous pricing and less than ideal equipment protection. While the purchasing department will influence the decisions, it must not dominate the central authority.
Contamination is the primary reason for hydraulic problems throughout industry, with ingressed contaminants by far the dominant cause. Ingressed contamination means contaminants have entered the system by sloppy workmanship, accident or sabotage. Simply insisting on good filtration is not enough. Instead, you should filter-fill all of your hydraulic systems.
Once management determines the best practices it wishes to pursue, publicizing this information to the people on the firing line will be important. Written memos will help, as will posters displayed around the plant. Decide which practices you wish your team to use and then get the word out. It may be necessary to ask that certain “bad practices” be discontinued. Otherwise, you will have no one to blame but yourself for lube disasters or less than ideal machine life.
The majority of individuals responsible for machinery lubrication are associated with the maintenance department. Engineering departments normally are charged with acquiring new equipment and keeping installation costs within budget. Sometimes, the goals of these departments conflict. Therefore, these groups must learn to communicate and not work at cross-purposes. New equipment purchases are legitimate discussion topics at lubrication committee meetings, and these decisions can benefit by engineering department representation.
Due to the loss of personnel qualified in lubrication skills, oil companies have attempted to fill the gap by offering the same services with the purchase of their products. Any necessary management costs usually are covered by increasing the product costs. Some companies offer total fluid management (TFM) services for a fee with all or most lubricants purchased from a third party. If a company offers to perform this service for you, their management fee should be priced separately, not factored into the product price. Pricing TFM services separately will allow management to see what their decision is truly costing.
All lubricants in use should have a material safety data sheet (MSDS) on file and available on any office computer throughout the plant. The same should be true for the performance specifications of all lubricants. Keeping these specifications on file for all to see will teach maintenance personnel to focus on the specs, not brand names.
A system must be devised that places the lubricant in a well-recognized category of generic products. Alpha-numeric seems to be the most common, although shaped symbols with different colors are popular. The system selected must be well-publicized and understood by the lube technicians. Charts may also be needed around the plant.
Establishing re-order points for lubricants is important, but just as critical is a system that keeps computerized control and insists on verification by sight. In other words, don’t depend totally on the computer. The storage method should ensure that first-in/first-out (FIFO) practices are employed and that drums are protected from the elements. A designated area that is well lit and clean conveys the message that lubricants are to be cared for in a prescribed manner. Signs specifying where each lubricant is to be stored are a must.
Competition is key when buying lubricants on specifications. Once the specs are written, all vendors who so desire should be allowed to bid, unless there are extenuating circumstances. The lowest bidder must be awarded the business for the designated time period. Failure to do this will decrease the number of vendors in the next bid cycle, because word will get around that someone is receiving favored treatment. However, price should not be the only consideration. Delivery, expertise and response to problems are important, too.
Nothing distresses a good lube engineer like a dirty, disorganized lubricant storage area. These conditions imply a lack of care for the machinery. A clean area conveys the message that the equipment must be well cared for or consequences will follow. Psychologically, attitudes improve, and people will be influenced to regard lubrication as the important function it is.
With apologies to grease manufacturers, if you have a choice, oil is the preferred option for most applications. Oil does a better job of cooling bearings and gears, and can carry dirt away better. While grease also has its advantages, it can be more of an environmental hazard due to the practice of “lubri-flushing” or overgreasing bearings to flush out dirt.
One of the primary duties of the lubrication committee should be to continually review the list of lubricants in use. This will assist with your consolidation efforts and to ensure that 80 percent of applications are being served by 20 percent of the lubricants on the list. It also will help confirm that the supplier has not modified the specifications and that the lubricants you are receiving match these specs.
The typical industrial plant has so many lube points that relying on manual labor can be expensive and unreliable. Automatic systems are available to do almost any lube job with a minimum of attention. Not using this technology can also be dangerous to workers, as automatic systems allow lubrication during operating periods without requiring a person to get close to the equipment. Designs are available to fit nearly any application. The use of grease guns should be reserved for electric motors, isolated bearings, mobile equipment or the extremely difficult-to-access bearing.
Bottle oilers tend to be forgotten unless routing sheets are used. If this has been a problem, consider employing units with electric alarms that generate a signal when they are empty.
As desirable as automatic grease systems are, there are applications where the use of grease guns is justified. However, the way these guns are filled can be controversial. It is recommended to avoid the use of grease tubes because they are expensive and require the gun to be opened for filling, thus admitting dirt. Discarding a tube also becomes an environmental hazard. Every gun has a connection for pressure filling, which should be used. Gun-filler pumps fit over a grease drum with a special cover. Simply attaching the gun to the fitting on the pump and stroking the pump handle will quickly fill the gun without having to open it and without requiring a garbage can to be located for the old tube.
For all bulk deliveries, the plant’s bulk tank should have some filtering arrangement to verify the cleanliness of the supplier’s truck. A 25-micron filter for oil and a 100-mesh strainer for grease should be adequate. Any increase in element change frequency should generate questions for the supplier. This practice will also eliminate the need for standalone filter systems to supplement oil storage tanks as well as the expensive practice of buying “super-clean” oil in portable bulk tanks, which is contaminated the minute the lid is loosened.
If grease drums are unavoidable, there is a way to clean them as you use them. Pump elevators, which are sold by several manufacturers, mount a grease pump vertically with a wiper attached to the bottom. The pump lowers itself into the drum as the grease is used, and the wiper cleans the side of the drum. When empty, 99 percent of the grease is used, and hand-cleaning is minimal. Pump life also is increased because when the drum is changed, the pump is held in the air and then lowered into the new drum by turning a valve. Without this device, the mechanic must lay the pump down after wrestling it out of the empty drum. At this point, dirt may be picked up by grease clinging to the suction tube and soon clog the pump.
Oil losses are difficult to control at times because no one is sure where they are occurring. By mounting a meter on the fill line of a suspected high-loss system and reading it periodically, you no longer will be dependent on verbal reports by mechanics who feed the leaks. The meters offer factual information, not hearsay. All systems will not require these meters, but they can be helpful where a single storage tank feeds several operating reservoirs.
Air-oil systems feed tiny quantities of oil to bearings through an air stream in a hose or pipe. Although similar to oil-mist systems, air-oil systems have several basic advantages. For instance, the lubricant flow is not stopped as easily, such as by low spots in hoses. No heat is required for air-oil as with oil mist. The two systems can be compared to the differences between an automobile’s carburetor and fuel injection. Fuel injection is just more dependable. Likewise, air-oil is more dependable than oil mist and offers no breathing hazard to workers from stray mist.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires a plant’s in-service oil drums be set in pans to contain any drips or leakage. For the typical plant, this can be a hardship and a further reason to eliminate drums in favor of bulk containers. Of course, totes containing several drums’ worth of oil must also be protected. Drums should be on horizontal cradles that have provisions for uprighting the drum if necessary. Once opened, the drums should have self-closing spouts inserted in the large bung and a breather in the small bung. After use, the drums must be disposed of in a proper manner.
Filler breathers are those familiar devices inserted in the top of hydraulic tanks which combine the functions of a breather and a strainer through which make-up oil is poured. This device is the hydraulic repair shop’s best friend, as it is responsible for more dirt entering a hydraulic system than any other. Make-up oil should never be poured into a hydraulic system because eventually the mechanic will use a dirty container. Also, the screen that hangs down into the reservoir often becomes clogged, which may result in the mechanic punching a hole through the screen to make the oil flow better. All oil added to a system should be pumped in through a filter. While every tank needs a breather, that should be its only function.
Most industrial plants cannot justify the expense of having their own test lab for oil samples. However, there are a few tests that may be conducted economically onsite. When time is of the essence, consider checking for water in recirculating lube systems with benchtop centrifuges or distillation devices. A case could also be made for testing the dirt content in critical systems, although this is a cheap test, and results can be phoned in from an outside lab if necessary.
Whether to repair or buy a new piece of lubrication hardware is a question every maintenance department may face. Most maintenance personnel like to prove they can get something operating again, and if the component fails often enough, they may create a small shop to continuously make the repairs. Be careful in setting up these little shops or adding people to old ones. Sometimes you must step back and ask, “Why are we doing this?” Perhaps buying a new part would be best. Do not assume that repairing it in-house is a good idea.
Some lubrication hardware on the market could be considered unnecessary, redundant or misguided. These “gadgets” can take the form of aftermarket additives which may not be compatible with the additives already present, are redundant or may actually be harmful. Several basic questions must be asked when approached by salespeople for such products. While the salesperson may be sincere in the belief that the product will answer your prayers, you owe it to your employer to protect your machinery. This requires you to go slow when assessing a new product. The previously mentioned lubrication committee can act as a brake.
Most industrial problem solving consists of trying something, and if that doesn’t work, trying something else. Typically, the tried solution focuses on one area, forgetting that most problems could have multiple causes. The first thing to know about any problem is that the symptoms can distract you from the true cause. You must learn to distinguish between symptoms and causes. Symptoms are the things you see, like the excessive heat from a hydraulic system. Poor problem solvers focus on the heat and install additional heat exchangers, while the good problem solver asks the question, “What is causing this heat?”
Even though cause-and-effect problems are only one of four major problem types found in an industrial plant, they are the ones that cause more consternation than all the others. The term “root cause” implies that the immediate cause may not be the ultimate cause. You must dig deeper to find the root cause. The best question to ask in this situation is why or what caused this issue. Rather than stop at the first answer to this question, ask what caused it and then proceed backward. Sometimes the causes are in a long string and may surprise the problem solver, but there will be a point where a solution will be most effective and practical. That is the place to apply your efforts at cause correction.
An Ishikawa diagram is a powerful method of organizing one’s thinking when trying to solve a problem. Its greatest benefit is helping the problem solver include all possible causes of a problem. One is forced to think in terms of multiple categories of causes, not just one. An Ishikawa diagram is most useful when a single effect may have many causes, which describes the majority of cause-and-effect problems. If the method has a weakness, it is that it cannot point at the most likely cause. It covers this weakness by being all inclusive.
One of the critical questions that must be asked in any cause-and-effect problem investigation is, “What has changed?” This question implies that if everything was running well for a long time and suddenly there was a problem, something must have changed. Otherwise, things would still be running smoothly. The Kepner-Tregoe method advocates using this question relentlessly until the thing that changed is found. The question has its greatest value in machinery questions or production situations.
Of the many ways that bearings and gears can fail, only a few of which are lube related. All too often, the lubricant is blamed, but the best lubricant in the world cannot make up for poorly made, maintained or installed components. Investigate gear and bearing failures as you would any other problem, with no preconceived notions. Use a rational approach, and you may be surprised how many times the cause is mechanical and not lube related.
Good lubrication specialists always have their antennae up anticipating problems. Condition monitoring allows you to do just that. Common technologies in this field include infrared thermography, ultrasonics, oil analysis, vibration analysis and acoustic emission. Many companies find it helpful to employ outside contractors to conduct certain tests and have their staff perform others. The field is growing, and one would be wise to explore the potential benefits.
Every lubrication committee should have a list of the current projects for improving equipment life or minimizing costs. This list should be on the agenda of each meeting, with the progress noted in the meeting report. In the absence of a committee or with an individual working alone in the lube program, a project list can help to multiply the individual’s effectiveness. No item on the list should be ignored. If it makes it on the list, either work on it or remove it. The concept of continuous improvement concentrates the mind and prevents drift or simply reacting to problems. It also convinces management that while no bad things requiring corrective action are currently happening, there is a verifiable cause of this wonderful state of affairs.
At the end of the day, the lubrication specialist’s reason for being on staff is to prevent problems. If lube-related problems occur, especially repetitive ones, it is an indication that this individual is not doing his or her job. Admittedly, there will be exceptions. Production and maintenance personnel may attempt to blame everything on lubrication, but becoming an expert on the mechanical causes of gear and bearing failures will help reduce those accusations. In other words, assigning true causes is just as important as assuring the lubrication practices do not cause problems.
While cause-and-effect problems are most common in industry, there are three other types that must not be ignored, namely identification, means and ends. Identification problems usually start with the question, “What is that?” Variations on this are questions of when, where, who and how much. Seeking a solution to a causal problem without first solving the identification problem will lead to trial and error. Means problems or “how can I accomplish that?” often arise when trying to implement a solution. Variations include “What should I do next?” or “Which method should I select?” Problems of ends or goals usually are determined for the problem solver by someone higher up, but this doesn’t preclude him or her from thinking about the goals. Standing back and asking, “What am I trying to accomplish?” can be productive and appreciated by the boss later.
Most cause-and-effect problems have two aspects, immediate and long range, both of which should be addressed. The immediate effects of a problem, such as failed bearings or damaged gears, must be corrected to keep the plant running. However, there is a long-range solution that involves analyzing the problem to verify its causes and taking action to prevent the same thing from happening again. Too often, the press of time makes people forget about this second aspect. The most productive way to achieve a relatively problem-free workplace is to give attention to the long-range aspect of every problem once the immediate problem is corrected.
This is not to suggest that you should try to record every loss, but even this might be achievable if your bearings are supplied by a single vendor and your computer records can provide information in a point-of-use format. Because a bearing may be used in many locations, purchasing by location may help pinpoint localized trouble. Once the most difficult bearing locations in the plant have been identified, watch those more closely for unusual activity.
Quite often, lubricants are blamed for problems unfairly. Breakdowns are generally recorded in some fashion, and the wording may imply a lubricant cause. The prudent lube specialist will investigate all of these thoroughly. Persistent problems should be on the lubrication committee’s meeting agenda until resolved. To counter the blame game, let it be known that every incident will be thoroughly investigated, and no person’s opinion will stand unchallenged. Another reason for recording these incidents is to have a record of improvement to show upper management. The benefits of this approach can be powerful.