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Five essential steps to correct lubrication and optimized equipment

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By Phil Riley, technical training manager at HollyFrontier Lubricants & Specialties, which includes the Petro-Canada Lubricants brand

Correct lubrication is fundamental to the operation of any food processing equipment. Simply put, the lubricant is the lifeblood of the equipment, determining its performance as well as dictating how an operator’s time and resources are spent.

Without correct lubrication, both in terms of the product and the regime, valuable assets such as production equipment risks failure and associated downtime. This means production has to shut down, costing operators time and money. In food processing plants, the consequences are even more acute, where product contamination can have serious outcomes. Additionally, if there is equipment failure of a common application supplying several identical production lines, which is common in the food processing industry, the costs are amplified as the knock-on effect incorporates all dependent lines.

It’s not simply failure that operators must consider. Lubrication inefficiencies and mistakes can reduce the performance of the lubricant, which, ultimately, will also cost money in the long term.

In the food industry, compliance is of paramount concern due to the strict global standards governing the industry. Products that meet NSF International and Food and Drug Administration (FDA)​ benchmarks and are qualified as such form an essential requirement in this highly regulated industry. You only need to look at the highly documented scandals in the food industry to realize that compliance with all requirements must be rigorously adhered to.

From both a safety and a financial perspective, it makes sense to proactively consider how best to optimize equipment lubrication. By following these key principles, operators maintain compliance, maximize the productivity of their food processing equipment and contribute to a lower total cost of ownership.

Choosing the right lubricant

Lubricant choice should be a fundamental consideration for food processing operators. Manufacturers utilize advanced lubricant technologies to develop formulations that suit different kinds of equipment and operations, so it can be a complicated decision.

The first step should always be to refer to the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) handbook, which will likely recommend a selection of lubricants that have been developed to suit the equipment and operation. This recommendation should also consider industry standards for compliance. For example, most food processing equipment will require the use of NSF H1 registered lubricants. Based on FDA and NSF regulations, this category states that the lubricant is suitable for incidental contact with food and covers operators in the event of contact as described up to a maximum of 10ppm. NSF H2 lubricants cannot be used where there is a possibility of contacting food, for example, in and around food processing areas, but are suitable for use in adjoining buildings to lubricate equipment in which there is no possibility of the lubricant contacting edible products.

Alongside OEM recommendations, it is prudent to consult a lubricant specialist who can recommend a lubricant which is formulated with the food industry in mind, containing the correct base oils and additives meeting the viscosity (or consistency in greases) as required by the OEM. They will also take into account application, conditions, speed, load and temperature to make the most appropriate choice of product.

A high-quality lubricant that suits the operation should have excellent thermal stability and oxidation resistance, providing the potential to extend the service life of the lubricant whilst maintaining excellent wear protection. It is also important to consider how the lubricant will interact with water as equipment in certain industries, such as dairy, will require regular wash downs. The lubricant should, therefore, have high resistance to water washout when it comes to greases and excellent water separability for oils.

Identifying the correct lubrication point

Once the correct lubricant has been identified, it’s time to consider how to best apply it. It’s crucial that the lubricant is applied in the correct place at the right frequency and amount. This will have been defined during a plant audit carried out by the lubrication specialist. 

Diagrams can help to identify lubrication points on equipment and color-codes can be used to detail the type of lubricant needed, as well as the amount and service frequency.

Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) is a method of managing food safety hazards. It identifies the areas of highest risk in the manufacturing process and puts in safeguards to protect the manufacturing plant and the operations. Optimal equipment performance can be managed through initiatives such as used oil analysis programs, which will increase reliability and potentially reduce oil change frequencies.

Lubricant levels

Applying the right amount of lubricant is also vital to equipment optimization. Over-filling is a common mistake made by food processing operators, which can be just as damaging as under-filling. This is most apparent with grease lubrication, where there can be a tendency to over-grease. Too much grease can lead to ruptured seals, rising temperatures and oil leaking into the application, while too little can compromise protection, introduce foreign particles and cause over-heating.

For oil filled equipment, manufacturer handbooks will define the optimal amount to provide the appropriate protection and some equipment will have sight glasses to monitor that amount. A combination of visual inspections and automated monitoring systems should be used to maintain a suitable level of lubrication. Dedicated and sealed dispensing equipment should be encouraged when it comes to lubricant handling in order to avoid fluid contamination.

Applying at the right frequency

A lubricant schedule should be established once the plant audit has taken place. This must be fully documented so that the industry’s best practices are adhered to.

Oil drain intervals should be set based on OEM recommendations and the advice of experienced lubricant specialists who will account for factors such as the frequency of the equipment’s use. It is imperative to stick to set schedules for monitoring and replacing lubricants to maintain consistent and effective lubrication regimes that protect equipment and increase reliability.

Getting the practices right

Maintenance staff must also be in the best position to make the informed decisions that will make sure vital food processing equipment is correctly lubricated. Expertise is crucial. Some staff conduct crossover roles where they do not focus on maintenance full-time. While this is sometimes necessary, training and education must be provided to help them make correct decisions.

It is important to foster the right attitude that is dedicated to lubricant maintenance. Lubrication can make a significant positive impact to the running of the food processing equipment. By optimizing the use of lubricants, operators can experience tangible results that can contribute to a reduced total cost of ownership.

While the lubricant choice is the fundamental consideration, correct lubrication must be viewed holistically. Only when you have addressed all of the factors that we covered above can you be confident that your food processing equipment will be optimized thanks to the correct application of the correct lubricant at the correct frequency.