Industrial lubrication management

Although industrial lubricants typically account for just one per cent of plant operational costs, they can actually influence more than half of a machine’s total maintenance overheads.

Selecting the correct lubrication for an application is essential in maintaining its functionality and performance, not only increasing output capability and productivity, but preventing unplanned downtime and premature equipment failure. However, lubrication is often overlooked by operation managers looking to reduce overheads, with the cost of the product placed higher than its quality, suitability and efficiency.

Dominic Ellison, Lubrication Product Manager at Brammer, looks at how lubrication plays an integral role in maintaining machinery and equipment, and discusses how lubricants have evolved to become more advanced and high performing than before – signifying that a one-size-fits-all approach is no longer suitable when selecting industrial oils or greases.

For many businesses, the cost of lubrication is the single most important consideration when selecting industrial lubricants, with the product’s suitability for the application often overlooked. With plant machinery developing and modern production often requiring equipment to run for longer periods of time and at higher operating speeds, manufacturers can no longer rely on a standard product to meet the demands of modern day equipment. By purchasing cheaper, conventional lubricants, operation managers are actually running the risk of a false economy, and whilst they may reap the savings in the short term, long term the life span of machinery is reduced and equipment downtime is more likely.

It’s a common misconception that by purchasing premium quality oil, companies can be certain their machinery will run to optimum efficiency. Whilst this may be true to an extent, choosing the incorrect lubricant can be as damaging as using cheaper oils or greases, and operation managers must consider whether the product is actually fit-for-purpose otherwise the quality is irrelevant. Utilising the wrong lubricant is more common than recognised, and with many types of lubricant available – all with varied benefits – selecting the correct one can be a difficult task.
The base oil viscosity is one of the most important factors to consider when selecting the correct lubrication for the application. A lubricant’s viscosity determines whether it retains the correct thickness of oil film and strength at the required temperature and condition. It ensures moving parts – which may be anything from pumps and gearboxes to chain and conveyor belts – are effectively lubricated to facilitate smooth movement and prevent wear and friction. It also enables the lubricant flow to carry frictional heat away from stress points, along with any wear debris or contaminants.

In order to select the correct viscosity, operation managers must gather information about the machinery, identifying the operating speed, the specific type of friction (sliding or rolling), and the load and environmental conditions. Operating temperature is also a key influence as it can affect the overall viscosity, so it’s essential that the average operating temperature and range are considered. Fundamentally, the higher the viscosity, the higher the load-carrying contribution and vice versa. It’s worth bearing in mind, the use of a product where its viscosity is too heavy for the application can result in an excess in heat generated, power losses, a decrease in efficiency and inadequate oil flow.

Traditionally, mineral oil which is obtained directly from the separation of crude oil, still accounts for around 90% of the market share, but with modern equipment demanding higher velocity and operating temperatures, the product is often seen as unreliable due to its natural and unpredictable structure. Irregularities in its molecules can generate friction which reduces efficiency, and it also has a tendency to form sludge at high temperatures. Mineral oils are not without their benefits though, and are generally cheaper than synthetic oils and easier to dispose of and reuse.

In comparison, synthetic oils are derived from chemicals or are chemically synthesised rather than refined crude oil, and offer more predictable behaviour due to their highly engineered nature. Synthetic oils of various types are generally specified for machinery operating at very high temperatures because they cope efficiently with low start-up temperatures, and for their low volatility and flammability properties, as well as reduced risk of residue build-up and evaporation loss. Some synthetic or speciality lubricants can be between 50 and 500 per cent more expensive than general purpose lubricants, nevertheless compared to mineral oils they provide an array of performance improvements, from increased wear protection and wider temperature range, through to longer oil life and improved bottom line.

More common, however, are partial synthetic and semi-synthetic oils which combine the desirable properties of true synthetic and mineral oils to create customised lubrication solutions for individual pieces of equipment. While the benefits of synthetic oils outweigh mineral oils in terms of performance, longevity and compatibility, synthetic lubrication may be an unnecessary expense for less advanced machinery which works at a standard temperature.

Selecting the correct lubrication is critical to ensure the longevity and performance of equipment and machinery, but another consideration to avoid premature equipment failure and downtime, is to keep lubrication clean and dry. Particulate and water contamination can have a huge impact on lubricant life, and irreversibly damage machinery, shorten the service life of equipment, and cause unexpected breakdowns.

Contamination through airborne particles is usually imperceptible to the human eye (a human hair is 75µm (microns) in diameter, whereas tiny particulates can often be as small as 1-10µm, which although are often invisible, are extremely damaging to sensitive components and equipment. It’s also worth considering that oil filtered for one application may not be suitable for another, and with standard filtration levels at 20µm, particulates which are small enough to pass through the filter could potentially effect machinery – even over a period of time.

Maintaining clean and dry lubrication requires ongoing preventative maintenance. To control contamination, the most effective method is to avoid practices that risk exposure to contaminants. Condition monitoring is another approach, where samples of oil are sent to a laboratory for testing, helping to predict maintenance and reduce downtime. Analysis will reveal whether oil has worn out, although operators should refer to OEM recommendations. Educating members of staff and closely monitoring equipment can also be useful in maximising the life expectancy of a machine and minimising contamination.

Selecting the correct lubrication for a particular application not only requires knowledge, but a proactive approach. High performance lubricants may provide measurable benefits, but if they’re not well managed and maintained correctly the equipment will fail prematurely and production may be delayed. By assessing the lubrication requirements of each piece of machinery, developing a detailed analysis of its working conditions, velocity and the viscosity-temperature behaviour of different oils, will ensure the correct selection of lubricants for each application. Lubrication management is an ongoing process, and even once the most effective lubricant is selected, companies must continue to monitor its efficiency, and ensure it is fit-for-purpose.

With years’ experience working alongside equipment manufacturers, Brammer is perfectly placed to support companies with its dedicated lubrication management service, which assists with all aspects of the lubrication process, from specification to storage right through to contamination control and best practice in maintenance. Undertaking rigorous training, the team is able to provide its customers with tailored advice and recommend lubrication based on application, filtration and viscosity as well as respond to day-to-day technical queries.