The metals industry is a diverse, capital-intensive industry that is sensitive to broad economic conditions. Whether the mill converts ore to metals or forms trade goods from billets, converting raw materials to finished goods creates tremendous reliability challenges for the maintenance professionals tasked to maintain the mechanical systems that support the processes.
With consolidation, bankruptcy and economic recession as the backdrop for today’s metal processors, we asked three reliability professionals their opinions on a few issues that all processors face. The three participants include Allan Wallace, condition-monitoring advisor of Iron Ore of Canada, Joe Dominick, process engineer for Weirton Steel, and Kevin Stewart, manager of the reliability network for Alcoa.
Among them, these three professionals share of lifetime of experiences, successes and challenges in the metals processing industry. Alan Wallace has 12 years experience in mechanical maintenance and 13 years experience in various operations roles. As a mechanic within IOC (Iron Ore of Canada), Alan was deeply involved in the selection of lubricants and delivery systems, and the initiation of oil analysis for mechanical reliability. For the last three years, Joe Dominick has provided a leadership role in the development, implementation and supervision of predictive maintenance technologies for Weirton Steel. The task of selecting and testing of lubricants falls to his group. Kevin Stewart, a Level 3-vibration analyst, has invested 20 years with Alcoa in maintenance and reliability management.
These gentlemen were asked to participate in a round table discussion given their broad experiences and their commitment to a high standard for machinery reliability in one of the toughest industrial environments on the planet.
1. What are the major issues facing the plant relative to the use of lubricants and the lubrication program?
Wallace: The single most critical issue is gaining buy-in to the concept of performing maintenance actions based on operational context and equipment need as opposed to a generic OEM recommendations or arbitrary calendar-based time intervals.
Tying lubrication practices to component operating requirements ensures the equipment receives what it requires at the appropriate intervals. Some of the tangible benefits derived from this policy are formalized equipment inspection procedures and well-defined functional lubrication needs.
Dominick: One major issue our mill faces is the reduction of contaminants entering the lubrication systems. The environment in which most of the equipment operates is harsh due to the nature of the product we make. This variable is not going to change much; so we need to continue to focus on preventing the contaminants from getting into the oil reservoirs and equipment. We performed a simple test to illustrate this problem to the plant foreman and mechanics. We placed clean oil in the bottles we use for oil sampling, with the lids removed, in different locations in the mill for a 18-hour period. We ran a particle count on the oil before and after the exposure period. Table 1 shows how clean oil can become contaminated in a relatively short period.
Another major issue facing our plant is a lean work force that is becoming responsible for multiple tasks in different plant locations. We need to ensure that the operators and craft personnel, as well as supervisors, are trained on the proper lubrication methods in each area where they work. We also need to keep personnel dedicated to finding and fixing oil leaks.
Stewart: We were faced with the issue of losing some of our experience and leadership in lubrication. We used to see more support from corporate management for machinery lubrication. It was perceived as a core value and consequently we put a lot of effort and time into training, education and planning. Now most of that focus is coming from the plants. We need to reestablish the high level support for this important activity.
2. What are some of the key initiatives that your plant has addressed in the last five years?
Wallace: There have been two major changes in the last couple of years. We are now using specialized lubrication scheduling software to assist in keeping track of lubrication activities and ensuring that the lubrication needs of the equipment are met. These schedules also reinforce what is expected of existing and new or replacement employees.
We have also implemented the use of oil analysis software to monitor the different parameters and interpret the data associated with the equipment and lubricants we use. We established limits and rules to monitor key meaningful parameters. When these limits are exceeded, the software reviews the rules and reports a recommended corrective maintenance action.
It might seem excessively detailed to some; however, our belief is that no one has a greater interest in maintaining our equipment than we do. We are capturing and documenting the collective knowledge and understanding of the equipment and lubricant, and this in turn is defining the cause-and-effect relationship. I believe that similar results could be accomplished by working with an oil analysis lab, but at least one of the downfalls is that if we ever had to or decided to change labs then we would have to start the process all over again.
Dominick: One major initiative was the consolidation of lubrication products, purchasing and storing into our chemical management group. Another key initiative, which is an integral part of that group, was the installation of an on-site oil lab. The lab is staffed by a full-time chemist, who also pulls oil samples, and is equipped for chemical, contamination and wear debris analysis.
Other smaller initiatives have included:
Replacing phosphate-ester fire-resistant systems with a glycol product for cost reduction and environmental considerations.
Setting cleanliness standards for lubrication systems on turbo generators and blowers.
Installing oil-mist systems on roll bearings.
Identifying and stopping the use of potentially incompatible greases (such as mixing polyurea and lithium types) by personnel and repair vendors.
Purchasing and implementing of mobile filtration carts for cleaning oil and reservoirs.
Holding lubrication awareness training classes for key operators, craft personnel and supervisors throughout the mill.
Stewart: We’ve worked hard to integrate lubrication into the reliability focus. Lubrication is essential to achieving good overall reliability. The reliability push has come from the development of the Alcoa Business System, which is a strategic model that we try to follow. The model promotes reducing waste, producing to order and developing people.
Within this model, the equipment must be able to run when we need it to run. Because lubrication is a subset of efforts to achieve optimum reliability, we have promoted lubrication practices with a specific reliability connection to support the ABS strategy.
3. What results have you seen from those efforts?
Wallace: In the plant areas that understand both the need for and the capability of computer software scheduling tools - and those which have fully adopted these tools - we see significant reduction in component failures, component life extensions and improved consistency and product quality. We have also seen savings in oil purchases from changing to filtration and condition-based oil changes versus schedule-based lubricant changes. Oil analysis plays a significant role in identifying and optimizing oil change intervals and in identifying contamination ingression problems. Analysis also plays a key role in identifying poor lubrication conditions.
Dominick: The formation of a centralized lubrication management team has resulted in cost savings associated with the combined and negotiated purchasing power and with the reduction in inventory and stock. We have also reduced particle and moisture contamination in stored oil, reduced the number of instances of using the wrong oil product, and in most cases, increased the response time for getting oil to the job site.
Our predictive technologies are now integrated from the standpoint that the same technician is responsible for all predictive testing on the equipment he “owns.” In addition to identifying problems on a machine level, oil testing has allowed us to identify lubricant problems in a broader sense. For example, reviewing a year’s worth of samples in one area of the mill (more than 500 samples) showed a significant number of problems associated with oil cleanliness (see chart). This led to additional training in this area, the purchase of “clean” oil fill containers and cabinets, along with the purchase of a filtration cart.
Stewart: Mark Parrish, maintenance manager at the Richmond Foil Plant, has documented $134,000 in direct savings through his use of oil analysis to drive oil changes. These savings went directly to the bottom line, not to mention the savings from improved equipment availability.
4. How important is the process of skills testing and certification for the maintenance staff and lubrication technicians at the plant?
Wallace: It used to be that mining and heavy industry were perceived to be trailing some of the lighter industries. I think in some instances we have caught up and even passed some of the previous leaders. The industry’s management, in general, has realized that lubrication has a significant impact on the bottom line through maintenance cost and production quality. As such, everyone is focusing attention on developing in-house core activity knowledge.
With technical societies and companies providing the organization and certifying agency structure - such as STLE with its OMA (Oil Monitoring Analyst Level 1-2) and CLS (Certified Lubrication Specialists), and ICML with its MLA (Machinery Lubricant Analyst), MLT (Machinery Lubrication Technician) and LLA (Laboratory Lubricant Analyst) certifications - the achievement of these skill sets can now be quantified and qualified. Additionally, the certification is recognized and respected as legitimate and meaningful.
Stewart: We believe that this is important. We sponsor annual training to reinforce effective lubrication for the craftsman, and we can tell from the responses that our people need to have their knowledge refreshed periodically.
We do not use lubrication technician certifications, but we have discussed it. It may be difficult to implement in a union environment but it is something that would help. We don’t want to certify everyone because this is an area where you have to use it or you lose it. However, there is pressure for us to certify everyone when we begin certification.
5. What do you believe the future holds for:
a. lubrication skills development and testing;
b. the practice of lubrication as a maintenance function vs. outsourcing, automation, reallocation to production or general crafts; and
c. the significance of the lubrication ‘asset’ for the industrial world?
Wallace: I see improvements in skill set development as companies take ownership and control of their assets. These skills will extend well beyond the traditional craft disciplines to involve the equipment operators. The equipment operators are well-positioned to assist in maintaining their own assets. After all, they are there all the time, whereas the maintenance people are there only for equipment inspections, service and restoration activities. All industries have been reducing employees for a number of years, and we are no different. We are now producing more products with less people and with greater consistency than ever before.
Industries will continue to look at ways to reduce maintenance requirements and the size of the production and maintenance staffs. There are some activities that make economical and social sense to outsource. Automation should be used whenever it meets the equipment lubrication, monitoring needs and makes economic sense.
For years I’ve shared the understanding that the proper application of lubrication-related technologies will in the short-term increase the overall maintenance manpower requirements, and hence the cost of maintenance. However, through the application of appropriate tribological principals and practices, equipment reliability will improve and manpower reductions can be realized. This has the additional consequence of reduced maintenance failures and improved opportunities for planning and scheduling.
Dominick: We are going to be expanding skills development and testing because the workforce is changing. Looking ahead, we will use operations personnel for some maintenance tasks, we will have fewer craft personnel dedicated to a broader scope of coverage, and we are, and will continue to lose valuable experience in the hourly and salary ranks through retirements. In some instances, lubrication as part of maintenance is outsourced as in the case with some of our air compressor rooms. For the most part, lubrication will continue to be done in-house.
6. What things would you like to see promoted by the machinery lubrication community and the institutions that promote plant lubrication?
Dominick: We would like to see more standardization across the board. For example, the measure of weight for a keg can vary significantly from one product to another. It would be useful to have a single weight for
volume measure for a keg-size container. We also see various viscosity measures used by suppliers and equipment manufacturers. This leads to confusion. Standardization needs to be worked through the entire supply chain.
Stewart: We would like to see better education on the basic concepts so that we can make the best product lifecycle decisions for the products we use. This would help us avoid spending money for products that do not give a good return for the dollar. If you spend ten times more on a lubricant, then you expect to get ten times the value from it. Better education from the suppliers would help us eliminate poor decisions based on a sales pitch rather than from a position of good science and engineering sense.
7. What is your opinion of the relative importance of lubrication to maintaining asset productivity and minimizing maintenance costs?
Wallace: There are a great many case studies of companies that have implemented sustainable lubrication-related improvements, and years after implementation, the benefits are still rolling in. Management of lubrication-related maintenance failures through the management of lubrication-related activities reduces both the cost of lubrication and the costs associated with poor lubrication application. The savings to be achieved by shifting from breakdown maintenance policies to predictive and condition-based maintenance alone can reap huge cost avoidance rewards. Performing lubrication activities is one of the cornerstones of preventive maintenance. Using oil analysis results to determine asset condition and required corrective action is a further cost-reducing measure. Finally, using the knowledge of condition-monitoring to proactively understand the need to modify the lubrication specification or application system is the ultimate cost-savings measure.
An effective oil analysis program is critical to assure optimum equipment reliability. Even simple observations, such as comparing two samples of the same oil, may help prevent costly problems from developing.
Stewart: The ABS system says we want it to run when we want it to run. Lubrication is simply critical to ensure the highest OEE (overall equipment effectiveness) and to ensure that the system produces good products. If we are not lubricating properly, we are not going to produce efficiently. It costs us significantly more money to fix things than it does to do it right. Because the objective is to run the plant with the minimum maintenance costs, we need to get the lubrication process right.
8. Which three efforts should readers focus on to begin to build organizational value within their respective operations in this area of plant lubrication?
Wallace: Build a team and pursue a collaborative effort. Advertise the team’s success and use it to achieve organization buy-in up and down the line. Success generates interest and excitement at all organizational levels, particularly when it includes involvement from a collaborative effort!
Become the champion and promoter of sound lubrication practices. These activities, although not glamorous and eye catching, will form the basis of your efforts. Convincing your co-workers is usually significantly more difficult than convincing a stranger. Don’t give up! What you are doing is important.
Second, develop your personal knowledge and lubrication skills that will enable you to protect your company’s assets against inappropriate practices and products. Supplement your skills by aligning yourself with a knowledgeable mentor or respected supplier. Pick a problem application and develop a thorough knowledge and understanding of the issues and solutions for that particular problem before moving on. Don’t forget the team; one-shot solutions are rarely sustainable.
Lastly, realize that the initiatives you implement today may not realize immediate measurable financial benefits. Your efforts probably will go unnoticed except by the most intuitive of managers. If you are entering into this field for the fame, and as a route for a quick rise up the corporate ladder, then you are probably in the wrong business. You need to be personally satisfied with the knowledge that your efforts have real value and merit.
Dominick: Our No. 1 resource is our people. Getting the workforce trained in understanding the importance of lubrication and a lubrication program is critical. Involve your craft personnel and front-line supervisors in the decision-making process as much as possible.
Have a key team or group charged with the responsibility of coordinating the lubrication effort. This group should learn what the plant’s lubrication needs are, assess whether these needs are met and correct all deficiencies. It should provide communications between the various departments in the plant, which may not necessarily be in touch with each other, on lubrication problems and issues.
I also feel that having an established routine oil-sampling program that is tied to other predictive techniques (vibration, infrared, ultrasound, etc.) is important. It is here that two important things can occur. One is the identification of developing problems, and more importantly, the proactive stance of stopping problems through lubrication analysis. Second, the historical gathering of performance and statistical data is powerful when analyzing or trying to root out problems from a reliability standpoint.
Stewart: There are two things that we encourage. First, optimize training to support the right people with the right amount of training. Second, advertise successes. We have to fight for program funding. Sometimes you have to have success, and advertise that success in order to get access to the funds to expand the program.
9. What is the best way for maintenance management to ‘sell’ investment in plant lubrication to senior management? This could include return on investment, net present value, payback time, cost deferment, relative (subjective) value, etc.
Dominick: We have made some predictive maintenance calls and have then seen the equipment run to failure. We’ve compared the cost for repairing the equipment prior to failure to the cost after failure, and used this differential to reinforce the value of money spent to correct problems prior to failure. We find that the cost differential is easily 10 times, sometimes 20 times, if we allow the equipment to run to failure.
We use return on investment and payback term, with payback term being the current key measure. Management requires a term of less than two years before they will even consider an expense on maintenance process improvements.
Stewart: The bottom line is the bottom line. You have to show real savings to sustain and grow a program. This is tough if you have a mature program. Somehow you must demonstrate value by comparing your results to industry results or to previous history and promote opportunity costs or savings. The difficulty is in making people see this kind of value in a mature program, particularly when an immediate savings can be achieved from making an arbitrary cut.
It takes about two years to see the consequences of cutting too deeply, or cutting the wrong program. We need to establish a direct link between successful programs and the consequences of eliminating the unsuccessful program so that management can make better-informed decisions. This means identifying a connection between the cause of failure and the strategy you have in place.