Survey says better test methods needed for industrial lubricants in manufacturing

Participants also pointed out workforce and operational challenges

By Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers (STLE) June 1, 2020


Learning Objectives

  • Lubrication trends are changing as electric vehicles are taking over the transportation and energy sectors.
  • Nearly all STLE research participants indicated there will be growing interest in increased productivity and efficiency.
  • Trends on the rise include collaborative robots and technologies such as Industry 4.0 that can improve operations.

The movement to using electric vehicles significantly affects the transportation and energy sectors. This long-term trend also influences the manufacturing sector where demand for industrial lubricants in several applications will decline. Electric vehicles are not as complex as internal combustion powered automobiles. Components such as exhaust pipes, catalytic converters, engine blocks and pistons currently used in internal combustion powered vehicles are not required in electric vehicles. Consequently, demand for metalworking fluids needed to machine these components will also decline.

Looming over the reduction in metalworking fluids is the growing use of additive manufacturing/3D printing, which will further reduce demand for metalworking fluids. Conventional metalworking processing is subtractive because waste metal is removed during machining. In contrast, additive manufacturing produces parts through introduction of materials layer-by-layer. The net result is that additive manufacturing has the potential to manufacture parts more efficiently while reducing material consumption and waste.

Additive manufacturing also is a more sustainable process with the potential for a significant waste reduction. Additive manufacturing will supplant existing production techniques because it has the potential to enable goals for increased productivity and efficiency to be realized sooner.

Growth in the use of synthetic lubricants also has been a long-standing industrial lubricant trend. With the increasing demand for longer operating life, newer synthetic lubricants and greases will be formulated that improve efficiency and drain intervals. Environmentally acceptable and sustainable synthetic lubricants will gain wider acceptance as end-users will be driven by regulations to become more environmentally friendly and even carbon neutral, according to “The tribology of electric vehicles,” a 2019 article in Tribology & Lubrication Technology.

The impact of robotics, AI

The growth of robotics also is a response to the movement to increase productivity and efficiency. A recent study surveyed the manufacturing industry and found use of robots grew between 2014 and 2019. While many manufacturers were using robots in 2014, their capabilities and flexibility have grown. A smaller, downsized version known as cobots are becoming more popular due to their ability to handle many different applications, according to “Robotics is Driving a Manufacturing Revolution,” a 2019 article in Fluid Power World.

Robots are becoming more attractive because they afford manufacturers the ability to reduce costs, supplement and replace human labor (that can be hard to find in the developed world), produce a safer work environment, increase productivity without sacrificing quality and provide more opportunities for flexible manufacturing.

Newer technologies enable robots to become even more effective by giving them the ability to make decisions independently and interact with each other. The growing use of artificial intelligence (AI) combined with better data-gathering done through 5G networks means that productivity and efficiency will grow while costs decline.

This means the robots of the future will be able to think independently as machine learning techniques improve and interact independently with each other without human direction. Autonomy will give robots the ability to review and update a specific manufacturing process to make it run more smoothly without human intervention.

Additive manufacturing and robots will have specific tribology and industrial lubrication needs and will garner increasing attention from the tribology and lubrication field, particularly since robots have many moving components that require bearings and lubrication. This may require a shift in planning and operations, since today, the criticality of this may be overlooked until issues arise. Precision control also requires good predictions of friction within these machines. Additionally, it is important to note that the 3D printing process requires precision moving parts and bearings, and that tribologists and lubrication engineers will be increasingly called upon to understand the friction and wear patterns of 3D manufactured parts.

Research results

The top five manufacturing trends listed by the Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers (STLE) research participants are listed in Figure 1.

Nearly all STLE research participants (92%) indicated there will be growing interest in increased productivity and efficiency in the coming years, resulting in benefits such as global energy savings, a favorable impact on the world economy and meaningful environmental outcomes.

For the tribology and industrial lubrication engineering field, participants expect that use of newer technologies to boost productivity and efficiency will result in renewed attention to tribology and how industrial lubricants can be formulated to meet their operating requirements.

Respondents expressed confidence that there would be increasing interest in technologies that offer efficiencies and performance, such as lighter and stronger materials (83% indicated increasing interest), which are primed to grow in use. At this point, no single material will dominate in sectors such as automotive. Rather, a mixture of various materials (high strength steels, aluminum, magnesium, titanium and plastic composites) will be used, placing increasing demands on finding better corrosion inhibitors to better address multi-metal corrosion. Similarly, higher temperature manufacturing and increased speeds will result in the development of more durable greases and lubricants to meet more demanding operating conditions over longer timeframes (83% of all respondents believe the level of interest will increase or increase significantly).

Operations advances

Industry 4.0 and additive manufacturing/3D printing are rapidly growing operational technologies because they are effective at enabling manufacturers to increase productivity and efficiency. Further development of both technologies is needed and will expedite their use among the various manufacturing segments. In the case of Industry 4.0 (80% of respondents predict an increase in interest), better machine learning tools also will be needed to facilitate the ability of robots to think and act independently. Additive manufacturing/3D printing has been used mainly in the development of prototypes and has proven useful in the preparation of complex shapes. Improvements in production rate are needed to match conventional high-speed manufacturing. In addition, 79% of respondents note increasing interest in additive manufacturing/3D printing. Another area of improvement is the need for better post-processing so that specifications for surface finish and part tolerances can be met.

The movement to Industry 4.0 also will transform the ability of end-users to continuously monitor the condition of industrial lubricant systems. Use of sensors will continue to grow, which will lead to the growth of Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) networks that merge traditional laboratory testing with online sensors part of IIoT networks, according to “Emerging technologies advance traditional condition monitoring techniques,” a 2019 article in Tribology & Lubrication Technology. Eventually, these online sensor IIoT networks will link with Industry 4.0, enabling robots to further improve manufacturing productivity.

Dr. Fred Higgs III, Professor at Rice University said, “The set of trends is coupled together. [For example,] to have continuous condition monitoring, you also require elements of “Industry 4.0” including Big Data streams. However, industry is still learning how to use these technologies.” Dr. Ken Hope, Global PAO Technical Services Manager at ChevronPhillips Chemical Co., said, “Industry 4.0 really opens up a new area that people are trying to figure out. What will it look like? What equipment is going to need lubrication?”

The development of continuous condition monitoring of industrial lubricants and production processes is predicted to impact manufacturing in a variety of important ways. Respondents to the STLE research survey identified a host of positive benefits to the technology, such as:

  • Better machine performance (general and peak), less maintenance
  • Greater plant efficiency, quicker decision-making, faster resolution of issues
  • Better waste reduction, less chemical use
  • Better test methods for lubricants
  • More data to drive research into productivity
  • Development of new kinds of chemicals (e.g., bio-resistant metal working fluids, environmentally friendly lubricants)
  • Operational advances, such as more proactive maintenance and development of mobile applications that put plant operators in touch with machines.

However, respondents also pointed out challenges, such as fewer technicians and operational challenges (e.g., a shift in perspective as staff will need to monitor technology as opposed to machines).

Environmental trends

Respondents also indicated there is a growing interest in the use of industrial lubricants that can be safely used in sensitive applications such as food, beverage and pharmaceutical processing (56% of all respondents believe the level of interest will either “increase” or “increase significantly”). Regulations have been in place in Europe and in North America requiring the use of food-grade compliant lubricants that meet specifications such as NSF’s H1 category for indirect food contact.

In the past, H1 lubricants were not able to meet minimum performance requirements but the development of new technologies has now enabled this barrier to be overcome. As a result, the use of food-grade compliant lubricants is growing globally but there is still need for further growth.

Hope said, “If the percentage of compliant lubricants used in food processing plants is now 40% this means that 40% of all of the food on the shelf of each individual’s grocery store was manufactured using equipment lubricated with food-grade fluids. The rest were not. This should be worrisome if we are concerned about the food we are putting in our mouths.”

The Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers (STLE) is a CFE Media content partner.