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Oiling the wheels of productivity

09 May 2016

Lubrication is often overlooked when seeking to reduce overheads because the cost of the product is placed higher than its quality, suitability and efficiency. Dominic Ellison explains why this is shortsighted. 

Industrial lubricants typically account for just 1% of a plants operational costs despite the fact that they can influence over 50% of a machine’s total maintenance overheads. 

Lubrication plays an integral role in maintaining food processing machinery and equipment. Its capability and formulation have advanced over the years and one-size-fits-all approach is no longer suitable when selecting industrial oils or greases.  

Selecting the correct lubrication for use in food processing applications is essential to maintain functionality and performance of equipment which can help to increase output capability and productivity, and prevent unplanned downtime and premature equipment failure.

Cost is usually the main driver when selecting industrial lubricants and its suitability for an application is often overlooked. However, machinery has advanced and modern food production often requires equipment to run for longer and at higher operating speeds, which means it is no longer cost effective to simply rely on a standard lubrication solution. Purchasing cheaper, conventional lubricants is a false economy and operation managers who do so are running the risk of reducing the life span of machinery and increasing downtime for maintenance purposes. 

It is a common misconception that by purchasing and employing premium quality oil, machinery will run to its optimum efficiency. While this may be true to an extent, choosing the incorrect lubricant can be as damaging as using cheaper oils or greases, and operation managers must carefully consider whether the product is actually fit-for-purpose. Utilising the wrong lubricant is more common than many recognise, and with so many types of lubricant available – all with varied benefits – selecting the correct one can be confusing.

One of the most important factors to consider when selecting the correct lubrication for the application is the base oil viscosity. A lubricant’s viscosity determines whether it retains the correct thickness of oil film and strength at the required temperature and condition. It ensures moving parts – which can be anything from pumps and gearboxes to chain and conveyor belts – are effectively lubricated to allow for smooth movement and preventing wear and friction. It also enables the lubricant flow to carry frictional heat away from stress points, along with any wear debris or contaminants. 

In order to select the correct viscosity, operation managers need to gather information about the machinery, identifying the operating speed, the specific type of friction (sliding or rolling), and the load and environmental conditions. Operating temperature is also a key influence as it can affect the overall viscosity. It is essential to consider the average operating temperature and range. Fundamentally, the higher the viscosity, the higher the load-carrying contribution and vice versa. It is worth bearing in mind that using a lubricant with a viscosity too heavy for the application can result in an excess in heat being generated, power losses, a decrease in efficiency and inadequate oil flow. 

Traditionally, mineral oil which is obtained directly from the separation of crude oil, still accounts for around 90% of the market share. Modern equipment, however, demands higher velocities and operating temperatures, mineral oil is now often seen as unreliable due to its natural and unpredictable structure. Irregularities in its molecules can generate friction which reduces efficiency, and it also has a tendency to form sludge at high temperatures. However, mineral oils are not without their benefits and are generally cheaper than synthetic oils and easier to dispose of and reuse. 

In comparison, synthetic oils are derived from chemicals or are chemically synthesised rather than being refined crude oil. They offer a more predictable behaviour due to their highly engineered nature. Synthetic oils are generally specified for machinery operating at very high temperatures because they cope efficiently with low start-up temperatures, and have low volatility and flammability properties, as well as reduced risk of residue build-up and evaporation loss. Some synthetic or speciality lubricants can be between 50 and 500% more expensive than general purpose lubricants. Despite their cost, compared to mineral oils they can provide an array of performance improvements, from increased wear protection and a wider working temperature range, through to longer oil life and a reduction in unplanned maintenance. 

Partial synthetic and semi-synthetic oils are more common. These combine the desirable properties of true synthetic and mineral oils to create customised lubrication solutions for individual pieces of equipment. 

While the benefits of synthetic oils will always outweigh those of mineral oils in terms of performance, longevity and compatibility, synthetic lubrication may be an unnecessary expense for less advanced machinery which works at a standard temperature. 

Selecting the correct lubrication is critical to ensure the longevity and performance of equipment and machinery. Another way to avoid premature equipment failure and downtime, is to keep lubrication clean and dry. Particulate and water contamination can have a huge impact on lubricant life, and can irreversibly damage machinery, shorten the service life of equipment, and cause unexpected breakdowns. 

Contamination through airborne particles in oil can be damaging to sensitive components and equipment so it is also worth knowing that oil filtered for one application may not be suitable for another, and with standard filtration levels at 20µm, particulates small enough to pass through the filter could potentially effect machinery over a period of time. 

Maintaining clean and dry lubrication requires ongoing preventative maintenance. The most effective method to control contamination is to avoid practices that risk exposure to contaminants. 

Condition monitoring is another approach, where samples of oil are sent to a laboratory for testing, helping to predict when maintenance is needed and reducing downtime. Educating members of staff and closely monitoring equipment can also be useful in maximising the life expectancy of a machine and minimising contamination.  

Selecting the correct lubrication an application requires knowledge and a proactive approach. High performance lubricants can provide measurable benefits, but if they are not maintained correctly the equipment will fail prematurely. Assessing the lubrication requirements of each piece of machinery, developing a detailed analysis of its working conditions, velocity and the viscosity-temperature behaviour of different oils, will ensure the correct selection of lubricants for each application. Lubrication management should be an ongoing process. Even after selection of the most effective lubricant it is important to continue to monitor its efficiency. 

Dominic Ellison is lubrication product manager at Brammer.

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