Lubrication is really a subset of industrial asset management. It never seems to receive the care and attention it deserves for three key reasons:
- Lubrication is an essential component of all mechanical systems
- It often represents a single point failure mechanism for mechanical equipment
- It is poorly understood and not practiced correctly – which means that there is enormous upside
Let’s break down some of those reasons in more detail.
Lubricants are a common thread among components
You can’t ignore lubricants. They are in everything. The basic rule is – if it moves, it is lubricated. As a result, lubricants are an essential component of any asset management strategy. You have probably already come across the idea that “we need to treat lubricants as an asset”. I generally subscribe to that idea but with a slight revision – we should treat lubricants as part of the asset.
What does that mean? Let’s take a simple mechanical system – an industrial gearbox and consider what parts of the asset we might inspect.
Would you be concerned if the gear teeth start to degrade? You should be concerned if your lubricant starts to degrade.
Would you monitor gear speed? You should monitor viscosity.
Would you notice if the colour of the casing started to change – after all that could be corrosion? You should notice if the colour of the oil changes.
Would you be aware if the gearbox started to make strange noises? You should also pick up on the oil system making strange noises.
Thinking of the lubricant as a fundamental part of the system – just like a bearing, a tooth, a seal or a coupling will enhance the performance of that asset.
Lubricants are typically a single point failure risk
Think of a large frame gas turbine. You may have 100 tonnes of steel rotating at high rpm and all that separates the bearing surfaces is a 1 micron lubricant film! If that lubricant film fails, the cost of repair is in the millions of dollars. The cost of downtime is in the millions of dollars. But there is really no backup mechanism to protect the main bearing if the lube oil system fails.
Do you give other single point failures in your plant specific attention? Yes. Do you monitor them closely? Yes. Then we should do the same for many of our lubricants.
Lubricants are poorly understood
There’s something to the fact that almost everyone in asset management comes from a mechanical background – especially in the rotating machinery world. Unfortunately lubricants and lubrication require a decent understanding of chemistry. For that reason it isn’t like a lot of the other disciplines, and can frankly be a little intimidating.
The other side of the coin is that this represents a huge opportunity at most locations and in most industries. There is a great deal of “low hanging fruit” still available – and this means reliability improvement & cost savings with very little investment.
If you’re looking for a high ROI – lubrication is a good bet.