Are You Your Own Worst Enemy?
Many hours have been devoted to studying the formulation of lubricants. Major oil companies employ entire departments of doctorate-level chemists to develop specific oils and greases for a variety of applications. These activities require in-depth knowledge of the specific need for the lubricant and the tools available to meet it, ranging from the refining process itself to the additive packages used to achieve specific characteristics. Typically, new lubricants start out in a small kettle, and standardized tests determine how the formula should be adjusted before increasing the volume of the lubricant for more testing. By the time a lubricant is on the market, a tremendous amount of work has been done to develop and validate it.
The end user typically pays a significant amount of capital for this lubricant, with the expectation that this will provide a high degree of equipment protection and long service life. Most of the time they are correct – at least about the lubricant. However, there are many opportunities for problems to arise between the supplier and the site.
Despite the points made above, problems in the manufacturing process can occur. Generally, the manufacturer has a strong incentive to address these problems before the product ever gets to site, but problems cannot always be detected. Improper filtration, lack of breathers/filters during the mixing process, and the same human performance errors that impact the end user can all come into play.
The local distributor, responsible for transporting the oil to site, is the next area in the supply chain where problems can occur. If the manufacturer has a high-quality process, and the lubricant is sold in factory-sealed containers, as with tubes of grease or sealed drums, it would be rare for contaminants to enter the system during transport. However, when purchasing oil in bulk, a tanker truck can be expected to deliver multiple types of lubricant in a given time period. Many of these oils, for example, automotive engine oils and industrial turbine oils, are incompatible due to the additives required. In fact, detergents automotive oil are ruinous for turbine oils, so much so that residue left in lines and hoses on the truck would be enough to destroy a tank of lube oil. Other examples of detergents include high water content upon delivery, contamination with calcium or sodium chlorides (used in road salt) and the wrong lubricant being delivered. For this reason, we suggest sampling upon receipt to establish a baseline before placing the oil in your system.
On-Site Storage and Handling
Improper storage and handling of lubricants causes a lot of issues for many plant operators. Most lubricants are received clean, cool and dry. However, many plant operators leave the drums they're stored in outside and exposed to the elements. Typically, one drum pump is used for multiple lubricants and maintenance often uses whatever grease gun is available to apply an arbitrary amount of grease to a system. All of these mistakes have relatively simple solutions, yet they often reduce the effectiveness of lubricants and negatively affect companies' lubrication programs.
Some plants, in an attempt to save money, have rolled the lubrication engineer function into another position and the responsibilities usually fall on the reliability engineer. Other plants have eliminated both positions entirely which leaves each individual system owner in charge of lubrication for that system. It is best, from a liability and cost-savings perspective, to appoint accountability for lubricant selection and program development with one point of contact. This allows for lubricants to be consolidated across the site so fewer types can be purchased in larger quantities. It also means that a higher level of expertise can be brought to bear on matters of lubrication.
Plant staff that's responsible for applying lubricants to equipment should have a fundamental understanding of lubrication goals and practices.
Knowledge obtained from training allows them to effectively adopt an inquisitive attitude and detect problems instead of blindly following a written procedure. Concepts like viscosity, grease application calculations, bearing greasing practices, and lubricant compatibility should be understood at a basic level by anyone expected to perform these tasks. Any questions should be referred back to the lubrication engineer for discussion and disposition.
Several poor practices continue to be the standard at many jobs sites. The following exposes some of the many opportunities for water and contamination to degrade oil before it gets into a machine. Some of these include:
Improving Storage and Handling at Your Plant
If your plant suffers from equipment problems traced back to poor lubricant quality, there are a few simple steps you can take to positively impact your system reliability. The first step is to conduct a lubricant survey during which the lubrication requirements of each piece of equipment are documented and reviewed. This will allow for lubricant consolidation, where the minimum number of lubricants can be purchased to achieve desired performance. While many oil suppliers offer this service, their incentive is to sell more oil and not necessarily to identify the best products on the market or reduce the overall number of lubricants at your plant. An independent lubricant audit, based on an engineering analysis of the plant equipment, is more likely to match your goals.
After consolidation, proper storage, handling tools and processes can be selected that match the plant's needs. Some of the more popular and effective tools for this include:
Most of the time the root cause of poor lubrication practices comes down to complicated lubrication needs and programs. These increase the probability of errors that are a result of not only confusion about those needs and programs, but also a general lack of personnel training which increases the likelihood of making bad decisions. There are simple tools available market that reduce the problems typically associated with human performance, and we encourage evaluating them against your needs when seeking improved system reliability.
Intertek's Asset Integrity Management team includes reliability engineers who are well-versed in proper lubricant selection, storage, and handling. Our reliability engineers can assist plant engineers with achieving their reliability goals by establishing a proactive maintenance program.
For more information, contact Grant Lanthorn, P.E., Certified Lubrication Specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 281.345.5716
Grant Lanthorn P.E., Director – Reliability Engineering & Industry Research is a Project Engineer and physicist with Intertek's Asset Integrity Management Group. He specializes in developing and implementing reliability-centered maintenance programs, collaborative R&D projects, and providing strategic and technical guidance for improving plant performance.