In 2008, manufacturers worldwide will begin to experience the effects of the initial wave of baby boomer retirements. These retirements will affect many segments of the global economy, but no single segment stands to feel it as strongly as the manufacturing sector.

While there will be enough warm bodies to fill the vacant positions, there won’t be nearly enough technically skilled replacements to support the progressively more sophisticated manufacturing jobs, including the role of the modern lubrication technician.

The prospect that manufacturers simply won’t be able to fill technical positions hasn’t fully set in yet, but it will soon. Management will have to find a way to prosper with less skilled manpower than what’s perceived as possible through current production methods.

The lean manufacturing strategy is beginning to receive consideration outside of automotive manufacturing, and holds some promise for solving this problem. While the term “lean” isn’t intended to reflect staffing levels, lean methods enable a production system (individual production line, an entire plant) to maintain high output and quality with less material and labor resources than traditional methods.

As a strategy, lean stresses value creation through the elimination of waste. Any activity or process that consumes resources and adds cost or time without creating value is a target for elimination. The evaluation of a set of activities to eliminate all forms of waste should lead to the establishment of a set of best work practices for the activity under evaluation. This will become increasingly more important in the near future.

So, what does this have to do with machinery lubrication? Most engineering and maintenance managers would agree that precise lubrication is a critical success factor. At the same time, these managers tend to believe their own lubrication practices are acceptable, allowing for a few minor improvements.

Unfortunately, there is a big gap between the actual and perceived capabilities of the lubrication aspect of maintenance at most plants. And, as long as managers are satisfied that their programs are within shooting distance of “good enough,” it is unlikely that those programs will contribute much to improved reliability.

Why is this? It’s because “just getting by” lubrication assures enough success to justify not making improvements. The program goal should be zero lubricated component replacements. Hitting this goal through effective lubrication (i.e. best practices) is a much bigger challenge and requires considerably more knowledge to deliver than rank-and-file maintenance managers realize.

An effective lubrication program requires more than simply identifying a lubricant at the right viscosity grade and making sure there is enough lubricant in the sump. You should consider at least 19 criteria when developing a new lubrication practice. These can be divided into three general areas, as presented below. Check marks denote items that are typically covered.

Lubricant supply:

» Efficient lubricant purchase practices

» Efficient lubricant storage

  • Technically correct product selection

  • Efficient lubricant handling

  • Clean delivery of the lubricant (oil and grease) to the machinery

Lubricant analysis:

» Correct test method selection

» Correct analysis technique

  • Machine- and environment-specific primary and secondary test slate selection

  • Machine-specific analysis alarms and limits

  • Correct sample collection practices (extraction method, time, location and hardware selection)

  • Correct data interpretation and response

Lubricant management:

» Criticality assessment for optimized application of resources

» Efficient lubricant delivery methods

  • Lubrication-friendly modifications of machine sumps and lubricated components

  • Correct contaminant exclusion methods (materials and hardware)

  • Correct contaminant removal methods: selection and use of in-sump condition control mechanisms (cooling, heating, dehydration, solid particle removal, etc.)

  • Timely application of oil analysis, contaminant exclusion and contaminant removal methods driven by system feedback loop (analysis, inspection or predefined planned activity)

  • Routine machine inspection for lubrication effectiveness

  • Thoroughly developed lubrication technician skill sets predicated on knowledge of all of these criteria

Precision lubrication occurs through efficient, effective fulfillment of each of these criteria. Traditional folklore-driven methods survive only because management has faith in the innate mechanical sense of the skilled people in the roles. When this labor resource is depleted, and it will be, the manager will either need to refine and standardize the tasks (create standard operating procedures) or fall into a state of inadequate methods, to be followed shortly by a state of unnecessary and costly lubricated component replacements.

If manufacturing is to survive the demographic changes, it will have to find more ways to minimize the demand for highly technically skilled workers. The analysis of the lubrication process, and adjustments to fit a lean management approach, will force you to develop best practices. This will inherently support reliability. It is an excellent direction for the future of machine lubrication.

Mike Johnson has 20 years of practical experience in the field of industrial lubrication and equipment reliability. Mike is a primary instructor for Noria Corporation's Machinery Lubrication seminars and is the senior technical editor for its Machinery Lubrication and Practicing Oil Analysis magazines. He has published articles and papers on a wide variety of machine reliability and lubrication issues, has earned CMRP and ICML certifications, and holds BA and MBA degrees. He can be reached at or at 800-597-6450.