As the Kimmins Contracting fleet began to age and catastrophic failures became a monthly event, Fleet Manager Mike O'Brien started looking for solutions.
"I have always been aware of oil analysis, but the company figured it was an added cost that we didn't need," says O'Brien.
Most of the fleet had been replaced in 1997, and most of those machines were still at work in 2001. Repair bills were beginning to demand an investment in failure prevention. O'Brien took bids from vendors for the company's lubricant supply, and the vendors brought about a change in management style.
"Management had been dead set against oil analysis, but the oil companies put presentations together that included sampling and sold them on doing it," says O'Brien. "Within the first year, we were able to prove the various cost savings they promised based on repair cost saved and an extended-drain-interval program."
O'Brien got five quotes from oil distributors. Mobil's price was in the middle of the bunch, and it included oil analysis, support from a lubrication engineer, and extended oil-drain intervals.
"There was a culture change," says O'Brien. "They weren't the least expensive, but Mobil included oil analysis in the price of the oil and seemed to be most knowledgeable, plus the Planned Engineering Service engineer was able to train our technicians.
"Analysis results will tell a story if you read them right."
The Mobil engineer's analysis insights were quickly tested, as Kimmins agreed to add 50 hours to its standard 250-hour oil-change interval.
"And the program was progressive. Eventually we were 100 hours over the 250-hour interval," says O'Brien. "We saved $50,000 to $60,000 in labor, oil and filters used in the first year [of their oil-analysis program, 2001] because we were doing fewer oil changes."
Remarkably, oil analysis has eliminated premature component failures even as oil-change intervals have lengthened and the fleet has continued to age.
"Last year we saved $125,000 on rebuilds that would have been catastrophic engine or transmission failures if we hadn't had analysis results to warn us," says O'Brien.
"Over four years, we have been able to identify a trend in engines and transmissions," he adds. "We can almost predict the hour when we're going to have to pull an engine or transmission, especially in our more common pieces — the Cat or Komatsu equipment.
"We're at 10,000 to 12,000 hours on engines, although we've been out to 14,000 with some," says O'Brien. "Currently, a large portion of our equipment fleet is running with 15,000 to 20,000 hours."
Kimmins has begun to replace some machines since the oil-analysis program began, but they're doing it now because it's the most economical choice for very high-hour machines. Before oil analysis, big investment decisions were often made in reaction to emergencies.
"We were running things to destruction before — we'd have connecting rods bending or breaking and the rod goes through the block," O'Brien remembers. "And we had those kinds of failures once a month.
"In the last three years we haven't had any of that — none."
O'Brien quickly learned to watch for the appearance of sodium in engine oil, indicating the intrusion of coolant, accompanied by rising iron contamination. Or he would receive an alert when copper and iron concentrations began to rise in sync, anticipating bearing failures.
"The whole basis of sampling is wear trends," he says. "When we get a sample that shows high sodium, we immediately get a resample.
"We had a couple Peterbilt transport tractors with Cat 3406E engines in them and the oil-sample results on one came back with high sodium. We started sampling every 2,000 miles [instead of at every oil change, which is standard procedure]. At about 650,000 miles, we'd seen enough high sodium and copper that we decided to tear it down."
A quick look at the worn parts made it clear that they had averted a failure of the rod and main bearings.
"The second truck was a year newer," says O'Brien. "It started to show the same trends at 650,000 miles, so we saved a second failure."
He hastens to mention the savings involved in rebuilding a worn engine, rather than repairing a failed one.
"You could have the cost of a used or new block and no core credit on your busted block, a galled up crankshaft that's not reusable, no core credit on pistons or connecting rods, and you end up paying $8,000 to $10,000 extra for the catastrophic rebuild."
Oil analysis has redefined the economic life of Kimmins' equipment.
"We've gone from repairing failed engines at 8,000 hours to rebuilding worn components in the 12,000- to 14,000-hour period," says O'Brien. Rebuilds are $8,000 to $10,000 cheaper, and they've achieved it along with a 40-percent reduction in cost and labor for preventive maintenance, and by paying very close attention to oil-analysis results.
"In the past, if there was a problem with an engine or transmission, we weren't aware of it until something broke," says O'Brien. "With oil analysis, deciding when to rebuild is almost like reading a book — or like the machine is talking to you."