Lubrication technology: Avoid unnecessary damage, minimize maintenance costs

The latest lubricant technology is a secret weapon in the battle for efficiency.


Photo courtesy: Shell LubricantsToday, plant engineers are under more pressure than ever before to ensure that capital equipment is kept in optimum working condition for a productive and cost-effective operation—avoiding unnecessary damage to equipment, minimizing maintenance costs, keeping machinery running, and improving efficiency are all challenges that have to be managed and balanced as part of the day job.

Much of the time, lubricants are an afterthought, understood as a necessary part of day-to-day working, but not always recognized as a vital component to the entire operation. Ensuring correct lubrication use can help generate cost savings by minimizing downtime and enhancing machinery protection, particularly in environments where optimum productivity is critical for delivering against peaks in demand. For example, Shell works with a range of customers across many sectors of industry that have benefited from significant cost savings as a result of using the correct products.

The role of any lubricating oil is to provide the optimum protection to the equipment and other moving parts. This involves reducing friction and protecting against acids, deposits, and wear throughout a range of operating conditions. By opting for lubricants that offer enhanced levels of protection and mitigate other operating factors such as fluctuations in temperature, plant engineers can help ensure not only that their machines are working to optimal service levels, but that they are safeguarded against premature wear and tear, and unnecessary maintenance downtime.

More goes into the production of modern lubricants than first meets the eye. Extensive investment, along with an army of scientists and engineers, are enlisted to continually innovate and improve product performance. This is not new; Shell, for example, has been undertaking lubrication research and development since 1940. We have technical experts all over the world working closely with OEMs every day to help customers tackle productivity and efficiency challenges in their operations.

Synthetic technology

Through extensive and ongoing testing, scientists are building a more detailed understanding of the physical characteristics and demands placed on modern-day oils. Alongside this, advancements in “synthetic” technology—particularly over the last 10 years—have resulted in a significant leap in the benefits lubricants can deliver.

Today, synthetic lubricants are the highest performing lubricants and are based on man-made technologies that offer a wide range of benefits that nonsynthetic products simply cannot—enhanced protection, and thus greater durability of your equipment, and longer oil life through reduced deposits and oxidation, all help contribute to tangible improvements in your plant’s/equipment’s efficiency, downtime, and maintenance costs. In addition, they can be manipulated to maintain protection in harsh environments—for example, where machinery experiences dramatic temperature fluctuations or where it may be submerged in water.

Synthetic lubricants start with “high-grade” synthetic base oils. Traditionally, lubricants have been based on mineral oil, a component of whole crude oil. Thanks to modern refining technology, today’s high-quality mineral oils provide adequate protection. But mineral base oils are complex mixtures of naturally occurring hydrocarbons and may contain impurities. On the other hand, synthetic base oils have been chemically altered to reduce impurities and are engineered—using specialist additives—for excellent low-temperature flow properties, high resistance to thermal degradation, and low oil consumption. Depending on the product, additives can account for 1% to 30% of the lubricant and achieving the right blend is what sets a quality lubricant apart from its competitors.

Synthetic lubricants have also been proven to deliver extended lifecycles compared to other oils without impacting quality or performance—in some cases lasting up to two or three times longer than they did just a decade ago. This means that engineers do not have to contend with replenishing oil levels as frequently, thereby reducing costs and time spent on upkeep.

Recognizing the importance of correct lubrication choice and application is one thing, but I imagine many of you reading this article lack the time to keep up-to-date with the latest products and technologies. There is help available, and engineers or those responsible for purchasing should take full advantage of their supplier’s expertise. For example, Shell LubeMatch is an online service that helps to identify the most appropriate lubricants for each individual operation, and it can help to make the selection process more manageable in a marketplace that covers a wide array of products.


Photo courtesy: Shell LubricantsIn operational environments the use of synthetic lubricants, compared to nonsynthetics, has demonstrated cost and time savings for many plant and manufacturing operations. Reported savings, from extensive field trials as well as directly from customers around the world, reinforce the benefits to be had from using synthetic lubricants.

For example, a plastics plant in Turkey, Wavin Pilsa, which was dissatisfied with the poor performance of its existing compressor lubricant, used a range of Shell support services to help identify the best oil for its operation. Oil sample analysis indicated the oil it was using had poor thermal and oxidation stability, which necessitated an oil drain every 5,000 hours. As a consequence, operating and maintenance costs were much higher than they needed to be.

The Shell Lubricants technical team recommended that Wavin Pilsa change to Shell Corena S4 R 68, a synthetic air compressor oil incorporating a unique high-performance additive system. The switch reduced operational costs by 50% and increased the oil-drain intervals from 5,000 to 10,000 hours. The company reports saving $12,185 a year, resulting from lower oil consumption and labor costs, less oil waste for disposal, and improved maintenance practices. The savings indicated are specific to the calculation date and mentioned site. These calculations may vary from site to site and from time to time, depending on, for example, the application, the operating conditions, the current products being used, the condition of the equipment, and the maintenance practices.

Storage, temperatures, and ongoing care

When considering that lubricants are a relatively small part of total operating expenditures, they can add incredible value to the working life of a plant, so ensuring they are monitored regularly and stored adequately can lead to further cost savings and efficiencies.

Lubricant servicing should be considered a standard procedure in the ongoing care of an oil and the machine components it is protecting. Such checks can mean avoiding unnecessary oil changes; the technology is designed to identify potential oil or component failures before they become critical, but allows engineers to rest assured that until that time, the oil will work to optimal levels.

For example, Shell LubeAnalyst is an oil and equipment condition monitoring service that involves taking samples directly from working equipment, which are then analyzed and tested in an accredited laboratory. The results of these tests are provided along with a diagnosis and, if necessary, recommendations for adapting oil use to resolve any problem areas.

Storing lubricants correctly can also ensure that the oil does not deteriorate or become contaminated and, as a result, provide inadequate protection or become waste that requires disposal. It is very important that the drums which contain the lubricant are kept in a safe, indoor location where they do not risk being punctured or damaged, and are not near heaters, steam lines, or places of extreme refrigeration.

Reducing moisture buildup inside oil tanks that may condense is also important. Desiccant breathers can help to decrease the extent of this happening, as can the use of a bottom drain, or bottom-fed pumps that pump out the moisture promptly.

In short, if you want to make lubricants work for your business, you must implement an active process of selecting and applying the right product, combined with the appropriate maintenance. Your efforts will be rewarded.

Slack is a scientist at Shell Global Solutions, a network of independent technology companies in the Royal Dutch Shell Group. In this material the expression “Shell Global Solutions” is sometimes used for convenience where reference is made to these companies in general, or where no useful purpose is served by identifying a particular company. For further advice on selecting the right lubricant, visit

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