Auto-Lube Systems Gain Ground

Sept. 28, 2010


In this automatic lubrication system from Vogel, the master block (left) feeds measured amounts of grease to the boom distributor (right), as well as to other lubrication points on the machine.In this story:

Spreading the gospel of automatic-lubrication systems throughout the construction industry has been a matter of evangelism, not product innovation, according to Kenneth Walsh, who manages marketing communications and research for Lincoln Industrial Corp.

Unlike the mining industry that has fully embraced the use of automatic lubrication as standard fit on most machinery for years, construction-equipment managers have been slower to respond and, consequently, market acceptance has manifested itself in an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, way. As a result, the use of centralized, or automated, lube systems for construction applications has grown gradually. But now, says Walsh, such systems have begun to play a more important role among construction-equipment professionals.

Proof of this trend, Walsh says, is clearly reflected in both increased product sales and in his own analysis of conversations with fleet managers who have attended the past three Conexpo-Con/Aggs.

"Back in 1999, there was a lot of curiosity out there," he says. "Our distributors were talking about automatic lube systems and the systems were being written about in various publications. But the construction industry took a longer time to accept the concept. I think that's because people didn't want to make an upfront investment of several thousand dollars. At Conexpo that year, the contractors and equipment distributors I talked with had heard about the system and were curious, but that was about it.

"Then in 2002, Conexpo attendees were more knowledgeable about the systems and wanted to know more about options that were available to them," Walsh says. "There was less evangelizing and more familiarity and comfort with the concept. Then at the most recent Conexpo, acceptance was a foregone conclusion. Construction-equipment managers wanted to talk about return on investment. They wanted to know how to test a system on a piece of equipment. They said, 'Let's test one on this kind of machine because I have 28 more of them waiting.'"

How the systems work

Brian Baker, fleet sales engineer for Lubriquip, explains how an automatic lubrication system works. "The system automatically dispenses a measured amount of grease to the lubricant point as needed based on either time or pulse intervals. It spurts a small amount of grease while the equipment is running." Most equipment uses time intervals to dispense the lube, he says.

David Piangerelli, president of Lubrication Technologies, says a lube system installed on a dump truck or cement mixer may be timed to meter grease at 15-minute intervals. A system on a loader or an excavator would be timed for longer intervals, averaging up to an hour, but generally no longer than that.

Trailers, on the other hand, sometimes use a pulse method, says Lubriquip's Baker. "Every time the brake is actuated, the impulse causes the grease to lubricate the brakes," he says.

Baker also is optimistic about the market growth of the systems. "One of the things we see is that more and more people are starting to recognize the benefits of systems like this. One reason is that contractors are keeping their equipment longer and longer. Another reason is that there are fewer mechanics out there," Baker says. "You don't want your mechanic doing a grease job when there are more important things for him to do."

Vogel Lubrication also sees more positive responses to auto-lube systems from construction professionals, says Bob Wall, sales engineer. "I think one reason is that companies, including Vogel, are now working more closely with equipment manufacturers. Also, Vogel puts a lot of protection on its system to keep the lines from being torn off in the field by such things as jagged concrete and rebar."

Vogel uses something called Superod that "is pretty hard to crush to the point where lubrication can't flow through," Wall says. Vogel also uses an external coil that goes over the secondary lines to keep them from kinking. The external coil resists abrasion and deflection of rocks, he said. "And we use steel tubing wherever possible."

Lincoln addresses line protection by making them "as bullet proof as possible," Walsh says. "This is really critical. You can attach hose and tubing easily and inexpensively, but to protect them and do it right takes time. The effort is worth the investment. If the line is protected — and this is done in some applications with steel armament that is actually welded right onto the machine and painted to match — it's not going to get torn off in the real world."

Installation of automatic-lubrication systems, Walsh says, generally takes two people working for one or two days and can be factory-installed or retrofitted. Most systems have minimum one-year warranties.

Piangerelli says Lubrication Technologies has retrofitted automatic-lube systems on construction equipment, "and the big challenge is the routing of the tubing — it must be installed in such a manner that it is consistent with maximum reliability and durability. Yet it has to be done with the thought that eventually it's going to get damaged in some shape or form and, when it does, it has to be easily repairable."

In addition to better-protected lines, today's systems are equipped with more monitoring and feedback devices that tell the operator when the system is working properly. "Electrically operated systems, for example, are wired through the ignition or some other power device," says Vogel's Wall. "The system is timed with the running of the equipment. The cycle time is built into the memory. If the piece of equipment is shut off before it completes a lube cycle, it remembers where it is in the cycle and picks up from there."

These technical advances and improved line protection have helped end-users to be more receptive to automatic lubrication, Wall says.

Selling the benefits

Despite the growing trust in the construction market, though, Piangerelli says such systems still have to be sold, especially to those who have never used them.

"Unless the customer has used automatic-lube systems on such equipment as excavators, sweepers, mixers, haul trucks or dump trailers, for example, and therefore knows the system's benefits, we find they are reluctant to spend the money up front," he says. "But from an operation manager's point of view, such an investment is generally a no-brainer. For instance, return on investment for a piece of heavy equipment is about nine months to a year. On a haul truck, it could be 18 months. It all depends on the individual circumstances."

And Wall relates this experience: "When we got into this market some time ago, we thought that people with good maintenance practices probably would not want to use an automatic-lubricating system because they felt their way of doing it was superior. The ones who had sloppy maintenance practices, we reasoned, would latch onto it because they had lost control of their environment and their people were not doing it properly."

But that wasn't what happened, he says. "It proved to be the exact opposite. Those with really good maintenance programs are willing to put money into automatic lubrication up front for a return on investment. People with sloppy maintenance practices just don't care either way."

The Vogel system used for construction applications can be adjusted to either pause time or pulse time. Pause time is the number of hours between lubrication cycles; pulse time is how many minutes a system runs.

As for monitoring, Wall says there is a cycle indicator on one of the blocks that is a proximity switch. "It senses the movement of that block. It will send back a signal to the controller and light up a green light in the cab saying it has completed a cycle. If it fails to complete a cycle while the pump is running, there will be a failure indicator that warns the operator. If that happens, someone in maintenance should inspect the system to see if a line is plugged up or if there is some other problem."

In addition to centralized lubrication, there is yet another type of automatic lubrication method, says Mark Hill, president of Companion Products. Simalube is a single-point automatic lubricator that dispenses lubricant automatically over a long period of time.

"Simalube is a gas unit that is very cost-effective, about $30 or $40 each," Hill says. "In the case of heavy equipment, you attach it directly onto the bearing point. You unscrew the zerk fitting, screw in an adapter, and then screw Simalube into the adapter."

The device has a dial setting that ranges from 1 to 12, representing months. This determines over what period the lube will be distributed. For example, the most common-selling Simalube unit holds 4.25 ounces of grease. If the dial is set on "8," the unit will dispense about half an ounce of grease per month.

"It's like eating food," Hill says. "Doctors say it is much healthier to eat small amounts throughout the day than to sit down at night to a thick T-bone and a large baked potato. It's much healthier for equipment to be lubricated very, very often with small amounts of lube."

Before using Simalube, Hill says, end-users have to know two things: the exact amount of grease the equipment needs over a certain period of time and what lubricant to use.

There are a number of benefits to using an automatic lubricating system, say manufacturers. In addition to prolonging the life of the equipment, the life of the components and, in many cases, adding resale value to the machine, proper lubrication results in a dramatic drop in the amount of lubricant used, they say.

"There is a dramatic reduction - 30 to 50 percent — in grease consumption because in a properly designed system, the precise amount of grease is metered to the proper lubrication point at timed intervals," Piangerelli says.

Lubriquip's Baker agrees. "What typically happens is that somebody greases the equipment and by the time he gets around to it, metal is rubbing metal. Then he over-greases it. You go from under-greased to over-greased," he says. "Because an automatic-ubricating system dispenses the exact amount that's needed, you're using less grease. You're not wasting grease, only using what is required."

And Walsh points out that automatic lubrication increases productivity by eliminating the 30 to 45 minutes a day spent on lubricating each machine manually. It lowers maintenance costs by reducing repair expense and lubrication consumption. Not only do contractors save on repair parts and labor, they also eliminate the related downtime, which means more productivity gains. It improves safety "by eliminating the daily practice of climbing all over machinery to lubricate," he says, and, finally, the equipment receives proper lubrication no matter the environment or the weather.

The evolution of automatic-lubrication systems is well on its way, but manufacturers say marketing continues to be a challenge.

"Quality is the thing we need to push with customers," Wall says, noting that it's unreasonable to expect to pay $400 for a system designed to protect a $250,000 machine. "It's like going to a toy store and buying a trumpet. You're not going to play that trumpet in a symphony orchestra."

And what may be the biggest challenge of all, said Lincoln's Walsh, is to put systems where they can do the most good, then look at applications that continue to make sense. And that gets into system design.

"If you know how to work backward from the demands of the lubrication point, then size the system from the valve all the way back up to the pump, then you know how to design a system, no matter what the application," he says. "The future challenge is more than just up time and ROI. It's a continuing educational process."