Advice for Changing Lubricant Suppliers

Changing lubricant suppliers, leaving the familiar behind and heading into the unknown, tends to create uncertainty. This often raises concerns about long-term machine reliability caused by mixing incompatible lubricants, or inferior performance on the new unfamiliar products. This fear can either cause resistance to the change, or it can be channeled into productive energy to move the lubrication program to the next level. The success or failure of the transition rest solidly on the maintenance leadership’s shoulders.

To ensure a positive outcome, the transition needs to be proactively managed based on facts, not on opinions and beliefs. The lubrication requirement for each piece of equipment needs to be established based on load, speed, operating environment and machine design.

This information can sometimes be difficult to obtain and people often go with their best guess, or they just use the lubricants that are on hand. Over years of trial and error, the lubricant type, amount and top off frequencies are established and become the accepted normal procedure. Unfortunately, these procedures may be significantly different from optimum procedures, but the machine runs, so no one wants to make a change.

The other common scenario is that the original lubrication program was right, but the service conditions have gradually changed over the years and the lubrication program has never been modified to meet the new service conditions.

Changing lubricant brands or suppliers is a great time to review and update the entire lubricant program. Because most of us in manufacturing locations are not tribologists, it is often necessary to get some third-party professional assistance not affiliated with your lubricant vendor.

There are independent companies that will come to your site, survey all your lubricated equipment, and provide lubricant specifications for it. These specifications will provide the facts on what properties the lubricants in each application require.

Once the requirements are clearly established, then the alternative supplier’s products can be competitively bid based on the specifications. After the new lubricants have been selected, a migration program needs to be established and clearly documented.

The new products should be matched to each application based on technical needs, not based on what is most similar to the current lubricant. Some of the equipment will need to be drained and refilled, some will need to be drained, flushed and refilled, and some can simply be topped-off with the new products. If the lube vendor cannot tell you which procedure to follow, use your outside consultant to determine cross-compatibility and change out plans.

As the migration progresses, make sure to clearly label each device with the new lubricant type, amount and frequency. If your facility is accustomed to assigning storeroom part numbers to machine parts, consider assigning storeroom numbers to the lubricants as well. Use these part numbers on the machine labels so there is no opportunity for mistakes.

In our particular situation, we used an outside consultant for two weeks to fully survey our 50-acre site and to educate our maintenance and engineering staff on the lubricant’s fundamental chemistry and physics.

The result was consolidation of 84 lubricants to 27, and a significant reduction in lube-related failures. The most common failures were due to excess lubrication and mixing of incompatible materials, either at the machine or back at the central lubrication storage racks. The errors at the machine resulted from lack of clear labels that specify type, amount and frequency.

The errors at the storage location were the result of a lack of stock rotation, having only one drum pump to handle 16 lubricants, which resulted in products being mixed, and lack of labeling on oil storage tanks and on oil distribution containers such as jugs and pitchers.

People’s fears tend to fade quickly when they understand the equipment’s needs and how the specific lubricants can meet these needs. By labeling, consolidating lubricants and educating people, most unnecessary lubricant-related failures can be eliminated.

Submitted by: Ron Behnke, Senior Reliability Engineer, General Mils Operations

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