Advancements in Machinery Lubricants - Lessons from Japan

Debbie Hodson, Shell

Advancements in Machinery Lubricants - Lessons from Japan

A piece of machinery may remain unchanged throughout its useful life, but that’s not necessarily true for the lubricants it needs.

Continuous advancements are being made in the formulation and management of lubricants, reflecting the fact that good manufacturing practices during the development of lubricants can lead to the prevention of breakdowns.

Ironically, many plant managers strive only for adequate lubrication of machinery, accepting breakdowns as a part of normal operations, despite the high costs involved for mechanical repairs and lost production and downtime.

The Japan Institute of Plant Maintenance (JIPM) says machinery breakdowns should be rare incidents. It has found that proper and effective lubrication can prevent the bulk of mechanical failures.

Total Productive Maintenance

JIPM’s tenets for total productive maintenance encourage manufacturers to pursue production perfection. JIPM stresses that the overall goal should be nothing less than zero accidents, zero defects and zero failures.

Such dedication requires the full backing of all employees from executives to factory floor workers. It also requires participation throughout the company - not only in the production department but also in departments such as product development, marketing and administration.

However, it is essential that all machinery should be correctly and adequately lubricated. Too often, machinery failures result from the wrong lubricants, or too much or too little of the right lubricants.

Problems can be caused by use of the incorrect oil or grease and by failure to change or top-off fluids regularly. Other common problems are oil contamination and use of lubricants with the incorrect viscosity, weak oxidation resistance or poor thermal stability.

Plant operators should require their lubricant suppliers to help them ensure that these requirements are fulfilled.

Major lubricant manufacturers will offer a full portfolio of oils and greases, supported by extensive technical support and research capabilities.

The lubricant provider should have experienced specialists available to devote time to understanding a plant’s operations and help manage specific problems.

Technical support should include advice on preventive maintenance, lubrication and equipment diagnostics, consulting and training, fluid conditioning services and lubrication program management.

Specialists should advise manufacturers on products for specific equipment and applications; offer ways to consolidate and minimize the number of products without compromising system performance; survey the lubrication needs of machinery; provide lubricant diagnostics; train employees; and offer on-site lubricant reclamation and filtering.

Responsibilities of the Supplier

It’s also essential that the supplier have a close working relationship with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and industry associations regarding the current and future performance requirements for machinery lubricants.

In many cases, the manufacturer’s operational specifications for its lubricants (such as the ability to separate water) may be more stringent than the OEM or general industry standards.

In short, the lubricants supplier should not be just a source of drums of oil and grease, but a partner who is constantly trying to create additional value in the manufacturing process.

The lubricant company’s personnel should be able to evaluate total plant systems to outline which services will optimize processes while providing the greatest return on investment.

The lubricant company’s goals for the customer should be improved product quality, environmental compliance, continuous process improvement, reduced inventory, optimization of the procurement and supply chain and improved business controls.

Importance of a Survey

A manufacturer desiring to improve lubrication practices should first conduct, or have performed, a comprehensive survey of mechanical equipment in the plant or the line targeted for improvement.

The survey should include all equipment, motors, gearboxes, bearings and bushings. Operating manuals or the OEMs should then be consulted to define the lubrication needs and frequency. Critical pieces of equipment may also require used oil or vibration analyses.


Because employees don’t always follow lubricant specifications stringently, manufacturers should consider using lubrication management software to ensure that each lubricant point gets the right product, in the right amount, at the right time.

Such a program can prioritize and schedule preventive maintenance lubrication.

It also can collect critical data on equipment operations for compilation in management reports.

Color-coded Lubricants

Many plant operators use color-coded systems to ensure that the correct type of oil or grease is used in each application. When a drum of lubricant is delivered to the plant, it is marked with a colored symbol. That particular mark is also applied to all intermediate containers, applicators and to the equipment that uses the lubricant.

So when a particular grease is labeled with a red diamond, then all of the containers, grease guns and grease points in the plant using that particular grease are marked with a red diamond.

Such a visual approach to equipment maintenance enables any employee to easily determine the proper lubricant at each point on a particular machine. That permits machine operators to assume some of the normal lubrication tasks performed by maintenance personnel.

JIPM says when all employees are knowledgeable about proper lubrication they are more likely to assume responsibility for it. Such teamwork can prevent many lubrication problems.

A method of color-coding, when combined with bar coding of equipment and lubricant containers, provides plant operators with a paperless lubrication maintenance records system.

Hydraulic Oils

Hydraulic oils are often a persistent headache for equipment operators. In many cases, operators think hydraulic oils for vane, piston, gear pumps and other systems are readily interchangeable.

Operators should rely on OEM recommendations or the expertise of their lubricant supplier to select the optimal hydraulic oil to provide sufficient power while preventing rust, corrosion and wear.

Smart fluid management can extend the life of higher performing hydraulic oils. If the customer will provide samples of the oil to the supplier at regular intervals, the supplier can check for oxidization, wear metals, viscosity changes, contamination, thermal instability and other problems.

When the condition necessitates it, a top-rate lubricant supplier can take a reclamation unit to the customer’s location to remove water, filter out contaminants and restore additives in hydraulic oils. This particularly helps customers who otherwise would have to dispose of or replace a large volume of oil.

Newer-generation hydraulic oils have been developed to cover a wide range of operating conditions. They are often formulated with antiwear additives that can extend machinery life and are designed to filter readily, even in the presence of water.

Water contamination is common in hydraulic systems. Premium fluids are developed to separate water and prevent hydrolysis (reaction to water), which can lead to corrosion.

Carefully selected additives will prevent wear under a variety of conditions. The combination of antioxidants with Group II hydro-treated base oils results in finished products that are resistant to oxidation, resulting in longer oil life.

The primary antiwear agent in hydraulic fluids is a zinc-based molecule which also contains sulfur and phosphorous. A common misconception is that more zinc must be better.

More zinc is not necessarily better, however, as some zinc molecules may not be as thermally stable and can breakdown, leading to premature wear. Also consider that some ashless hydraulic oils contain zero parts per million of zinc and provide excellent antiwear.

Good hydraulic oil contains a balanced level of antiwear, demulsifiers, rust and corrosion inhibitors, and antioxidants to provide the optimum performance.

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