Machinery Lubrication / Oil Analysis / Predictive Maintenance

Inspect more than just oil quality

An effective plant lubrication program starts with your lubricant distributor.

By Paul Dufresne, CMRP, CMRT, CRL, CLS, Reliability Playbook

When you Google “lubrication program development” you’ll find articles ranging from “Lubrication Program Design” to the “3 Steps to Establish…” and the “6 Keys to an Effective…”

While there are great points in all of these, one key question is missed: How effective is your distributor at applying best practices? Of more importance, when was the last time you conducted a walk-through or a surprise inspection of your lubricant distributor?

In a recent Machinery Lubrication survey, 62% of the lubrication professional respondents indicated that they never visit their lubricant suppliers. In another recent benchmarking study, it was documented that, on average: (1) a facility will spend up to 1% of its annual maintenance budget on purchasing new lubricants, and (2) poor lubrication practices account for as many as 40% of equipment failures a facility experiences.

In the past eight months, I have had the opportunity to take some colleagues both new and senior in their lubrication roles and conduct a few surprise distributor inspections. The base standard we used for the inspection was the “60 Questions to Ask Your Lubricant Supplier” from Machinery Lubrication ( In using this document, we developed a simple scoring method. We gave a score of “1” for meeting the parameters specified, or we gave a score of “0” if they weren’t met. We added up the total points of our assessment and provided feedback to our lubricant supplier and distributor.

Prior to these distributor inspections, my colleagues and I conducted a plant lubrication audit wherein we identified several opportunities to improve key functional areas of our lubrication program. Among these were opportunities in storage and handling, contamination control, filtration, and lubricant selection and standardization.

In reviewing recent expenditures for filters, filter carts, and desiccant breathers, we started looking at oil quality. I asked the question, “Do we sample incoming oil?” The response around the room was that oil in use was sampled but “new” oil received at the plant was not.

After a short silence in the room, I took the opportunity to do a simple RCA with the team using the 5 Whys. The answers were all too familiar and not surprising: “I don’t know,” “Just haven’t thought about it,” “We haven’t been asked to.”

After about 30 minutes of the 5-Why discussion, it was evident why we were not sampling our new oil shipments – it wasn’t part of our program. During the discussion, we talked about wanting to achieve different results with our lubrication program. To achieve different results, you have to do things you haven’t done before.

What to do now? We pulled oil samples from a selection of new oil drums and sent the samples for analysis. The results confirmed what we have all been taught in our lubrication classes: New oil is not clean oil. On average, our ISO cleanliness codes were three ISO cleanliness codes higher than our minimum target. Armed with this data, we went off to inspect our distributor and verify the company’s practices, evaluating them against the “60 Questions to Ask Your Lubricant Supplier” document.

On our way to the distributor, we called when we were about 10 minutes away. We did this not so we could catch anyone doing something incorrect; what we wanted was to experience the reality of their day-to-day operations. Upon arrival, it was evident we were on to something that we confirmed with our sampling of the new oil. Some of our experience is documented below in Figures 1, 2, and 3.

Other finds during the facility walk through included the following:

Warehouse conditions

  • No temperature control.
  • Open to the outside environment, with loading dock and lube transfer-area doors appearing to be left open even when not in use.
  • Housekeeping
  • Oil drums and grease boxes stored on pallets
  • Oil-absorbent bags damaged, with absorbent spread throughout the warehouse.
  • Waste materials spread around the premises.
  • Oil dispensing area immediately open to the outside environment, and floor covered in dirt, leaves, etc.

Container storage

  • “New & Clean” drums stored in an open semi-trailer.
  • “New & Clean” 5-gallon pails stored upright and open with lids in an open box next to them, with no effective efforts made to limit contaminant ingress.

Bulk tank conditions

  • Tanks under a shelter.
  • Not cleaned since initial installation.

Delivery vehicle conditions

  • Delivery vehicle storage tanks cleaned only for yearly, government-mandated inspections.

Procedures & standards

  • Oil dispensing area – drum and bucket filling: No pre-emptive cleanout of containers, simply pumped into.
  • Procedures guide/handbook obviously not referenced for a significant time, and covered in dust and debris.

Before the assessment, the relationship between the plant and the distributor was transactional at best: We would place an order for oil and the distributor would deliver, with almost no communication taking place between the parties. Since this assessment, the distributor has done an outstanding job addressing the shortcomings identified. It has put internal procedures and practices in place to ensure the product we receive is in the best possible condition.

Now as we start on the path to continuous improvement with our plant lubrication program, we have a better understanding of our starting point. We also have a better working relationship with our distributor, who is working to help us achieve our goals of starting with a quality product. Although we still filter new oil and follow all the best practices within our documented lubrication program, we have a better understanding of the quality of the lubricants arriving on-site.

When looking to improve your plant lubrication program, it’s important to start with the point of origin of your lubricants. If you reach out to your distributor and create a working relationship, your distributor can become an extension of your lubrication program and help you meet your goals.