I have come across a few good on-site laboratories during my time in the oil analysis industry. Perhaps more interestingly, I have come across a couple of such laboratories that had virtually identical instrumentation, yet were performing at opposite ends of the success spectrum.

There is no doubt that a well-managed on-site lab is beneficial to any reliability-conscious organization, and a poorly planned lab is a liability. So what makes some on-site laboratories successful and others failures? There are a few factors that should be considered, such as the following:

  1. a reason to exist, or purpose of the program

  2. properly trained and empowered analysts

  3. support and confirmation of a comprehensive laboratory

A Reason to Exist
An on-site laboratory must have a sound purpose, that is, a reason “to be”. This might be due to one of more of the following reasons:

  • the geographical remoteness of the site, making access to a fast and reliable analysis resource impossible

  • a large number of samples needing to be processed, making an in-house resource a viable economic prospect

  • a demand for rapid decision-making information

  • a desire to bring in-house knowledge of the process into the analysis to ensure to-the-point interpretation

One of the most attractive reasons for commissioning an on-site lab is the ability to rapidly transform a bottle of oil into decision-making information. Results can be generated in minutes, or at the longest, a couple of hours. For sites located in remote areas, quick turnaround might not routinely be important, but the alternative of not being able to rush an emergency sample is not acceptable. (In fact, some of the most successful on-site labs I have dealt with were located in remote areas, where the lack of other analysis options demanded efficiency and success).

Properly Trained and Empowered Analysts
Another advantage of having an on-site analysis resource is that sample analysis and interpretation is conducted by technicians familiar with the lubricated assets and operating environments. This is relevant to industries that run processes which are unusually demanding on the lubricant, where analysis resources outside the plant are unfamiliar.

Sites which routinely process or would like to routinely process large numbers of samples have an attractive economic justification for developing an in-house oil analysis resource. By using an in-house laboratory in conjunction with a commercial laboratory, substantially more samples can be analyzed for the same cost as using a commercial laboratory alone.

Unfortunately, many laboratories that started for the right reasons are either failing or have already failed. What are some reasons for failure?

Probably the major reason, from my experience, is the personnel management (or lack thereof) at the laboratory. The person chosen to run the laboratory is often a mechanic who has either inherited the position by seniority, by default, by an injury that precludes further wrench-turning activity, or some other seemingly rational reason.

There is nothing wrong with this approach, and in fact, it can be beneficial. A mechanic who is knowledgeable of the site equipment and operating environment will provide insightful contribution to the analysis.

This practice fails for two reasons: First, mechanics do not acquire laboratory- practices training during their apprenticeship; therefore, being improperly trained, they are not able to perform according to management expectations. Training and certification must be considered an essential part of the project.

Secondly, the plant mechanic’s authority typically is insufficient to ensure that analysis-driven recommendations and changes in work activities will be completed and/or sustained. Too often, I’ve seen sound analysis and recommendations for action being watered down into easily performed activities, rather than execution of the difficult work that should be done to achieve the reliability goals. (Usually, the problem here is that clearly defined reliability goals do not exist, so a statement of prognosis becomes impossible).

If the lab technician does not have the authority to make a recommendation that will be followed, he or she should at least have the backup of someone with the authority and the interest to enforce the recommendations.

Support and Confirmation of a Comprehensive Laboratory
Finally, another common failure of an on-site laboratory is its abandonment of the use of the commercial oil analysis laboratory, or at least a failure to harness the benefits of using a commercial lab. It is unreasonable to expect the same results from an on-site laboratory equipped at a cost of a few thousand dollars, compared to a laboratory equipped at a cost of perhaps several million dollars.

An on-site lab should be considered to be an extension of new technologies to enhance the reliability program instead of a replacement for a fully equipped commercial lab.

The most successful on-site labs use commercial laboratories to augment their programs. The commercial laboratory is used both as a benchmark for the on-site laboratory’s results, as well as an advanced-testing resource. Successful on-site labs send in a certain percentage of their samples to the commercial laboratory every month. In addition, they do not send in abnormal samples only, but also samples reflecting the normal operation of the machines.

On-site oil analysis laboratories have proven to be essential tools in many reliability programs. Avoiding the common pitfalls is a good start in ensuring their continued success.