Making Critical Decisions: Selecting the Best Lubricants for Your Program

Wes Cash, Noria Corporation

Perhaps the most fundamental process in a lubrication program is selecting which lubricant to use. This decision is of the utmost importance. There are very few decisions that have a more direct impact on machine health, downtime and your maintenance budget than choosing what oil or grease you should be applying to your equipment. Lubricant selection goes beyond just selecting a mineral or synthetic lubricant. You must also carefully select additive packages, thickener types, base oils and even suppliers. Each lubricated component is engineered to do a specific task. In the same way, we must be able to choose a lubricant that is engineered to protect that component to the best of our ability. Proper lubricant selection involves many steps and typically includes people in different roles. There are things that must be done tactically at the plant level and strategically at the management level. Effective metrics must be put in place to ensure the process stays efficient and to help identify areas of improvement. As you may imagine, with so many involved, training is essential to ensure everyone understands the importance of selecting and purchasing the proper lubricant. Just one small mistake can be catastrophic when an incorrect lubricant is applied to the wrong machine. This lifecycle can be segmented into six main factors. These factors detail the most important tasks and goals for each step in the lubricant selection process. The tactical or platform level factors are:

  • Lubricant selection process (S1P)
  • Lubricant supplier selection (S2P)
  • Lubricant identification system (S3P)
  • The management factors include:
  • Consolidation and optimization (S4M)
  • Lubricant selection training (S5M)

Finally, there is a single factor for Lubricant Selection KPIs (S6K). To better understand the entire process, we must first understand the individual factors. Each factor can be broken down into a series of steps or process that must be documented and reevaluated for continuous improvement. We’ll discuss each factor in more depth in coming articles but the information below will serve as a general overview of each.

Lubricant Selection Process (S1P)

Lubricant technology is constantly changing. With improvements in refining techniques, additive chemistry and metallurgy, our selection process must likewise stay up to date and evolve. To develop a robust lubricant selection process, you must first understand the equipment you are going to lubricate. The process should begin with a detailed survey of equipment and operating conditions. We need to understand the parameters of the machinery such as speed, load, operating temperature and contamination likelihood. These are all fundamental parameters, but other items are often overlooked, such as process contaminants, internal coatings or seal materials, food grade or environmentally sensitive requirement and a host of others. To properly select the optimum lubricant, you will have to balance all the parameters discussed above with price and availability of the oil or grease. You also have to ensure that the chemical make-up of the lubricant lends itself to longevity and doesn’t degrade or damage internal surfaces due to additive, thickener or base oil interferences within the machine. While the OEM typically recommends a lubricant initially, great care must be taken to ensure the recommendation is valid in your unique operating environment. Often adjustments must be made in viscosity, base oil or even additive packages based on the operational context of the equipment.

Lubricant Supplier Selection (S2P)

The relationship with your lubricant supplier is vital to ensuring the ongoing sustainability of your lubricant selection process. Choosing the correct lubricant supplier will enable you to have the proper lubricant, at the proper times, in the proper volumes, with the proper support. The supplier should be consulted with and involved in any performance or cleanliness guarantees that exist for incoming lubricants. We want to ensure the lubricant arriving at our facility is clean, defect free and is not cross-contaminated with other lubricants. The supplier should be able to support any technical issues identified in the plant and provide lubricant analysis for any lubricant that is in use in critical machinery. While many organizations simply select their supplier based solely on price, the ideal selection criteria would be a weighted blend of several parameters. The supplier’s logistics capabilities, supply chain, storage capability, delivery mechanisms, troubleshooting, capacity and of course-price. Some additional items are crucial, especially for critical lubricants. Certificates of analysis for bulk lubricants and documented quality assurance standards are a good example of this. These items should be documented and periodically reviewed and updated before selecting a new supplier. This will aid with future lubricant contracts and help formalize the supplier selection process. Also, a solid relationship with your lubricant supplier can aid in the next lifecycle of Reception and Storage.

Lubricant Identification System (S3P)

Lubricants can get accidentally mixed through several different steps of handling, storage, application or even delivery. In order to mitigate any accidental cross contamination, a robust labeling system must be developed and deployed throughout any facility. All things coming in contact with the lubricant should be labeled with the corresponding tag or code. The hallmarks of an excellent lubricant identification system would include the use of a generic code as well as the use of a unique color and shape for each lubricant. It is important to use generic codes and not product names because the product or supplier may change, which would then require the relabeling of the entire facility. The use of colors and shapes help with accuracy when selecting the proper lubricant from storage and throughout the application process. The system doesn’t have to be complex. In fact, the simpler it is, the better. The end goal is to ensure the correct lubricant gets applied. There are many options readily available for identifications with many of them aligning with standards such as ISO 6743 to aid in the grouping or defining of lubricants. A system like this would also make switching suppliers an easier exercise as the standardized code could be shared with potential suppliers for them to match to their products.

Consolidation and Optimization (S4M)

As stated earlier, OEMs will often recommend a lubricant for use in their equipment. If we simply purchased what was recommended, our storeroom would be full of lubricants that may get used very infrequently. The same would be true if we selected a lubricant based upon engineering calculations for each specific point. There has to be a balance between the needs of the equipment, the ability of the lubricant and the number of lubricants in your facility. The goal of optimization and consolidation is to minimize the number of lubricants in use and select the ones that will provide the best protection and lifespan for your equipment. We want to use as few lubricants as possible to minimize the risk of cross-contamination, improve our storage ability and decrease the volume of lubricant that may go stale in storage. Typically, savings associated with consolidation are significant and can be used to fund ongoing improvements for the lubrication program as a whole. Diligence and care must be taken during consolidation efforts to ensure lubricants aren’t over-consolidated which may lead to the use of a non-qualified lubricant in an application. This also requires ongoing oversight as new equipment is installed or lubricant suppliers are changed overtime.

Lubricant Selection Training (S5M)

Lubricant selection typically involves staff from maintenance, engineering and procurement. Each person involved in the process needs to have training in the fundamentals of how lubricants perform, physical and chemical properties as well as any environmental or regulatory compliance issues. This should not be a one-size-fits-all approach and should be tailored to the job function. For instance, purchasing would need to understand some of the performance characteristics to ensure they are getting the correct quotes and selecting the proper vendor. Engineering would need to be trained to ensure they are selecting the proper viscosity or additive package. Maintenance would require training related to the safety or regulatory compliance of the lubricant. Depending on the level of involvement and ownership of the lubrication program in you plant, the training may include representatives from other departments as well.

Lubricant Selection KPIs (S6K)

The adage “what gets measured gets done” holds just as true in lubrication as it does in other fields. Each lifecycle of your lubrication program will require metrics or key performance indicators (KPIs) to help guide and evaluate the effectiveness of the individual lifecycle or the lubrication program as a whole. For lubricant selection, it is common to track items such as compliance of the lubricant identification system, number of technicians trained, current number of lubricants, supplier on-time deliveries, as well as a host of others. Whenever building metrics for any system, start with a list of questions you want answered. This will help guide the metrics to make sure they are impactful to your organization. While lubricant selection typically doesn’t receive much attention, you can see how it can influence the robustness of your lubrication program. Remember, if you don’t start with the correct lubricant the rest of the lifecycle of that lubricant or machine will likely be impaired. Take a walk through your plant or your lube room and try to identify what all lubricants are in use and how many you actually have. This activity may surprise you and show that there are opportunities to save money and eliminate waste right under your nose.

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About the Author

Wes Cash is the director of technical services for Noria Corporation. He serves as a senior technical consultant for Lubrication Program Development projects and as a senior instructor for ...