How to Use Oil Analysis in Maintenance Decisions

Nov. 6, 2012

Reprinted with the permission of Equipment Manager magazine, the magazine of AEMP.

When asked, “Does your company/fleet use an oil analysis management program?” the answer is normally, “Yes, we take oil samples.” This does not answer the question. Many companies and maintenance personnel believe that taking an oil sample, sending it to the laboratory, and receiving a report is the end of the process.

Reprinted with the permission of Equipment Manager magazine, the magazine of AEMP.

When asked, “Does your company/fleet use an oil analysis management program?” the answer is normally, “Yes, we take oil samples.” This does not answer the question. Many companies and maintenance personnel believe that taking an oil sample, sending it to the laboratory, and receiving a report is the end of the process.

This is just the beginning of utilizing all the benefits and cost savings that can be realized from having an oil analysis management program. The ultimate goal of oil analysis is to reduce owning/operating costs and save money. The main benefits of an oil analysis program are that it:

  • Detects abnormal wear
  • Detects oil degradation
  • Detects oil/component contamination
  • Detects impending failures
  • Verifies the oil in use
  • Optimizes service intervals
  • Avoids unnecessary overhauls
  • Avoids loss of production
  • And, ultimately, saves money

To realize the above benefits, the program must be established from the top managerial position to the technician on the floor taking the sample. The responsibilities of all personnel involved should be defined and explained to help ensure a financially successful program. On average, 80 to 90 percent of samples submitted will be “normal.” It is the other 10 to 20 percent of samples that can affect the bottom line of a company’s financial statement. These samples may be rated as “abnormal,” which usually indicates a slight problem that can be corrected during the next service interval. Those samples that require immediate attention—the “Critical/Severe” samples—are the ones that could cause a major failure.

Taking an oil sample is not just the start of the process but one of the most important steps to a successful program. Oil sampling is typically carried out by maintenance technicians. Ensuring that personnel who take oil samples are properly trained and have the correct sampling hardware is important to ensure the integrity of oil samples. An improperly taken oil sample could result in warnings/alerts being sent erroneously to the end user, causing unnecessary maintenance and cost.

Another issue of importance is the information provided about the sample and equipment itself. For accurate diagnosis, information on the make/model of the equipment and component, oil type, sump capacity, hours/miles on the equipment and oil/filters should be completed and submitted along with the sample. Most OEMs have established sample intervals for each component of their equipment. These intervals should be followed at a minimum to assist with possible warranty claims and monitor the equipment. Depending on the harshness of the operating environment, samples may need to be taken more frequently.

Remember, this is a process to ensure that your oil analysis program is effective within your company. Reviewing and analyzing fleet data can allow fleet managers to maximize the return on investment of the oil analysis program.

Oil analysis is a useful predictive maintenance tool that can provide a high ROI. Laying the ground work for a successful program will help you maximize the ROI from oil analysis. Working with your oil analysis vendor and ensuring everyone understands the goals and responsibilities will lead to a world-class oil analysis management program that will increase a fleet’s return on investment.

How to set up an oil analysis program

Whether you are starting a program or improving on your current one, when working with your oil analysis vendor, follow the steps below to help ensure the program is correct for your company.

1. Set goals and targets

Setting program goals is paramount to a successful oil analysis program. All oil analysis programs are not created equal. Discussing your goals with your oil analysis vendor will allow the laboratory to select the appropriate oil analysis tests for each type of equipment within your fleet. Doing so will ensure that you are collecting the appropriate oil analysis data to measure your progress toward your lubrication and maintenance goals. Establish benchmarks to monitor progress towards you goals and targets. Ensure management reports as previously discussed are in place to access progress.

2. Determine responsibilities

Like any successful program, it is necessary to designate personnel to tasks and provide training to ensure that tasks are performed properly. In many cases, the same people taking the samples will be carrying out the maintenance tasks that are recommended by the oil analysis reports. As a result, ensure that there are lines of communication between those personnel that take oil samples, review the oil analysis results, and those that affect the corrective actions. Feedback both up and down the chain of responsibility will ensure that the oil analysis program becomes well entrenched in the culture. A lack of communication can quickly erode confidence in the program at any level. The “program manager” has ultimate responsibility for the program success.

3. Determine the scope of the program

The best approach is to evolve the oil analysis program. Start by ensuring OEM recommendations of oil analysis are followed to assist with warranty claims. Add other equipment to the program to assist in reducing downtime and maintenance cost. You may want to use maintenance records to determine equipment that presents higher maintenance and repair cost of the fleet. 

4. Collect machine information

Take the time to collect all the required equipment information in electronic format, and forward to your oil analysis vendor. Providing this information goes a long way to ensure accurate diagnosis and meaningful recommendations.  Most laboratories can provide you with a spreadsheet template that you can complete with your machine information. Once the laboratory has imported your equipment into its database, most labs can either provide pre-printed labels or software that allows you to print your own labels that can subsequently be used in place of the standard Sample Information Forms (SIFs). Not having to complete SIFs with your oil samples will save you a lot of time, and pre-printed labels ensure accurate machine information when the laboratory receives your samples.

5. Select appropriate sampling protocols

Having determined goals for the oil analysis program, it is necessary to select the appropriate testing protocols to ensure that progress toward these goals can be tracked. Typically, the information provided by you on the equipment spreadsheet will enable the oil analysis vendor to establish the appropriate oil analysis testing protocols for each component of your equipment. The oil analysis results will be heavily influenced by the sampling process. Sampling consistency is important and should be as repeatable as possible. Samples should be taken from the same location, while the equipment is in operation, if possible, or soon after shut-down, using the sampling procedure and sampling hardware, and at the same sampling frequency. Samples should be taken at regular frequencies. Consult your OEM for required sample frequencies.

Sample points should be clearly identified, and proper sampling ports should be installed. Your laboratory should be able to provide consultation on recommended sample point locations, hardware and procedures.

6. Integrate oil analysis results

Oil analysis vendor’s software should work in conjunction with your existing maintenance software platform. Most oil analysis vendors provide data export capabilities for common reliability software packages or standard CSV or XML data files at a minimum. Integrating the oil analysis data into your existing maintenance software platform ensures that the fleet manager has ready access to the oil analysis data. With tools to track machine condition, track maintenance actions, sort and find units, this puts your entire oil analysis program at your fingertips.

7. Take corrective action and provide feedback

The largest return on investment from your oil analysis program comes from avoiding equipment failure in the critical 5 to 10 percent of instances. To realize these returns, it is incumbent on the program manager and maintenance departments to ensure that appropriate maintenance activities are carried out based on the oil analysis recommendations. In cases where component inspections are recommended, it is essential to take immediate action, consult with the operators, utilize additional CBM techniques and collect all the necessary information to make a decision on when to take a machine out of service for inspection and possible repairs. At these times you should inquire with your laboratory about additional advanced level testing (e.g. analytical ferrography) that may assist in making the decision more clear. After inspection and repairs have been completed, provide the laboratory with the results of the inspection and what corrective action was taken. This will allow the laboratory to become more knowledgeable about your fleet and problems they should look for. This is a step in the process most fleets fail to complete. EM

Ken Hill, CESP, is VP-sales and marketing for WearCheck USA, which specializes in lubrication/fluid analysis and management. He is an 18-year member of AEMP and a Certified Equipment Support Professional.