How to use ultrasound to improve lubrication practices

May 15, 2013
Predictive technology can impact bearing failures.

In brief:

  • Most bearing failures are lubrication-related.
  • Relying on time-based, periodic lubrication assumes bearings need to be greased at defined time periods.
  • By using ultrasound technology, along with standard practices such as removing old grease and replacing it with new, technicians can combine standard, time-based maintenance with condition-based, predictive maintenance, gaining in the process both a clearer picture of what’s really going on and better reliability.

Keeping a handle on lubrication is easy, right? All one needs to do is make sure the right lubricant is used in the right amount and at the right time. Not so fast; if only it were that simple.

Most bearing failures are lubrication-related. Bearing failures most often lead to unplanned downtime, which can impact production, as well as affect all related components around the bearing. Downtime is costly. While the cost varies by incident and by plant, it can add up. Since the most common cause of bearing failure is lubrication-related, it’s clear to see that lubrication is serious business. And for the longest time, that serious business has been conducted in a way that on its face makes perfect sense but in fact borders on haphazardness.

Many technicians, unfortunately, have relied on preventive, time-based lubrication alone, that is, every certain number of months, the grease gun comes out, and the bearings are lubricated. After all, under-lubrication can be lethal, causing equipment failure, costly repairs and replacements, significant unplanned downtime, and lost profits. But by relying solely on time-based lubrication, or even a combination of planned maintenance and temperature readings to serve as a proxy for lubrication status, one runs the risk of something just as bad, if not worse: over-lubrication. In fact over-lubrication can cause premature bearing failure.

Figure 1. By using ultrasound technology technicians can gain a clearer picture of what’s really going on and improve reliability.

Relying on time-based, periodic lubrication assumes bearings need to be greased at defined time periods. Often, this evolves into a well-intentioned guessing game at best. Adding more lubrication to a bearing that is already adequately greased is a real risk.

By using ultrasound technology, along with standard practices such as removing old grease and replacing it with new, technicians can combine standard, time-based maintenance with condition-based, predictive maintenance, gaining in the process both a clearer picture of what’s really going on and better reliability (Figure 1).

Ultrasound and lubrication

Ultrasonic equipment detects airborne and structure-borne ultrasounds normally inaudible to the human ear and electronically transposes them into audible signals that a technician can hear through headphones and view on a display panel as decibel (dB) levels. In some instruments, the received sound can also be viewed on a spectral analysis screen. With this information, a trained technician can interpret the bearing condition in order to determine what, if any, corrective action is needed.

Ultrasonic technology helps the lubrication technician take a lot of the guesswork out of lubrication needs. Ultrasound is a localized signal, meaning when a sensing probe is applied to a bearing it will not be affected by crosstalk and allows the technician to hear and monitor the condition of each individual bearing. Ultrasound looks at each individually, much the same way medical ultrasound can detect exactly which artery is clogged or which vein is leaking.

As an example of ultrasound’s efficacy, consider this. A maintenance manager at a large firm reports that, since adopting ultrasound technology and practicing ultrasound-assisted, condition-based monitoring, rather than running to put out the fire, his plant has gone from close to 30 rotating equipment failures per year to zero in three years. But how does ultrasound work, exactly, vis-à-vis lubrication?

The first step is establishing both a baseline dB level and a sound sample. This is ideally done when moving through a route for the first time by first comparing dB levels and sound qualities of similar bearings. Anomalies will be easily identified. Once established, each bearing can be trended over time for any changes in either amplitude or sound quality.

Generally speaking, when the amplitude of a bearing exceeds 8 dB and there’s no difference in the sound quality established at baseline, the bearing needs to be lubricated. To prevent potentially disastrous over-lubrication, the technician will then apply lubrication, a little at a time, until the dB level drops. Many departments set up their condition-based lubrication programs by incorporating a two- stage approach. The reliability inspector uses a relatively sophisticated ultrasound instrument to monitor and trend bearings. A report of bearings in need of lubrication is produced. The lube technician then uses a specialized ultrasound instrument that alerts the technician when to stop adding grease. These instruments can be affixed to a regular grease gun or worn in a holster (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Many departments set up a two-stage condition-based lubrication program. The reliability inspector monitors and trends bearings and creates a report of bearings in need of lubrication. The lubrication technician then uses a specialized instrument to tell him when to stop adding grease.

To improve efficiencies, it’s a good practice for the technician to note when the equipment was last greased and how much grease was used to calculate roughly how much lubrication is used per week. By using ultrasound to lubricate each and every time, the technician produces historical data that can be used as a guide from previous calculations, helping the department to determine whether the lubrication schedule can be modified, perhaps saving man-hours, and whether the manufacturer’s suggested lubrication amount is accurate. If less is needed, there’s cost-savings potential.

And while most of this discussion has focused on the dangers of under- and over-lubrication, ultrasound is just as reliable in picking up other potential bearing failure conditions. The technician, using ultrasound, can hear telltale grinding sounds and other anomalies, which are often accompanied by an amplitude increase. With regard to lubrication, the advantage of ultrasound is that it is able to isolate bearings and determine their individual needs, thus reducing the possibility that some bearings are too dry and prevent others from over-lubrication.

Business case

Adrian Messer is manager of U.S. operations at UE Systems. Contact him at [email protected].

It is always a daunting proposition to make a new investment in technology. Will it pay off? Will my staff actually have an easy time using it?

There are still many plants that are figuratively using crystal balls and outdated methodologies in their maintenance practices. The end result is poor reliability, unnecessary man-hours, downtime, and lost productivity and profit. While technology can’t cure all reliability ills, it can offer a valuable and powerful diagnostic tool for technicians’ toolkits. When it comes to something as important to reliability as lubrication, the question really becomes, “Can you afford not to use ultrasound technology?”

15 tips for an effective ultrasound-assisted lubrication program

  • Don’t become complacent. Review your current lubrication practices for improvements.
  • Are you using the right grease for the application? 
  • Have you considered the environmental impact (temperature, humidity, dust) on the grease you are using?
  • Do you have a quality-controlled storage and distribution system in place?
  • Set PdM scheduling based on plant objectives such as asset criticality and impact on production.
  • Update PMs to include the use of ultrasound when lubricating bearings.
  • Establish baselines and alarm levels for all bearings: low alarm for lubricate, high alarm for potential failure analysis.
  • All ultrasound testing is performed while wearing headphones to hear bearing sound quality.
  • All data is logged and downloaded to data management software for trending and report generation.
  • Review all data using low and high alarm levels.
  • Create work orders for lubrication based on the low alarm levels.
  • All lube technicians should listen with the proper ultrasound tool while applying lubrication.
  • All technicians should be trained and have knowledge about when to stop adding lubricant when the sound level drops.
  • Schedule a follow-up test of lubricated bearings to monitor the decibel level.
  • Training is essential. All those involved with lubrication should receive training in lubrication best practices.
    About the Author

    Adrian Messer | CMRP, Vice President of Executive Services, Progressive Reliability

    Adrian Messer has worked in the maintenance and reliability field for nearly 20 years. During that time, he has worked with manufacturing and distribution facilities across multiple industries helping to improve their plant’s asset reliability through improved condition monitoring. Adrian is Manager of US Operations at SDT Ultrasound Solutions. Previously he worked with Progressive Reliability to advise companies on reliability-focused contracting & hiring and to find M&R professionals for open jobs.

    Adrian is a graduate of Clemson University with a Bachelor of Science in Management with a concentration in Human Resources. He is a Certified Maintenance and Reliability Professional (CMRP) through the Society for Maintenance and Reliability Professionals (SMRP) and is actively involved with SMRP on a local and National level. He resides in Anderson, South Carolina.

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