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Are your lubrication practices letting you down?

05 August 2017

It is estimated that between 15 and 25% of the food and beverage industry’s maintenance budget is spent as a result of poor lubrication practices. As much as 40% of all premature bearing failures in this industry can be tracked down to lubrication problems, says Matt Preston

Lubrication management can make or break production asset performance. While the food and beverage industry has a huge variety of lubrication methods to choose from, not all are recognised under current hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) certification. 

Paradoxically, some lubrication practices can cause as many problems as they set out to solve. Frequent - often unnecessary - re-lubrication is costly in terms of materials and labour; over-lubrication poses a contamination risk, as well as ultimately damaging bearings and compromising seals, leading to spillages, slip hazards and further risk of production line contamination.

Wash-down between batch production runs is common practice in the industry and many operators choose to re-lubricate bearings following a wash-down procedure. During this manual process, excess grease will be discharged past the bearing seals, compromising food safety, the safety of personnel and asset reliability. Moreover, at the next wash-down cycle, spilled grease will find its way into the plant’s wastewater system, posing an additional environmental control problem for the operator.

Supporting HACCP practices
Several technologies have emerged to support HACCP compliant lubrication practices for food and beverage processing machinery containing bearings or transmission chain driven and flat top conveyor systems, including re-lubrication-free bearings, fully automated lubrication systems and NSF H1 certified lubricants.

Reducing the frequency of re-lubrication or eliminating the need for lubrication altogether, and having effective seals that protect against lubricant loss and damaging ingress of contaminants, will go a long way to achieving food safety. An example is Solid Oil encapsulated lubricant technology from SKF. It uses a polymer matrix saturated with lubricant that completely fills the internal space, encapsulating the cage and rolling elements and ensuring that food particles are kept out. SKF bearings with Solid Oil do not require re-lubrication, are resistant to most food industry wash-down chemicals and are virtually maintenance-free.

Where re-lubrication is unavoidable, rather than relying on random manual interventions, which may be wasteful, labour-intensive and - if there is a tendency to over-lubricate - potentially damaging, another approach could be to automate the process and ensure metered amounts of lubricant are delivered when needed. For bearings, SKF SYSTEM 24 and MultiPoint Lubricator systems, for example, can be mounted for just one or many lubrication points to deliver the right amount of an appropriate lubricant 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

For conveyors driven by conventional power transmission chains, SKF offers another user-programmable system called ChainLube, comprising a compact reservoir and control unit, chain link sensors, airless lubricant delivery nozzles and associated pipework. The system delivers a metered volume of lubricant to the points of friction of each chain link as it is detected while the chain is in motion, the control unit being preset to one of three modes – automatic, semi-automatic or continuous – according to operator preferences for lubricant application.

Flat top conveyor chains typically used in bottling plants require constant lubrication to prevent high friction developing between the conveyed packages and the flat chain links in accumulation areas. The usual solution is to apply high volumes of a water and soluble lubricant mixture, which can cause trip hazards and package quality issues. However, automated dry lubrication systems avoid the need for water altogether, applying.

Maybe it’s time for the food and beverage industry to reconsider existing lubrication practice. There are alternative technologies available today that offer greater safety as well as reductions in maintenance costs and additional environmental benefits that can offer fast returns on investment.

Matt Preston is lubrication systems application engineer at SKF. 

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