Oil Analysis for the New Millenium

Jim Fitch, Noria Corporation

Some 2,500 years ago a unique contraption came to life in ancient Greece. It did the job of a pump, elevating water from streams to aqueducts, which carried the water to fields and villages. Much like a water wheel, this contraption, called the noria, is still in use today in various parts of the world. It is easy to speculate that perhaps the noria marked the beginning of the modern-day machine for which lubricants were first applied to control friction and wear.

Much has changed since the early days of the noria, but the need to control friction and wear remains steadfast as an engineering imperative. Lubricating fluids still do most of the heavy lifting just as they did back then. With the new millennium approaching and the science of lubrication and oil analysis advancing, what can we look forward to-what's around the bend? With certainty we should anticipate change at increasing velocity. The quality and performance of lubricants will improve but more sharply will be the changes in the technologies and practices of oil analysis.

Will this change be evolutionary or revolutionary? History will tell. However, the indicators suggest that we might be in for the leapfrog variety as oil analysis moves to catch the pace of big sister industries such as medicine, e-commerce, and the computer field at large. Already we are seeing the beginnings, including a flurry of innovations that target passenger car applications . The law of large numbers in consumer transportation will continue to attract sizeable research budgets to advance low-cost, embedded sensors into powertrain components. So too, recent case studies, telling of impressive savings, have unleashed a vortex of interest in the industrial sector.

Before it is over, oil analysis will have left a deep stamp on the maintenance field and industry in general. All of this expectation poses many questions to the forward-looking opportunist, such as how it will unfold, who will be affected, which technologies will be needed, and what services will be exploited. Below is one person's view of how the used oil analysis field will change and where this change is likely take place.

Role of the Commercial Lab. Commercial laboratories will not go the way of the dinosaur as some have speculated. However, as increasing numbers of large and small companies bring oil analysis onsite, the role of the outside commercial lab will shift. But first, we will probably see greater numbers of samples for routine oil analysis being sent to outside labs, as more users become aware of the opportunities that abound. Afterwards, the volume may decline but the revenues will probably still grow as labs offer more specialized services, emphasizing unique instrumentation, knowledge, and capabilities. In this mode, it is likely that an increasing percentage of the samples analyzed by commercial labs will be screened in advanced by onsite instruments. The role of the commercial lab, in such cases, would be to provide exception testing in the process of special investigations and troubleshooting.

Niche labs will probably grow in number and importance. They will thrive because of the varied industries and applications for lubricants. Some premium labs may press the quality issue and provide rapid turnaround. Others may advance special interpretation skills and knowledge of tribology and failure analysis. Laboratory programs that service captive customers and keep pace with the technologies will also hold onto niche markets due to the proprietary information they possess on lubricant formulations and machine metallurgy.

Onsite Laboratories and Portable Instruments. This fervent segment of oil analysis has experienced impressive growth since the late eighties. Onsite instruments and small workbench laboratories provide flexibility and convenience when instant information is needed. Unlike commercial laboratories, onsite oil analysis typically can not perform the full battery of tests that some complex situations require. However, bench level and portable instruments are important enabling technologies that offer time-critical information such as fluid contamination and wear debris analysis.

Owing to its ease of use and benefits provided, the automatic particle counter has been the Glamour girl onsite instrument of the nineties. Its popularity is destined to roll into the new millenium with equal intensity. Also popular are onsite viscometers that help alert users to degraded and contaminated lubricants as well as the occasional wrong oil. A new category of onsite instruments is gaining prominence among users, known generically as fluid degradation monitors. These instruments use dielectric spectroscopy, voltametry, or infrared spectroscopy to detect various changes in base oil and additive chemistry. Other anticipated arrivals include new portable sensors for moisture monitoring, online wear debris analyzers, and compact elemental spectrometers. With all the new toys, plant-level technicians will have to up-skill in order to realize the expanding opportunities they offer.

Software and Expert Systems. There is hardly a more suitable application for computers and data processing than oil analysis. Specialized oil analysis software has been available to end-users for more than two decades. Yet little has held still during that time. As users increase the frequency of sampling and add more penetrating and sophisticated tests to the analyses, the need to manage, organize, decipher, present, and alert automatically has never been greater. This task has been enlarged in recent years by the thrust to integrate condition-based maintenance technologies. Accordingly, we are seeing programmers align broad-featured oil analysis software alongside cutting-edge vibration software.

There is no end in sight. Oil companies, equipment builders, instrument manufacturers, and laboratories are beginning to collaborate with the software providers to develop products to form the cusp of the technology's advancing front. And, the distinction between data management software and expert systems is becoming increasingly less distinct. When we anticipate what's still ahead we realize that intelligent rule-based and learning systems today are at a level of mere infancy. The road ahead will be long and arduous though. Knowledge authors have the enormous task of assembling years of experience and self-taught expertise into tortuous algorithms and rule-based fault trees. Then, when the effects of technology integration, i.e., vibration, thermography, etc., are factored in the task takes on massive proportions.

Will it all get done? Skeleton programs and expert shells are already available in a few off-the-shelf oil analysis software products. Plus, some laboratories and large users now have rule-based expert systems for a narrow field of applications and oils. And, the jury is still out with respect to the long-range impact of the Internet in supplying, through service providers, online data management and knowledge-based software. Still, to bring full reality to the vision, industry will have step up to the needed investment to fund the development of these ambitious programs.

Oil Analysis Education & Competency Testing. Decades will pass before computers and intelligent software replace oil analysis technicians at plant level. It is not unreasonable to speculate that computer-based technologies may never take over this job. The reason is the changing landscape of the industrial organization and the growing complexity of its machinery. Software and expert systems cannot be expected to be so adaptive and versatile. Unassailably, this creates a demand for the onsite oil guru who knows the equipment, oil, application, history, and operating environment.

Where will these gurus come from and what will their job descriptions and core skills be? How do prospective oil analysis technologists prepare for the opportunities that lie ahead? There are currently no college degrees or vocational schools that offer curriculums in oil analysis. This may change. There are very few that offer curriculums in lubrication and tribology. This means that a new category of education service providers will emerge offering an assortment of distance learning tools and client-based courses in maintenance and oil analysis. It seems inevitable that web-based and computer-based training will turn into virtual universities on a global scale as they grow in popularity and common use.

Already maintenance organizations are allocating more time to training. In fact, many leading companies are requiring as much as 10 percent of annual work hours to be spent in training programs. With knowledge said to double every four years, will this increase to say 15-20 percent a decade from now? The message is increasingly, "Don't just be PM trained, be PdM trained". In fact, lack of technical skill and knowledge may well cost companies more profits than any single other factor. Managers are learning that the ability to confidently identify, troubleshoot, and correct problems "the first time" is an important core competency and maintenance imperative. It is no longer acceptable to have people on the payroll who "kinda know what they’re doing".

Other Movements and Trends. As the computer age races forward, so too will the failure-defying technologies of oil analysis. Computers will be coupled to sensors embedded at strategic points on critical equipment and utilize artificial intelligence in analyzing the mounds of data they would generate. Oil labs will greatly improve the quality of their services as well as test scope. Licensing and accreditation bodies will service the "used oil" lab community in much the same way that such programs are structured in medicine and other scientific fields. Most labs will step up to ISO 9002, Guide 25 certification and aggressive SPC testing.

The image of used oil analysis and tribology is heading for a step change too. It is already happening in many small ways. For instance, this past September, Fortune Magazine featured an article on tribology offering a well-deserved toast to a field of science that has been largely ignored by corporate executives. The STLE testing of oil analysis professionals (referred to as Oil Monitoring Analysts) is going to add needed validation and credentials to those that work in the field. It is about time considering, by some estimates, that more than 50 million samples are analyzed each year in North America and that there are approximately 220 laboratories offering commercial oil analysis services. It's hard to estimate the number of small to mid-size private inhouse labs, but it could be well above 500, just in North America.

Oil analysis and tribology will endure many cyclic changes as base industries tighten their belts in response to foreign competition and mounting pressures to eke out shareholder profits. Where it all goes and how far it goes is difficult to forecast. But the need to efficiently deliver machinery reliability and eradicate the conditions that lead to business interruption is indeed very real. It will be a fascinating journey as maintenance moves from the realm of the wrench-driven to teams of charged-up individuals who build value by collecting and responding to information.

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About the Author

Jim Fitch, a founder and CEO of Noria Corporation, has a wealth of experience in lubrication, oil analysis, and machinery failure investigations. He has advise...