Round Table: Off-site Labs, Industry Professionals Voice Their Opinions about Off-site Oil Analysis

Survey participants: Joel Mountain, Laboratory Operations Manager, Analysts, Inc.; Les Boake, Sales Manager, and Paul Hetherington, Manager of Technical Training and Education, The Fluid Life Corp.; Lana Robin, Sales and Marketing Coordinator, PdMA Corp.; and Fran Christopher, Business Development Manager, CTC Analytical Services

In Practicing Oil Analysis magazine’s November-December issue, Noria presented results from a survey of onsite oil analysis users. While onsite oil analysis is becoming more common and has certain advantages, the vast majority of samples are still analyzed off-site at commercial used-oil analysis laboratories, or at companies’ centralized laboratories. In this issue, some providers of off-site oil analysis services talk about the benefits and issues surrounding off-site laboratory oil analysis. Here is what they had to say.

1. What are the key benefits of off-site laboratory oil analysis that one can’t get with onsite oil analysis?

Les and Paul

One of the major benefits an off-site laboratory can offer customers compared to an onsite facility is the full complement of testing services. Most onsite labs are equipped to perform only a few key analysis tests. A well-equipped off-site lab, on the other hand, can provide analysis results covering all fluid property tests (spectrometry, viscosity, neutralization number, oxidation and nitration, etc.), contamination tests (moisture, fuel dilution, glycol content, particle count, solids and soot, sediment) and wear debris analysis (analytical ferrography, ferrous density, etc.).

Selecting tests that are specific to the equipment/component and cover all likely failure modes is an important factor in an effective reliability-centered program, and can be achieved only with a complete complement of tests.

A high-quality off-site laboratory will also follow standard American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM) test methods while maintaining a strict quality control program to ensure that results are repeatable. As a result, an off-site laboratory will typically have higher quality and more accurate equipment.

The customer also has the guarantee of highly trained lab staff performing the tests in a controlled environment. An off-site lab will utilize an expert system to interpret results based on an extensive database of test results (greater than one million samples) for a wide range of equipment in various operating conditions/environments.

One of the pitfalls with onsite labs is that there are often only one or two people trained to do the testing. We have observed several situations where companies have invested heavily in the equipment and training of personnel to set up an onsite lab, only to lose their personnel and have the program fall by the wayside. The people either change positions within the company or leave the company altogether.

At this point, the company makes a decision to go back to using an off-site laboratory. The investment made in onsite testing is wasted as a result.

As a full-service commercial laboratory, we have many capabilities that an onsite laboratory does not typically have. For example, if routine test results identify a potential problem, we can instantly perform a higher level test to give more detailed information concerning the condition of the oil and/or the equipment from which it was obtained.

Furthermore, we typically find that it is less expensive to submit an oil sample to our laboratory for comprehensive testing than it is to perform such detailed tests at an onsite laboratory.

Off-site laboratories provide testing capabilities, including ferrography, various particle counting techniques, large particle spectroscopy and various water detection methods that are generally cost prohibitive for onsite laboratories.

Onsite laboratories are generally operated by maintenance personnel with instruments specifically designed for this type of individual. Off-site laboratories are generally operated by chemists and technical experts capable of operating more sophisticated and sensitive instrumentation. Contract laboratories employ personnel who are experts in analyzing oil analysis data.

A typical onsite laboratory will have personnel with expertise in maintaining equipment, but not necessarily in analyzing the results produced by the instrumentation. An onsite laboratory requires a significant amount of plant personnel’s time to maintain, calibrate, operate and interpret the data.

All these functions are performed by an off-site laboratory, at a more economical real cost, with more sophisticated instrumentation and expert personnel. Use of an off-site laboratory capable of producing reports within 24 hours of receipt will rival the turnaround capabilities of a less sophisticated onsite laboratory.

Off-site laboratories offer expert evaluation, experience and knowledge of oil and equipment. Because testing is our core business, we have the latest equipment and are able to provide high-quality testing at a low cost. Commercial laboratories provide additional testing when necessary to properly diagnose a problem. Sending samples off-site eliminates the need for inventory, consumables, equipment maintenance and special staffing.

2. What steps do you take to assure the quality of oil analysis results?

Les and Paul
Oil samples are handled with extreme care from the moment they arrive at the laboratory to ensure that each test result is representative of the entire oil sample, and that it is protected from both cross- contamination and contamination ingress. Each test is performed following strict ASTM or equivalent test procedures with an internal formal quality assurance (QA) program.

Prior to releasing the results to the customer, every test result is reviewed by a quality control (QC) expert who verifies the data and makes recommendations to the customer on appropriate follow-up actions. Tests are sequenced to ensure that those sensitive to cross contamination (for example, particle counts and moisture) are performed before all other tests.

At PdMA Corp., we operate under the 10 CFR 50 Appendix B QA/QC program. This is the same QA/QC program that is used to build and maintain nuclear power plants. Every sample that comes through our laboratory is processed through this QA/QC program to ensure accurate results.

In our laboratories, quality is assured and documented in our quality program and procedures which are ISO 9002 registered and compliant with the requirements of ISO 17025 and 10 CFR 50 Appendix B. Specifically, procedures specify maintenance and calibration frequencies, and calibrations are performed in-house or by contractors who have been audited by our quality personnel.

Standards are traceable to NIST and standards vendors are audited by our quality personnel. Groups of samples are controlled by a quality sample that must pass specific quality parameters. Analyses of customer samples are not conducted without successful completion of the quality sample. Results of the quality sample are reviewed by the analyst prior to reviewing customer data. No customer data is released without verification of the quality sample results.

Suspicious results are rechecked in the laboratory prior to release to assure all testing is in compliance with the quality program. Personnel are trained regularly on the requirements specific to their jobs, quality and customers.

Each laboratory has a staff of quality professionals who monitor and improve the quality program. We participate in an ASTM cross-check round-robin analysis program to verify our results against those produced by other laboratories to assure bias does not affect our test data. Test techniques are based on ASTM and other appropriate industry standards.

CTC uses standardized procedures to maintain the highest quality analysis results. Additional steps include participation in internal and external round-robin testing, meeting International Organization for Standardization (ISO) compliance standards, frequently reviewing customer feedback, keeping up with the latest limits and industry developments and using traceable NIST standards.

3. Name the three most important ways in which end-users can help to deliver quality data.

Les and Paul
Unfortunately, as with most things in life, the quality of the output relies on the quality of the input. The customer should first select the appropriate sample point location based on the test results’ objective. A sample taken upstream or downstream of a filter will produce different results for certain tests (such as, particle counts), and therefore, it is important to understand the objective.

The second most important thing is to use the right sample fittings and more importantly, the right sampling procedure. It is important to ensure that the oil sample is representative of the oil in the system, and does not represent stagnant oil and debris sitting in a sample valve/line.

The third item is to ensure that proper clean sample kits are used and the appropriate equipment/ component information is recorded, including history of the oil (operating hours or mileage on equipment and the oil, volume and frequency of top-ups, change in oil type, etc.).

Sample integrity starts with the end-user. As a laboratory, we can provide data for any sample submitted to the lab. It is essential for the client to provide a representative sample. The data we provide is only as representative as the sample submitted. It is imperative that the end-user do the following three things to ensure the best return on his or her oil analysis investment:

  1. Obtain the sample in a manner that provides the laboratory with a sample that is representative of the reservoir from which it was collected.

  2. Label the sample properly so the sample data can be compared to historical data, if available.

  3. Act immediately upon the data findings. If a report warns of impending failure, the report does no good unless actions are taken to remedy the potential problem.

The answer to this is simple: Take proper, consistent samples; record all pertinent information with the sample; and send it to the laboratory without delay. Additionally, communicate with your laboratory, ask questions and provide feedback regarding maintenance actions taken and the results.

The end-user should take consistent samples that are representative of the operating environment. The end-user should also sample regularly for trend analysis (do not use for autopsy) and mail the sample and completed information form immediately after sampling.

Editor’s note: Looks like the jury’s in on the issue! Whether you’re testing samples onsite or off-site, make sure the sample is taken properly.

4. What can standards organizations do to help you provide better, more accurate data?

Les and Paul
National and international standards organizations provide laboratories with specific standard test procedures. These procedures clearly identify the method for performing the test and provide repeatability and reproducibility limits.

Laboratories rely on the standards community to perform research and develop standard methods for analyzing oil samples. In some cases, approved industry standards have not been established for used oil analysis; therefore, it is imperative for the laboratory to ensure its personnel follow procedures developed internally or by the test equipment manufacturer.

A quality laboratory is built on quality standards. We are better off to have standards for the analyses we perform because they ensure consistency, accuracy and uniformity. While the used oil analysis industry is currently lacking in standards, we hope to actively support quality standard organizations such as ISO and ASTM in the development of standards for used oil analysis. Current available testing procedures may provide quality data; however, it will be nice to have universal standards available for all used oil analysis.

Standards organizations, specifically ASTM in the United States, produce consensus standards that specify testing techniques. ASTM has a number of round-robin proficiency programs that allow laboratories to compare their results with those produced by other laboratories.

This may generate an internal program of improvement in technique. Better, more accurate data is the responsibility of the laboratory and its customers. The customer needs to be familiar with the laboratory and its participation in these ASTM programs and its impact on the quality of data produced.

Standards organizations are able to provide consistent laboratory procedures and guidance parameters.

5. End-users routinely report that fast turnaround is important to them. What is being done or can be done to speed up the process and improve turnaround?

Les and Paul
The success of any oil analysis program, either onsite or off-site, is the ability to obtain test results as quickly as possible. This process starts at the customer’s location by setting up a streamlined process of collecting the samples and preparing for shipment off-site. The selection of an efficient and consistent freight company is important to make sure that the samples are transferred without undue delay.

At the laboratory, it is important to have effective turnaround standards and programs that ensure the samples are received, processed and results forwarded to the customer in the agreed time frame. In our lab, turnaround times and compliance with our own targeted goal of 24 hours for all routine tests are continuously monitored so that changes and corrections can immediately be made or planned based on the anticipated needs.

In addition, and where appropriate, some test equipment can be automated to improve/reduce the analysis time. An effective and efficient reporting system is also important in returning the analyzed data to the customer immediately.

At PdMA Corp. , our typical turnaround time is 24 hours. We know how important this data is to our clients. We strive to provide them with the quick, accurate data they need to ensure the goals of their oil analysis program are met. Furthermore, we can provide results on a same-day basis when needed.

Laboratory turnaround is a critical issue facing contract laboratories. The laboratory can control the sample and production of results only after the sample is received. The customer must use a rapid delivery method to get the sample to the laboratory. The customer needs to be familiar with and regularly monitor the laboratory’s turnaround. Selection of a laboratory capable of documenting rapid (one day or less) turnaround on routine samples is critical. The laboratory must be capable of producing results for rush samples within a few hours of receipt. Flexible delivery of test results and reports is as critical as in-lab turnaround. What is the value of rapid processing if a mailed report takes a week to reach the customer?

Flexible delivery of reports includes: telephone notification if critical, immediate action is required; automatic faxing of reports; immediate e-mail of results and reports; and immediate Internet access to reports as soon as they are completed in the laboratory.

With these methods, a routine (nonrush) sample taken at the plant site, sent by an overnight delivery service to a laboratory with documented rapid processing and immediately available results and reports, will be completed and available the day after it is taken in the plant. This methodology rivals, and often significantly exceeds, the turnaround produced by onsite testing equipment.

It is a priority to continually improve laboratory operation in order to quickly and accurately turnaround data. New technology in laboratory equipment, such as robotics and other automated features, allow commercial laboratories to process more samples with less labor and higher accuracy. Standardized laboratory procedures and processes also help increase efficiency.

It is important for a commercial laboratory to have an advanced computer system that allows direct interface with the laboratory equipment. Electronic reporting via e-mail or through a Web program allows for real-time access to data and eliminates the traditional mail transit time.

Finally, it is important to teach the customer that fast turnaround requires that the end-user send samples as soon as they are drawn. Sending samples to the laboratory using second day or overnight service reduces turnaround time. Routine samples are tested and available for viewing the same day they are received at the laboratory.

6. Many organizations employ onsite oil analysis, at least on a limited basis. How can the off-site oil analysis laboratory complement onsite oil analysis?

Les and Paul
The onsite oil analysis program can be an effective screening tool for obtaining some basic indications of the quality or condition of the lubricant or equipment. Generally, the onsite methods or test equipment do not have the same accuracy and/or repeatability as the more sophisticated equipment found at the off-site laboratory. Most off-site equipment has lower detection limits, and therefore, provides earlier trending of a developing problem.

Off-site oil analysis at a full-service commercial laboratory can complement onsite analysis by providing more detailed analysis of samples that fail the onsite screening process. Additionally, an off-site oil analysis laboratory can be utilized on a periodic basis as a quality control measure to ensure accurate data is obtained onsite.

A contract laboratory is expert at interpreting oil analysis data and providing specific recommendations to the plant. The value of this service is in trend analysis - watching the laboratory results over time and catching incipient problems.

Many onsite instruments provide a go/no-go indication without the detailed information produced by the laboratory. This scheme often results in the laboratory receiving a suspect sample with little trend information. A more sophisticated approach is to send regular samples to the laboratory for detailed analysis (depending on application, possibly quarterly or semiannually) and then use the onsite instrumentation to provide monitoring in the interim as a screening tool.

This provides the laboratory with trend information critical to diagnosing equipment problems and provides confirmation of the results produced by onsite instrumentation. Contract and other off-site laboratories generally maintain a staff of oil analysis experts capable of working with plant personnel to optimize the program’s value and capabilities.

The off-site laboratory is able to complement onsite oil analysis with specialized testing that cannot be performed onsite. An off-site lab can provide additional testing to confirm critical sample results and warranty sensitive data. In addition, it can function as a consulting service by assisting with evaluating data and providing recommendations for corrective action.

7. How much diagnostic support (data interpretation) should the end-user expect from an off-site oil analysis laboratory?

Les and Paul
To ensure a successful program, it is important for the customer and the oil analysis lab to have a significant ongoing working relationship. The lab must have regional representatives who meet regularly with the customer at his site to discuss areas of continuous improvement. It is important to routinely review each piece of equipment and what tests should be performed at the appropriate frequency.

The lab should also employ trained staff who can receive ongoing customer phone calls and handle regular queries on the test results and/or additional test recommendations. It is also important to provide the customer with an effective software program and tools to perform detailed diagnostic analysis of all the data at the customer’s location.

End-users should expect superb diagnostic support from their oil analysis laboratory. The laboratory works for the end-user. As experts in the industry, the laboratory staff should be readily available to provide detailed data interpretations and recommended actions on all samples.

A competent off-site laboratory will maintain a staff of highly qualified analysts. Independent certification of these personnel through the Society of Triboligists and Lubrication Engineers or the Independent Lubricant Manufacturers Association provides objective evidence of their credentials. The laboratory should have chemists and mechanical experts to assist in diagnosis. Many off-site laboratories, and specifically the contract laboratories, must earn and maintain their relationship with the customer on every sample. This is done by adding value to the customer’s maintenance activity through industry experts’ support and analysis.

The off-site laboratory should provide analysis and be available to answer questions regarding the customer’s oil analysis data. Sufficient support should be provided to assist the maintenance manager in making maintenance decisions.

8. What are you doing or planning to do to improve the customers’ ability to obtain and/or manage oil analysis data electronically?

Les and Paul
Oil analysis data is provided to our customers through various electronic methods. The first is a state-of-the-art oil analysis software program capable of maintaining all the customers’ data and allowing extensive diagnostic analysis of the results. The program is capable of communicating directly with the laboratory via modem or Internet connection to ensure direct and expedient transfer of results. In addition, customers may access all their results online using a Web-based program. Each of these systems is on a continuous improvement program with many suggestions driven by our customers.

At PdMA Corp., our clients can receive their data via e-mail. Our software package allows end-users to store all of their data in-house. The software allows end-users to review, trend, print and graph data. Additionally, the software can export data into other formats that are sometimes useful to end-users when they are writing their own internal reports and memos.

Gone are the days of printing a report and putting it in the mail. Customers require rapid processing and immediate access to their data. Our capabilities include immediate telephone contact on critical samples, immediate automatic report faxing (critical or otherwise at the customer request), e-mail of test data and reports, and immediate access to the report via the Internet.

CTC Online™, CTC Analytical Services’ Web-based maintenance tool, provides easy access and management of fluid analysis information. CTC Online offers users tools that provide real-time fluid analysis information in report formats. CTC plans to continuously update and add new features and information to the site. We also provide specialized reporting that addresses specific customer requests or operational problems.

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