Control Lubrication

Control Lubrication; Prevent Failure

An Old School Approach to Machine Failure Wins New Converts

Lubrication-related equipment failure is a problem that plagues industrial facilities of all sizes and stripes. By some estimates, it causes as much a $1 trillion a year in reactive maintenance, unplanned downtime and lost productivity across the U.S. As we’ll see in a moment, failure rates associated with lubrication haven’t budged in the past two decades. That’s especially troubling for industrial operators who have sunk billions of dollars into sophisticated maintenance management systems and predictive maintenance tools designed specifically to reduce downtime. And yet the problem is not getting better. How can that be?

A small but growing number of reliability engineers think they’ve found an answer. They’re rediscovering the value of returning to basics. They’re applying innovative technology to old school preventive maintenance. Yes, you heard that right. It turns out the new newest weapon in the fight against industrial machine failure isn’t new at all. But it works. And it’s generating substantial savings along the way.

Lessons from the field of medicine

Ben Franklin had it right more then two centuries ago with his adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” While that wisdom is indisputable, it’s astonishing how often it’s ignored. Take medicine itself. Back in the 1970s in my hometown of Seattle, we used to brag that it was the safest city in which to have a heart attack. Thanks to a program called Medic One, someone having a heart attack could expect to be in treatment within fifteen minutes or less. The program indeed saved many lives. The problem was, it was reactive in nature. Doctors intervened only after someone had suffered a heart attack.

Since then, of course, the medical community has embraced the wisdom of taking preventive measures to reduce the risk of heart attacks happening in the first place. We now know to take precautionary steps: Don’t smoke. Eat right. Exercise.

Predictive maintenance: a reactive approach to plant maintenance

In many ways, plant maintenance today is where medicine was in the 1970s. The tools are more advanced than ever, but they reflect a reactive mindset. Consider where advertising dollars have gone. For the past two decades, the focus in maintenance magazines, websites and tradeshows has increasingly shifted from maintenance management solutions such as computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS) to predictive maintenance and conditioned monitoring products.

Make no mistake, these tools—vibration analysis, infrared and other technologies—play a vital role in diagnosing problems early to reduce the impact of downtime. And yet, much like Seattle’s Medic One, they are truly useful only after signs of failure have begun to appear. They are fundamentally reactive in nature.

With so much emphasis on efforts to detect failure, it begs the question: What about preventing machine failure from occurring to begin with?

Addressing machine failure at the source: lubrication

To eliminate bearing failure, one must first identify the cause. On that score, most experts are already in agreement, and have been for decades: poor or inadequate lubrication is the primary cause of industrial equipment wear and failure. In 1995, an assessment provided during a TAPPI engineering conference placed the figure at 54%. In 2014, Ken Bannister’s “State of the Lubrication Nation” revised the percentage up to 70%. He further calculated U.S. losses from lubrication-related issues to be an eye-opening $1 trillion annually. Estimates vary. But one thing is clear—lube-related machine failure is far too high.

There are many reasons why lubrication problems are so persistent. A look at a few key stats tells part of the story:

  • Only 12% of those assigned lubrication duties are certified to do so
  • 79% of companies don’t have a professionally audited lubrication program
  • 61% of companies don’t track lubrication-related failures
  • 57% don’t perform system checks on automated lubricant-delivery systems
  • 91% don’t have lubricant requirement sheets for bearings

The problem and the answer
Increasingly, reliability engineers are beginning to recognize the role that inadequate lubrication plays in unplanned downtime and equipment failure. In an online survey by, over 80% of reliability engineers indicated they experience lubricant starvation. In a live poll during a recent online maintenance conference, over 85% of the respondents made a correlation between lubrication issues and the level of reactive maintenance.

Lubrication shortcomings result in repeated equipment failure, production losses (potentially $10,000/hour or more), subpar technician productivity, excessive energy usage and lube consumption, negative environmental impacts and a state of perpetual catching up.

Coming to terms with lubrication’s complexity

While a growing number reliability engineers have a solid grasp of the importance of proper lubrication in plant efficiency, awareness at the management level is often lacking. In many industrial organizations, management believes that lubrication is just like any other maintenance task. As reliability engineers and lube techs have known for years, however, lubrication is a highly specialized discipline. It’s so complex, in fact, that the International Council for Machinery Lubrication (ICML) offers numerous certifications in it.

To get an idea of the many intricacies lubrication entails, consider what you need to factor in just to determine lube requirements. The effort involves five core data elements: components, lubricants, task types, procedures and frequencies. It could well take seven different combinations of these elements to define lube requirements for a single conveyor—and anywhere from 100-200 combinations across a plant.

In addition, it’s not unusual for industrial plants to have many thousands of lube points. Depending on the number, they may require between 70,000 to a 500,000 individual lubrication tasks each year, with each task having to incorporate specific combinations of data elements.

The logistical implications are overwhelming. And a key reason lubrication problems remain so pervasive is that most industrial outfits attempt to manage lubrication using CMMS or enterprise asset management (EAM) solutions. Not only are these tools not designed for to handle lubrication’s formidable complexity. They often involve the use of cumbersome PM work orders that are difficult and time-consuming to create.

The serious flaw in lubrication work orders

More importantly, these PM-based solutions are not capable of verifying that individual lube tasks are actually performed. Here’s why. Unlike corrective work orders, which can capture task completion more granularly, most lubrication work orders generated by CMMS and EAM systems are set up on an all or nothing basis. They can’t be closed until 100% of the tasks are complete.

A typical lube work order may contain more than a hundred individual tasks. If a lube tech is not able to complete a handful of them for whatever reason, there is no easy way to note that in the work order. Instead they have only two choices. They can choose to leave the entire work order open, even though most of the tasks have been completed. Or they can check off everything as complete and hope the few missed tasks get covered next time. You can guess which option the vast majority of lube techs and maintenance managers prefer.

This is how lube tasks routinely fall through the cracks. It happens far more often than most maintenance organizations realize. How do we know? By the results companies have experienced using software designed to track lube task completion and improve the efficiency of lube sequencing routes.

Facilities that rely on this software have achieved task completion rates of 80% to 95%. Keep in mind that to get such results, these organizations made a concerted effort to manage lubrication properly, and yet they still failed to complete 5% to 20% of lube tasks. It’s anyone’s guess how much higher that rate might be with facilities that are currently not tracking task completion. One thing that is certain, however, is that lube-related bearing failure continues unabated across industries.

A new shift toward preventive measures

Against this backdrop of futility, a back-to-basics movement is beginning to take hold. Think of it as old school with a new technology twist. It’s originating on plant floors, not in corner offices. It’s driven by reliability engineers and lube techs who recognize that diagnostic systems and CMMS tools alone are not enough to make a real difference in reactive maintenance and lube-related failure.

Not surprisingly, you’ll find the first hints of this trend, once again, in advertising. You’re seeing more ads and tradeshow displays these days for desiccate breathers, sight glasses, contamination control, ultra-sonic grease guns, and oil room sanitation systems. While these are technically advanced products, they are proactive at their core. And they indicate a rising demand for preventive measures.

Establishing a lubrication best practices program

Proper lubrication is 100% proactive and preventive. Organizations that have instituted a lubrication best practices program significantly reduce reactive maintenance and machine failure. To establish such a program in your facilities, here are some steps to follow:

  • Add lubrication specific training to increase your staff’s knowledge and establish best practices
  • Acquire lubrication-specific tools your staff may be lacking
  • Improve lubrication logistics and control

Case study: proper lubrication practices yield $680,000 in savings

The increased accuracy, effectiveness and efficiency of a lubrication best practices program improve uptime, reduce costs and lift the bottom line. Here’s a case of a plant that took the needed steps and pocketed $680,000 in savings.

First, they studied lubrication best practices and designed a plan, getting buy-in from management down to the lube tech. They attained key certifications in lubrication maintenance—and not just for their lube techs, but for supervisors and managers, as well.

They did a lubrication survey in which they identified every lube point in the plant. That gave them a critical baseline on which to build their program. Then they organized their lube room, filtering lubricants as they were received from suppliers and again before applying it to their equipment.

Next they invested in color-coded containers to eliminate mistakes. They acquired sealed oil containers to keep the lubricants clean. They added clear grease guns, sight glasses, breathers, and filtration and contamination control.

Finally, they added lubrication software that helped them establish efficient routes, schedules, responsibilities and accountability. This plant had only 1,350 lube points, and yet it managed to save $200,000 the first year and over $160,000 per year during the next three years for a total of $680,000.

How much might a typical facility save?

If we extract that $200,000 savings over 1,350 lube points, that’s a saving of $148 per lube point. Depending on the size of the plant, the savings add up as follows:

  • 5,000 lube points = $740,000
  • 10,000 lube points = $1,480,000
  • 15,000 lube points = $2,200,000

Looking ahead

Advanced CMMS, predictive maintenance and conditioned monitoring solutions are essential to modern plant health and efficiency. But when it comes to making significant inroads in eliminating equipment downtime and failure, they leave much to be desired. Moreover, CMMS tools are not designed and lack the control needed for the myriad complexities of effective lubrication management. The rise of advanced preventive maintenance tools and best practices is a response to a challenging problem decades in the making. Sometimes the best way forward is to reach back. Today’s proactive, preventative measures combine the wisdom of back-to-basics approaches with breakthrough technologies. Organizations that incorporate them into their maintenance programs stand to make substantial gains in equipment uptime, productivity and cumulative cost savings across the board.

By Bill Correll

His career spans 50 years of entrepreneurship and service as a corporate officer in both public and private firms, including as Founder and CEO of Medical Computers International, which grew to encompass systems running in 26 states and six countries. After selling MCI, he joined the Corum Group a Mergers & Acquisitions firm. He has been director of Business development at Generation Systems, Inc. for ten years. Connect with him on LinkedIn.


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