Switching Lubricant Suppliers - Controlling the Risks


You are no longer able to buy lubricants from your previous supplier (Supplier A), so your company has switched to a new lubricant supplier (Supplier B).

All of your machines currently use lubricants from Supplier A. Some of these machines require small volumes of oil (gears, bearings, etc.) that need occasional top-ups and annual oil changes. Other machines are large circulating oil systems for which oil is changed “on condition,” based on oil analysis. Many motor and fan bearings are grease-lubricated.

The lube storage room has containers of the Supplier A products but now Supplier B products are beginning to arrive. People are asking questions about compatibility and other reliability impacts the transition might cause. What would you do?

The Winning Answer

Reliability should be the first consideration when choosing a replacement lubricant supplier. I would research Supplier B and talk with several of its current customers in my industry to learn of their experiences. If Supplier B’s customers were pleased with their lubricants’ reliability, I would conduct extended tests in a few pieces of equipment to assure plant personnel that switching to Supplier B is the right thing to do.

To address the issue of compatibility and the possibility of using the wrong oils, a full lube audit should be conducted to determine which Supplier A lubricants are being used and where they are in service. Then, a list of comparable lubricants from Supplier B should be compiled. A lube manual containing a list of all lubricated equipment identifying the lubricant from Supplier A as well as the compatible Supplier B lubricant should be published and maintained. All personnel responsible for handling lubricants (lube technicians, mechanics, electricians, etc.) should attend some sort of transition awareness meeting. If it isn’t feasible to get all of those people together at one time, then I would talk about these issues with each one of them face to face. They should be made aware of the lube manual and its location as well as how to use it.

Supplier A lubricants should be used first before introducing any of the compatible Supplier B lubricants to the plant equipment. This means someone must work with the plant warehouse to ensure that a Supplier B lubricant is released only after all of the compatible lube from Supplier A is depleted.

During a shutdown, entire trains of the smaller equipment could be drained of Supplier A lubricant and filled with new Supplier B lubricant. For greased components, a thorough cleaning to remove all Supplier A grease should be performed before introducing grease from Supplier B. I would continue oil analysis on the large circulating systems and change the oil only when needed. I would also continue using Supplier A lubricants in the large components as long as enough is available onsite. There is no need not to use good oil just because you’re changing brands.

Throughout the process, it’s imperative to continually update the lube manual to reflect changes in the equipment. Once Supplier A’s product has been removed from a component, remove it from the lube manual. To make the process as painless as possible, you could label the machinery components with its current lubricant. Once a change is made to a particular piece of equipment, the corresponding label would be changed.

To make the process go as smooth as possible, feedback is essential. Regularly update affected personnel on the progress of the transition. Let them know what has changed and what the next steps in the lubricant changeover process are.

Following these steps will maximize the use of the remaining Supplier A lubricants while transitioning to Supplier B lubricants. Because we’re all concerned about the bottom line, we want this process to go off without a hitch while we squeeze every last dollar from all of our resources.

Herb Springer, Engineer,
Southern Company

Other Answers We Received

Calculate All Costs
We recently had this dilemma when our lube oil contract expired. Seeing all of the possible impacts, we took a proactive approach. We tried to calculate all the possible costs associated with switching products, which would then be added to the bid price.

The first item we figured is the apparent cost to change oil brands. We came up with just under $10,000, which included: updating MSDS, MMIS, PMIS and the PdM analysis program; changing the oil lab database; new baseline oil samples; and equipment labeling.

The next process was to include, at the bidder’s expense, proof of product compatibility. This was to include actual lab test results with the current and proposed products, or previously documented results. If there was a compatibility issue, the bidder was to provide the procedure for proper flushing of the equipment to accept the new product. The quantity of lubricants that would have to be changed, flushing fluids, and labor costs would be calculated and added to the bid price. By adding in all the hidden costs of changing lubricant suppliers, we felt we were on a level playing field.

Next we came up with the “what if” plan. This involved in-house training on the products’ compatibility issues. The small reservoirs would have to be changed instead of topped-up. For major components, we planned to maintain some of the old product for top-ups until the unit could be shut down, flushed and the lubricant could be changed out. We also discovered that while the lubricants may be compatible, the additive packages of the new product might not be favorable with the equipment in the long run.

Our current lube supplier was contacted about compatibility with other brands. They supplied me with a compatibility study that their marketing technical support team had conducted. According to their study, most similar products are compatible with each other. One issue noted was the quality of base oil used. While some use a group II base stock, others don’t.

I believe the best approach is the proactive one. Most people involved with contracts are looking only at the bottom line and not the big picture. When all the hidden costs are brought to light and added into the equation, then you have the true cost of changing products.

Brian G. Thorp, PdM Technician,
Seminole Electric Co-op Inc.

Avoid Mixing Incompatible Products
Most common lubricants are compatible from one brand to the next. For example, one brand’s AGMA R&O or EP series of products should be interchangeable with another brand’s same series of products. Having said that, there are some products and some product formulations that differ from one brand to the next, and this can result in some compatibility issues.

The most notable potential pitfall involves mixing incompatible grease types. This can cause varying changes in the National Lubricating Grease Institute (NLGI) consistency, which in the worst cases, can quickly lead to premature bearing failure. For this reason, it is important to use greases of the same thickener type if different brands are to be mixed in service. The alternative is to purge every bearing, but this is not generally a practical solution.

I would involve my new lubricant supplier in comparing every old product to every new product, and I would ask the new supplier to certify compatibility prior to mixing products. If the proposed product is incompatible with the former product, I would solicit information from the new supplier as to how to accommodate a change. An example might be changing from a phosphate ester type fire-resistant fluid to a vegetable oil-based fire-resistant fluid. An interim flush of petroleum oil is generally advised in this case. Similar flushes may be required for changes from one type of synthetic oil to another.

The bottom line, though, is to utilize a technically adept supplier as a lubrication consulting resource; one who can help make such a change as seamless as possible.

David Krause, Commercial/Industrial Sales Manager,
Parman Lubricants Corporation

Involve New Supplier
First, I would give Supplier B samples of Supplier A’s products and ask Supplier B to verify (in writing) whether or not compatibility issues exist between the products. Ideally, this should have been done as part of the selection process.

Second, if there were no compatibility issues on the smaller top-up and change-out drives, I would simply continue using Supplier A’s product until it is used up. If there are issues, I would develop a plan such that some existing lubricants could be swapped over to Supplier B’s products in advance of the normal time to spread out the workload and get all of the concerning issues completed in an orderly fashion before the old supply runs out. Care must be taken to ensure no admixing occurred during the change-over period.

Next, on the larger units that are condition monitored and changed only when needed, I would salvage as much of Supplier A’s product as I could and use it to carry the systems through to the “normal” change out time. If there were no compatibility issues, a top-up with Supplier B’s product might be forced, but I would take an oil sample before and after that new lubricant was added, so that a base line is kept during the transition. If there were compatibility issues, a complete change-out would be needed, taking care to thoroughly flush out the system.

Finally, I would follow a similar process for the greases. In all cases good documentation should follow. Each gear unit should be tagged with specific instructions of how to proceed with the changeover so mix ups are minimized.

John Baron, P.E., R&M Superintendent,
Pioneer Grain Company Limited

Conduct Compatibility Tests
One must be careful in doing this because it is a real challenge to mix different oils. It is possible in most cases that the two will be incompatible, particularly the additives in each oil.

Of course, changing brands is sometime inevitable and we cannot be expected to drain every drop of old oil from the equipment and replace it with the new oil!

The first step I recommend is to consult with the new supplier about any known incompatibilities between each vendor’s products that will be used in the same application. Usually, the supplier can provide a cross-reference guide of equivalent products that are compatible and that have the same minimum performance specifications. If any doubt exists, compatibility testing should be conducted as follows:

Take three different mixes of oil A and oil B, one at 50:50, one at 90:10 and the third at 10:90. Next, test for filterability, sediment (possibly caused by additive drop-out), color and clarity, RPVOT, storage stability, demulsibility, rust and corrosion inhibition, air release and foaming tendency. Seal compatibility should also be considered, as some base oils are not friendly with elastomers. In the nuclear industry, we recommend radiation resistance and thermal aging tests. Provided all mixtures pass these performance tests, there is a good possibility that the oils are compatible.

Grease compatibility should also be taken seriously because in greases, the biggest problem is compatibility of soap thickeners. Incompatible greases can either thicken or thin when mixed, and therefore, extreme care must be taken when switching from one product to another. In general, without any mixing or compatibility data, all greases should be treated as incompatible. It is strongly recommended that equipment bearings and housings be thoroughly cleaned and purged before introducing the new grease.

Khalid Malik, Technical Officer,
Ontario Power Generation

Obtain or Create Cross-Reference List
Unfortunately, this situation is already in an uncontrolled state, but it can be salvaged. First, Supplier B must quickly provide a list that cross references Supplier A’s and Supplier B’s products and provides compatibility information about the products. A reputable supplier will have a good catalog of compatibilities with other major brands of similar applications.

The cross-reference list will identify all the products that can be used for top-up with no concerns. This must be communicated immediately to all lube technicians/tradesmen. The status of each machine/reservoir should immediately be tagged so it is not inadvertently topped-up with incompatible fluid.

Any products without compatibility data should be flagged for compatibility checks and the tradesmen/lube technicians should be notified. It should be assumed that these products are incompatible until proven otherwise. Small volume top-ups should be eliminated for these products and a change-out program should be developed.

The new supplier must begin checking these products immediately. If the volume is small, then do the change-out and don’t worry about compatibility as these tests take several weeks to complete. This information must be kept current and available to the lube technicians so they are aware of changes as they occur.

If there is a compatibility issue with the large-volume reservoirs, the existing spare product should be earmarked and conserved for top-up on these units. If the product is determined to be compatible, it should be added to the list; therefore, when a suitable downturn occurs, the lubricant can be changed out to the new product. If the first choice is incompatible, another approach is to substitute with a so-called second-choice product that is compatible for top-ups. When down time is available, the system can be flushed and changed to the correct product. The biggest issue in these change outs is record keeping and information availability to the lube technicians. The records must be kept up to date and be easily accessed.

Rod Pizzey, Mechanical Supervisor,
Gerdau Ameristeel

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