Onsite Labs vs. Offsite Labs: Which is Best for My Lube Program?

Wes Cash, Noria Corporation

With facilities running on leaner staff, increased run times and the expectation of fewer failures, quality data from lubricant analysis has only grown in importance. By looking at the data contained within an oil or a grease sample, we can determine if the lubricant and the machine are still healthy and ultimately make maintenance decisions that impact one or both. With many organizations pushing for data-driven decisions based upon machine condition (rather than a static time interval), lubricant analysis is being relied upon more heavily. We are in an age where we are used to finding, in near real-time, the information we use to make choices on everything from what product we buy off the internet to where we are going to eat. This has also made its way into maintenance, and now more professionals are looking with renewed interest at a question that has existed for some time: should we perform our lubricant analysis in-house or rely on a commercial laboratory?

For more mature programs, there is often a desire to bring the majority of the testing in-house or to have the ability to do some analysis to determine if there could be problems with equipment or lubricants. While this can be incredibly beneficial, there are downsides as well.

As is the case for most improvement projects, there would need to be a cost-benefit analysis or, even more simply, a pros and cons list. If we were to provide that for most facilities, it might look something like the following (far from exhaustive, but a good starting ground to understand the impacts).

Benefits of Onsite Analysis

Turnaround time - Perhaps the most significant tangible benefit to performing the testing under your own roof is the ability to sample and analyze much quicker than what is traditionally possible when using a commercial laboratory. A scenario such as someone hearing a strange noise or noticing an increase in temperature could trigger an immediate response; we could receive useful data in a matter of hours to make corrections and stave off failure or downtime.

Data availability - When the analysis is performed in-house, it is easier to create your own data repository or data archive. This could include any known faults and the corresponding analysis that confirmed them. Take this a step further and include the corrective action taken and the results of that action, and you are now building out a decision matrix for your equipment based on your own onsite analysis. This could be a powerful tool, especially in the age of staff turnover and retirees taking decades of experience with them when they leave.

Customized testing - If you were to build your own testing program, you could piece together the exact tests and instruments that give you the most useful data based on your application and environment. You wouldn’t be constrained by the ability of the commercial labs or their testing equipment. Some people have even modified test standards to better meet their needs, further streamlining the analysis process.

Centralized testing capabilities - For some facilities, there could be a geographical advantage to onsite testing, especially if there are multiple facilities in close proximity. One of the facilities can act as the hub or the lab, with the other facilities sending their samples for analysis. I’ve seen this done very successfully in a plant not far from our office. This helps dilute the cost of the equipment and the ongoing cost of upkeep.

Program ownership - Once you take control of your testing and results, you truly are the owner of your analysis program. This can help convey a sense of pride throughout the team and serve as a critical piece of your lubrication program. Oftentimes, people see the creation of an onsite lab as an opportunity for advancement from lube tech to lab tech and as a visual reminder of the importance of lubrication overall.

Drawbacks of Onsite Analysis

Cost - Naturally, the most common roadblock is the cost of starting an in-house lab. While most people would focus on the cost of the actual equipment, there are other expenses that would need to be justified as well. Depending on the number of samples per day, week or month, there could be someone dedicated to operating the lab, interpreting results and setting corrective actions. This person would not only have to be trained in the equipment but also in oil analysis, so not only is there a personnel cost, but a training cost to coincide with that. For many of the oil analysis tests, reagents, solvents and general consumables such as oil-absorbent materials will be required.

Lab space - The lubricant analysis lab should have a mostly dedicated space in a climate-controlled area in the plant. Special consideration needs to be given to cleanliness, ease of mobility within the space, and access to a computer station to record the results. Space like this can be at a premium at most industrial facilities, and sometimes this will need to be constructed, or a plug-and-play solution for officing may have to be used.

Blind spots - As most onsite labs can’t produce the full scale of what a commercial lab can, there can be blind spots in the data that might not point out an impending problem. Testing needs to be stacked in such a manner that the strength of one test can provide insight for another test that might have weaknesses in that area. Too often, people rely on a single test to tell them everything about the fluid and the machine; this just isn’t effective.

The same conversation can be had about using a commercial laboratory for all analyses. While it does address some of the issues that arise with onsite testing, it is not without its own drawbacks. Third-party testing is a key piece to nearly everyone’s lubricant analysis program, but it is important not to just stumble in blindly to anyone that is capable of testing lubricants. You need to carefully consider if an outside lab is right for your program.

Benefits of Offsite Analysis

Data quality and integrity - Most commercial laboratories are certified ISO facilities and have rigorous checks and calibration standards to ensure the data they produce is as accurate and precise as possible. They follow ASTM procedures or may have developed some methods to enable better testing than what many onsite lab technicians might be able to do. Unfortunately, we have seen people with onsite lab equipment neglect the maintenance and calibration of their equipment, which can severely impact the data that they produce.

Specialized testing - Whether due to cost, complexity or need, onsite labs are not usually equipped to do some testing that may be required to truly understand the lubricant’s or machine’s health. Some of these tests include analytical ferrography, RPVOT/RULER testing and elemental analysis. Of course, all of these tests can be run onsite but are commonly not. This results in missing the whole picture of what may be happening within the machine.

Price advantaged - Similar to buying in bulk to save money on a unit price, if you can commit to a volume of samples per year, the expense of a single sample can be relatively low. This is even more true if a company forms a sole-sourcing agreement with a lab for services rendered for their entire fleet of facilities. Sometimes lubricant suppliers will also help offset the cost of analysis. Anytime the cost of analysis is being analyzed, you must also ensure that the test slate isn’t compromised to reduce lab costs.

Big data - Perhaps the buzziest of buzzwords in recent years is “big data,” but it does have a place in our analysis program. When you submit your sample to a commercial lab, you are benefitting from the lab’s experience with similar equipment or, better yet, from their data stores of similar equipment operating in similar environments. There is power in an extensive data set of equipment test results that can help more accurately predict normal versus abnormal wear or even provide better insight into maintenance strategies to aid in extending the equipment’s life.

Drawbacks to Offsite Analysis

Timeliness - When utilizing an offsite lab, you must accept the slower turnaround time associated with shipping and subsequent testing. While this can be mitigated with expedited shipping, there is added cost to this. Some believe that the oil sample degrades the longer it stays in the bottle, but the bigger issue is that the oil in the bottle becomes less representative of what is inside the equipment. The conditions inside the machine are constantly changing, so it is imperative to analyze the lubricant as quickly as possible to understand what those conditions are.

Garbage data - While this can hold true for both onsite and offsite analysis, it is more commonly seen when relying on an outside lab. The lab can only test the fluid that they receive, so it is imperative that they get the most representative sample. A lack of focus on the importance of the lubricant analysis program can lead to problems such as improper sampling, waiting weeks to send samples off, not supplying ancillary machine data to the lab and ultimately not being able to make accurate decisions based on results coming back in the reports.

Lack of focus - For those that bring testing in-house, there is usually a sense of program ownership and pride within the lubrication and reliability program. While relying on an outside lab doesn’t mean that these feelings can’t exist, it is more heavily reliant on the internal champion to ensure the buy-in of all personnel into the program. If using an offsite lab is a requirement, share the results from the lab with all stakeholders and post the results in a conspicuous area to make the program’s successes and failures visible, allowing for a more honest exchange of thoughts and ideas.

Using Both Methods

It is important to point out that this decision doesn’t have to be an all-or-none approach. Following our logic of the optimum reference state, the ideal solution may be some arrangement where we are reliant on both options. Sometimes that could look like the following:

  • Use quick onsite tests to screen new lubricants or even in-service lubricants to determine if they need to be sent to a commercial lab for further or more in-depth testing.

  • Get all stakeholders and employees involved in the analysis program trained in what tests tell you, how to interpret the results and how to ensure that practices in the field don’t skew the data.

  • With the rise of oil analysis sensor technology, there is an opportunity to include real-time data with periodic analysis. This can help focus the corrective actions and provide a better understanding of how the equipment is actually working.

By blending the best of both onsite and offsite analysis, we can improve the reliability of our equipment and ultimately be able to achieve the “do more with less” approach that is becoming the norm.

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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 ...