Improving lubrication practices

Many plant mangers try to ensure adequate lubrication of machinery such as hydraulic systems, gearboxes, and compressors.

By Plant Engineering Staff March 2, 2004
  • Poor lubrication is a leading cause of machine failure.

  • Software can track that correct lubrication is being done.

  • Lubrication should be shared with machine operators.

    • Many plant mangers try to ensure adequate lubrication of machinery such as hydraulic systems, gearboxes, and compressors. But too many times they accept breakdowns as normal, rather than exceptional, incidents. Only proper and diligent lubrication practices can prevent breakdowns that carry high costs for mechanical repairs and even higher costs for lost production.

      The Japan Institute of Plant Maintenance (JIPM) has determined that improper or ineffective lubrication is the leading cause of mechanical failures and manufacturing production losses. For the production department, it is essential that machinery be correctly and adequately lubricated. Too often, machinery failures result from the wrong lubricants, or too much or too little of the right lubricants. Many problems are caused by the use of incorrect (or non-optimal) oil or grease and failure to change or top-off fluids regularly.

      Other common problems are oil contamination, use of the wrong viscosity oil, oxidation, and/or thermal instability.


      That burden need not, and should not, fall solely on the shoulders of the plant operators. They should demand strong support from their suppliers. The best lubricant manufacturers offer a comprehensive portfolio of oils and greases, supported by extensive research and development. The lubrication company should have experi-enced, knowledgeable specialists who are available to spend time getting to know the plant’s operation and apply their experience to particular problems.

      The supplier should have a strong relationship with the customer, providing focused, responsive services such as advice on preventive maintenance, lubrication and equipment diagnostics, consulting and training, conditioning services, and lubrication management systems, no matter where the plant is located. It is essential the supplier also have a solid working relationship with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).

      The end result is the customer should have a sup-plier who not only ships drums of oil and grease, but also provides products that create value in the manufacturing process.


      The first step to improving lubrication practices is for a manufacturer to conduct a detailed survey of every piece of equipment in the plant. That survey should include all moving equipment, such as electric motors, gearboxes, bearings, and bushings.

      After the equipment is identified, operating manuals or OEMs should be consulted to determine whether lubrication personnel are using the right product at the right frequency. On critical pieces of equipment, used oil should be analyzed or vibration analyses may be performed.


      Plant operators don’t always have comprehensive approaches to servicing equipment at all recommended lubrication points. In such cases, the solution may be to purchase lubrication management software to ensure that each point gets the right product, in the right amount, at the right time. The program can prioritize and schedule preventive maintenance lubrication. It can also be used in collecting critical data on equipment operations, information that can be summarized in reports.

      A supplementary technique would be to adopt bar coding on equipment and containers, creating a paperless lubrication maintenance system.


      At the very least, plant operators should consider using a color-coding system to ensure that the correct oil or grease is always used in each application. This also reduces the potential for contamination.

      Under color-coding, when a drum of lubricant is delivered to the plant, it is marked with a colored symbol. The same color-coded symbol is then applied to all intermediate containers, applicators, and to the equipment that uses that particular lubricant. That enables the “see and understand” approach to equipment maintenance. Any employee can easily determine which lubricant to use and at what point on a particular machine.

      Shared responsibility

      With such a system, machine operators can assume some of the regular lubrication tasks that might have been performed by maintenance personnel. The goal isn’t reallocation of work; it’s building team-work.

      When all employees are educated about proper lubrication techniques, they are more likely to assume responsibility for it. That goes a long way in preventing lubrication problems. Manufacturers have had some success in making lubrication management improvements via a pilot program. Problems are systematically uncovered and resolved, and the lessons learned are applied sequentially to other areas of the plant or to other facilities.

      Hydraulic oils

      Hydraulic oils are often a persistent headache for equipment operators. A common misconception is that most hydraulic oils are readily interchangeable. Instead, machine operators should select the optimal hydraulic oil to provide sufficient power while preventing rust, corrosion, and wear. In this, they need to rely on the recommendations of the OEM and the expertise of their lubricant supplier. New-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 have been developed to separate water readily and prevent hydrolysis (reaction to water), which can lead to corrosion. Carefully selected additives prevent wear under a variety of conditions. Antioxidants in combination with Group II hydro-treated base oils results in fin-ished products that are resistant to oxidation, resulting in longer oil life. The primary antiwear agent in hydraulic fluids is a zinc-based additive which also contains sulfur and phosphorous.

      A common misconception is that more zinc must be better. More zinc is not necessarily better, as some zinc additives may not be thermally stable and can break down, leading to premature wear. Also, consider that some ashless hydraulic oils contain no zinc and still provide excellent antiwear properties. Good hydraulic oil contains a balanced level of antiwear additives, demulsifiers, rust and corrosion inhibitors, and antioxidants to provide optimum performance.

      If you have any questions about improving lubrication practices, call Debbie Hodson at 713-546-3759. Article edited by Joseph L. Foszcz, Senior Editor, 630-288-8776, .