Posted October 13, 2023

How automated lubrication systems can be transformative for industrial plants

By Paul Chauvin, Industrial Sales Manager, Sparrows Group

Consider any piece of metal that is rotating against another piece of metal. With incorrect lubrication, there is only a limited time before this becomes an expensive material failure. From bearings in wind turbines to those in AC units in chemical processing plants, the role of lubrication systems is fundamental for facilities across the world, irrespective of industry, from paper mills and car manufacturing plants to energy assets.

As operators are running with increasingly tight margins and rising product demand, the productivity and consistent operation of mechanical systems has never been more important. This is where an effective lubrication system can be transformative, and their importance not underestimated.

An Inconsistent Application

The entire purpose of the lubrication system is to improve the operation and lifetime of machinery, keeping these smoothly ticking over. However, many plants still rely on the manual application of lubricant, which is a process steeped in inefficiencies.

The manual application of lubricants opens the door wide to numerous opportunities for costly failure or operation disturbance. With technicians physically approaching a mechanical system to apply lubricants, machines often need to be entirely shut down to ensure the safety of these technicians when in close proximity to dangerous systems – resulting in costly downtime. There is also the element of wastefulness and reliability. The amount of grease applied by one technician may differ to that applied by the next technician on shift, along with differences in technique and exact location for application on a machine. With these inconsistencies, the smooth and efficient operation of a system cannot be guaranteed.

All operators know that machine downtime is a costly affair, but it is crucial that machines are serviced through preventative maintenance, to reduce the chances of unplanned downtime – which has a larger price tag. A machine that has an effective lubrication system can improve a plant’s success, which is achieved through the system’s focus on application timing, quantity, and monitoring.

The Seamless Success of Automation

Looking back to the 1980s and early automatic lubrication technologies were beginning to take wind. However, as with the arrival of any new technology, they face a mixed response for uptake. Flash forward and the global automatic lubrication systems market totalled $815 million in 2022, and is predicted to grow to over $1.1 billion by 2030. This is a fairly slow rate of growth and indicates how whilst over three decades have passed, the human versus robot debate remains, and in this case, workforce knowledge does not always mean power.

An automatic lubrication system can provide seamless application with high reliability. Considering the environment as well as the bottom line, there is no waste produced. The exact measurement of lubricant is applied to a machine in small increments, to ensure the equipment ticks along without a forced shut down and without waste. Detailed analysis of a machine allows for specific understanding of how frequently and how much lubricant is needed for continuous operation -unlike with human application where lubricant is often overzealously applied, creating excess heat on the bearing which can result in material failure. In fact, 80 percent of bearings failures are lubrication related, with the remaining 20 percent related to contamination or errors with installation.

Automation can also ensure all areas of a machine are reached, there is no spot too tricky or inaccessible. This consistent and reliable application of lubricants can ensure plant operations avoid unnecessary shutdowns. Businesses need their products and consumers have their demands, thus every possible action should be taken to ensure smooth operation.

In fact, Sparrows was involved in a project at a car manufacturing facility in Mississippi, USA, where the production line was being shut down every three months for the bearings and slides to be lubricated. But the facility was producing around 60,000 vehicles during that time, which meant there was significant wear of the slides, leading to failure every two weeks. To reduce the shutdown periods and costly equipment failure, analysis determined that lubrication would be needed every 20 minutes. With the plant only using manual application methods, this would be entirely unachievable. Seeing the benefits of an automated system, the client tasked Sparrows with supplying a long-lasting automated lubrication system to deliver the results it wanted.

The Evolution of a Paper Mill’s Power

Manufacturing facilities across the world have targets and timelines that need to be met to ensure customers are receiving the products that they demand, from cars to paper, beverages, and more. Take a paper mill, for example, which supplies paper, pulp, tissue, toilet and paper towel to be used in everyone’s daily lives. Now picture the vast number of machines all churning away and hear the constant clink of metal as rotating equipment powers on steadily. Hundreds of bearings will be present, and all require lubrication to keep them smoothly ticking by.

At the largest paper mill in the US, located in Mississippi, there are two large paper machines producing the plant’s 800 million tonnes per year of product. These machines were designed in the 1950s and have seen an increase in significant bearings failures, costing upwards of $300,000 per bearing, plus installation and costly down time. With it apparent that inadequate meters were monitoring the oil distribution of each bearing, an upgrade of these of meters was urgently needed to extend the machinery life, improve the plant’s reliability, and increase the production capacity.

Having already completed 37 smaller scopes of work in other areas of the plant in recent years, Sparrows’ expertise in this field and prior knowledge of the location, meant the company was well placed to conduct this enormous project.

The paper machine will have a high-level upgrade, to extend its 70+ year lifetime even further. 658 points for bearings and lubrication will have new meters installed that allow for two-way communication, informing management of the oil lubrication levels and application, so adjustments can be made directly through the computer system. Sparrows will also change out the 18,000 feet of tubing that supplies the bearings, carrying out the work whilst the machine remains in operation as well as some work during the machine’s monthly and annual planned outages.

Eyes On the Prize

With a lubrication system in place, in order to reap the benefits for the longest duration possible, strict monitoring should be undertaken. Whilst automation has eliminated the factor of human error in the lubrication process, the trained and reliable eyes of a maintenance manager are crucial for monitoring the system and all the trending and tracking statistics that are produced, as they can allow for maintenance schedules to be altered in the future, to improve efficiencies. The benefits of a lubrication system appear to be endless, but there is still hesitancy from the older workforce who consider first-hand experience to trump the skills of an automated device. However, where the human versus robot debate is concerned, it isn’t a debate. This is an instance of where the two, when combined, can triumph – bolstering operations and streamlining processes.

With a global skills shortage, environmental concerns, and tighter purse strings at play, perhaps a shift in the mindset of management could allow for increased adoption of lubrication systems. A more efficient plant and a safer set-up for the workforce are surely irrefutable.

Paul Chauvin, Altrad Sparrows

Paul Chauvin is industrial sales manager for Altrad Sparrows in the USA. With nearly 50 years’ experience in the industry specialising in lubrication and fluid power hydraulics, Paul applies his knowledge to provide business management, sales and lubrication technology and design training, and assist customers in finding the right solutions.