Beware! Lurking Lubricants

Bennett Fitch, Noria Corporation

How many lubricants do you use in your plant? How many are kept in inventory? How many are on your lube list? These are some of the first questions to ask during a lubricant selection review - one of the most fundamental steps in a lubrication assessment. Most people working around lubricated machinery think they have a rough idea of how many lubricants are used in the facility, yet they’re usually surprised by the truth uncovered during a lubricant selection review; there is often a significant gap in the perceived number of lubricants in a plant versus the actual number. In many cases, there are lubricants in use and found around the facility for one-off reasons or for other reasons that deviate from the best practices of optimizing lubricant selection.

I call these lurking lubricants - sometimes hiding literally behind beams or other structures, intentionally or not. And even when they are in plain sight, they often stay there due to a lack of awareness of the threat they have to plant reliability. There is good news though: the efforts required to avoid these lurking lubricants can be quick and simple, and the benefits are immediate and long-lasting.

Locating these Lurking Lubricants

Try this: take a couple of hours to walk around the plant (maybe during daily inspections) and write down every lubricant found in the facility. Be sure to note every lubricant labeled for use in machines, lubricants in various types of containers, etc., and don’t leave off any that you find. Even if the products are similar, they must be listed separately. How many did you come up with? 25? 50? 75?

Having lubricants scattered around the plant, unaccounted for, is cause for concern. Sometimes these lubricants are simply in their jug or top-up container by a machine, left for innocent reasons. Other times, the lubricants are intentionally hidden in discreet places to get around approval processes. Look for all of these. Those of you who have worked on the plant floor for years, especially older facilities, are likely already smirking because you’re aware of this truth. Either way, innocent or devious, the mismanagement of these lubricants can lead to serious problems with machine reliability.

Machine failure is often linked to lubricant failure. While part of that is due to causes such as lubricant starvation or the degradation of the lubricant over time, too often, the problems start before the lubricant ever enters the machine. When lubricant selection is not managed properly with the right policies and accountability, this bleeds into a perpetration of incorrect lubricant storage practices and inconsistent ways grease or oil is applied to machines.

What Triggers a Lurking Lubricant?

Managing all the lubricants used in a plant can be challenging, even with the right intentions. But when lubricant selection is not viewed as important, it can get out of control. I’ve seen this countless times performing lubrication assessments over the years and have noticed a few themes behind lubricant mismanagement.

1. Lack of central ownership of the lubrication program

When no single person or committee is responsible for lubrication decisions, there are bound to be mistakes and slipups. Conversely, if there are multiple people making their own decisions independently in different areas or on different shifts, they can overlap and cause a number of problems such as cross contamination.

Those charged with ownership of the lubrication program, often referred to as “Lube Champions,” will have duties that include:

  • Managing plant-wide lubricant selection decisions
  • Organizing and displaying the lubricants and their intended applications in a “Lube List,” either posted around the plant and/or in an accessible digital dashboard
  • Managing lubrication tools and storage areas
  • Taking responsibility for lubrication practices and inventories
  • Making observations and adjustments when lubrication-related issues occur
  • Monitoring lubrication metrics and KPIs

Ideally, the Lube Champion will provide solutions to lubrication issues and regularly report the status of various aspects of the program to upper management.

2. No training in lubrication best practices

Those expected to handle daily lubrication activities and other reliability tasks cannot properly do so if they don’t have the required knowledge and skillset. A failure to understand the lubricants or the lubrication-based tasks can lead to confusion regarding the proper handling and storage of lubricants. Thus, we see lurking lubricants left scattered around the plant as well as being mislabeled and misused.

Lubrication personnel, especially those with ownership of the lubrication program, must be provided with training if they are to do their job well and communicate to others the pitfalls of unintuitive and often overlooked lubrication practices and procedures.

3. Lubricants not managed by storeroom clerk

The storeroom is often managed by a dedicated person or team in a controlled area, this includes accountability on what is brought in and sent out and what the inventory minimum and maximums need to be. When lubricants are included under storeroom management, then there can be some benefits namely, keeping inventory controlled so that lubricants don't simply get taken without that removal being tracked.

On the other hand, lubricant selection decisions should not be made by the typical procurement personnel often associated with the storeroom. It takes a careful analysis of machine requirements, environmental conditions and operating variables to properly identify the right lubricant, with the cost of the lubricant being secondary. Even when an alternate lubricant shows viability and there is a temptation to switch to save money, there can be more costly consequences if not done with the right maintenance considerations. It becomes a lurking lubricant poised to create problems. You cannot assume the two lubricants with similar application intents and performance properties will be compatible with each other if mixed together within a machine.

4. OEM-based selection

With the many variables that go into selecting the right lubricant, it’s easy for some to defer to the OEM to determine which lubricant is right for each machine. While this is important to consider, it certainly is not the only variable. Additionally, using certain lubricants just to meet the stipulations of the machine’s OEM-warranty is not always advisable when considering what’s best for business plant-wide.

OEM recommendations can often be generic, typically based on an assumption of ideal conditions. Factors unique to your facility (such as the ambient temperature and degree of contamination) can alter lubrication qualities, rendering an OEM-recommended lubricant insufficient to maintain the expected reliability of the machine. Defaulting just to OEM-based lubricant selection can create a false sense of security and present itself as a lurking lubricant.

5. Fear of deviating from the current lubricant

If things have always worked just fine a certain way, why deviate? Many people are resistant to changing lubricants, especially when they haven’t run into any problems using the current lubricant (such as the lubricant tied to the original warranty) or when they’re dealing with a highly critical machine. While these lubricants may still be the best option, it’s important to allow room for reconsideration.

Lubricant formulations are being improved every year, or better alternatives can exist, especially when taking a plant-wide lubricant optimization into account and consolidating like-lubricants.

Reducing the number of lubricants helps with not only bulk buying but can reduce the chances of cross contamination in machines. Comprehensive lubricant labeling should be a reliability consideration when optimizing lubricant selection and can help avoid lurking lubricants.

Creating a plan

As you can see, the problem is part leadership, part training, and part just daily housekeeping. This can lead to further issues when those dealing with daily lubrication tasks are pressured to get their basic requirements done. This ultimately will result in confusion and a plant full of lurking lubricants.

Creating change requires a plan. But before the plan is constructed, it’s important to understand where we currently are and what the goal is. In this case, the goal is to achieve optimal lubricant usage in the plant and minimize the negative impacts on machine reliability. The plan to meet that goal should look something like this:

  • Review the current lubricants in use in the machines (where possible) and identify all lubricants stored in any way throughout the plant (and yes, look for those lurking lubricants hidden away).
  • Review who is making lubricant selection decisions. If this cannot be answered quickly, then a person or a committee needs to be created that goes through the necessary machinery lubrication training and certifications.
  • Review the storage conditions. How are they being kept clear of contamination influence? What are storage reception practices like?
  • Make lubricant optimization guidelines and policies, usually including direction from lubrication consultants and lubricant representatives. Note there are dozens of good articles at on lubricant optimization and storage best practice. Additionally, Noria can support in selecting the optimal lubricants through a consulting effort.
  • An effort to optimize the lubricant selection involves accounting for the needs and operating conditions of the individual machines while also considering plant-wide objectives. Typically, this results in reducing the number of lubricant products in the plant, which is why this process is often referred to as a consolidation effort. However, it is not unusual for the number of lubricants to increase, which is sometimes due to an over-consolidation of lubricants performed during a previous initiative.
  • Finalize a lubricant list through a digital platform that supports the implementation of lubricant changes in machines and manages the updated lubricant information to the machines dynamically.
  • Throughout the stages of implementing lubricant changes, provide machinery lubrication training to all personnel who manage or handle lubricants in any way.
  • Make those involved in lubrication activities accountable for lubrication tasks and program maintenance which can be supported by the right key performance indicators reported.

Once lubricant selection is optimized, it will ultimately make it easy for the right things to be done right. Use the right lubricant, at the right time, from the right place, and you can avoid a lot of problems. When lubricant usage is not treated with the appropriate level of importance, lurking lubricants can find their way into the plant, and machine reliability will suffer.

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About the Author

Bennett Fitch is the Chief Strategy Officer at Noria Corporation and part of the services team as a senior technical consultant. He is a mechanical engineer who holds a Machine Lubricant Analyst...