The actions of personnel can either lead to great success in lubrication programs or, as this case study shows, to costly calamity.
By Ken Bannister, MEch Eng (UK), CMRP, MLE, Contributing Editor
Winston Churchill wrote, “Responsibility is the price of greatness.” These words have special meaning for those of us in the lubrication field.
In organizations that seek to become great, all personnel must understand the negative upstream and/or downstream impact that their individual actions could have should they neglect to effectively and efficiently fulfill their roles. This is especially true of lubrication team members, who, through daily interaction with machinery and moving parts, are directly responsible for the successful lubrication of equipment in their charge—as well as for any consequences resulting from their activities. Their failures will manifest directly in the loss of equipment availability, reliability, and life-cycle longevity, and indirectly through production yield and quality losses.
A case in point
My look into the oil and grease purchasing patterns of a major North American automotive-assembly manufacturer during a lubrication-operations effectiveness review (LOER) was a real eye opener. I was astounded by the many tens of thousands of dollars per month the corporation was spending on just one type of chain-lubricant oil.
This automatic-chain-lubricator oil was a name brand, premium-quality, molybdenum disulphide, high-temperature formulation. Designed specifically to lubricate power- and free-conveyor chain pins and bearings passing through the types of high-temperature paint-bake ovens found in automobile assembly lines, it was an ideal match for the application. So, given those facts, why was the facility using so much of the product for just four conveyor-lubricator systems? Moreover, why had the lubrication staff or the lubricant supplier neither noticed nor brought to management’s attention the systems’ dramatic (more than 10-fold) increase in lubricant consumption over the past two years?
Further investigation revealed that the chain-oil consumption increase had coincided with the hiring of a new lubrication technician. The PM (preventive maintenance) job plan and frequency for checking and filling the automated lubricator reservoirs, though, had remained unchanged—from the time the devices were installed and commissioned more than three years prior. This discovery prompted a physical investigation of the four lubricators themselves. The findings were more than surprising!
The four lubricators were a popular, highly reliable brand. Low-tech in design, they used a pneumatic pump-to-point-style pump connected to dynamic injectors that would “volley” or “shoot” a small fixed amount of oil into either the unshielded trolley rolling-element bearings or the chain-link pins that connected the trolleys.
All of the devices were in excellent condition—and still located where they had been originally installed—complete with reservoirs full of oil. Curiously, though, all had been shut off electrically at the breaker and their pneumatic air supplies had been shut off at the feed-line valves. As a result, all of these units were totally useless.
Investigators subsequently learned that the four original lubricators had been “replaced” further down the conveyor line by a makeshift gravity-lubrication system that featured 1-gal. paint cans clamped to the conveyor I-beam as oil reservoirs. Installed in the bottom of each can were two small cock valves fitted with copper lines dropping down to two commercial, adjustable oil-drip brushes that were very wet with lubricant—just like the over-lubricated conveyor chain and roller bearings they served.
Questioned about this state of affairs, the plant’s production and quality supervisors told a story of numerous paint-quality problems that, they believed, had been caused by lubricant over-spray. After complaining about the matter to the new lubricant technician, they said, the situation eventually seemed to improve, i.e., fewer quality incidents occurred.
When interviewed, the lubrication technician reported that upon assuming his new role he had received no formal training or direction other than to follow the instructions on the work orders and use common sense. Shortly after starting the job, because of the workload, he decided to ignore the automated lubricator PM work order and, instead, rely on the lubricator-reservoirs’ low-level lights as condition indicators for adding oil. After the first three months, all low-level indicators had activated, at which time the technician had correctly filled the reservoirs with the correct oil (or so he thought).
During later lubricant checks, however, the reservoirs appeared full, and didn’t seem to be dispensing oil at all. Consequently, after multiple unsuccessful attempts to alert his supervisor to the situation, the technician took it upon himself to exercise his personal version of common sense and engineer a new system. Thus was born the gravity system of paint cans and brushes—for which, incidentally, almost a year had been spent working out the settings so that oil wouldn’t drip off the conveyor on to the painted vehicles. (To his credit, the technician did show the new system to the lubricant supplier’s representative. Accordingly, after approving the design, the rep also began enjoying increased orders and commissions for his product.)
In the end, simple diagnostics performed on the automated chain-oil lubricators found the units to be in perfect working order. The reason they had failed to dispense lubricant? At some point, their oil levels had been allowed to drop so low that the injectors and pumps lost their prime. The devices simply needed to be re-primed.
As this case study shows, a few simple lapses in responsible behavior resulted in serious quality issues requiring many hundreds of thousands of dollars in vehicle repaint costs, many tens of thousands of dollars in excess lubricant costs, and overall reduced conveyor life due to ineffective lubrication practices.
Many readers might vote to place blame wholly on the lubricant technician for this calamity. In this story, though, he should only take partial blame: A millwright by trade, with no formal lubrication training, he had been placed in his position based solely on seniority. To exacerbate the situation, there were no specific priming instructions regarding the automated lubricators, either in the work-order job plan or on or near the units themselves.
Still, while the technician tried unsuccessfully, on several occasions, to notify his supervisor of the lubricator problem, he also chose to ignore the initial PM in favor of a different lubrication approach without performing a risk analysis. His McGyver-style paint-can fix could definitely be construed as irresponsible for a tradesperson. He should, at the very least, have tried to find an operations manual or learn more about the specific lubricators he was dealing with before condemning them so quickly and creating a bigger downstream problem.
Much of the blame, however, really belongs to the site’s supervisory personnel:
- the maintenance supervisor who irresponsibly did not adequately support his technician or notice the makeshift lubricators and/or the massive increases in his monthly lubricant spend
- the production supervisor who irresponsibly bypassed the maintenance supervisor in favor of speaking directly to the lubrication technician.
Final blame goes to the irresponsible actions of the lubricant supplier. From an ethical standpoint, its representative certainly should have discussed the massive increase in chain-oil consumption with the plant’s maintenance supervisor and/or the purchasing department.
Responsibility is born out of knowing what to do and when to do it. In the case of the four referenced automated chain lubricators, problems could have been prevented with:
- lubrication certification training
- clear workflow processes
- improved PM work-order job plans
- standardized operating procedures
- failure risk analysis on critical equipment
- improved inter- and intra-departmental communications.
To be sure, the lubrication technician in this story was out of his depth. With a little effort, however, the costly scenario that he created could have been avoided. MT
Lubrication expert Ken Bannister is principal consultant with EngTech Industries, Innerkip, Ontario. He is the author of Lubrication for Industry and the Lubrication Section of the 28th Edition of Machinery’s Handbook (both Industrial Press, South Norwalk, CT), contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.