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1 September 2014

In this edition of HD Focus, we will begin to look at what it takes to have a world-class used oil analysis program. Entire books have been written on the subject, but there are some basics that need to be in place, so we will begin by reviewing those features

Any used oil analysis program can be broken down into at least two basic parts. The first part includes the collection of a quality, representative sample of used oil, along with getting the properly labelled sample bottle to a lab for analysis. The second part includes the management of sample results and what is done with them. Initially, both parts seem pretty simple, but with a world-class program, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

We will explore the first part in this edition and the second part in the next edition of HD Focus.

Collecting a quality, representative sample

Unfortunately, for many companies, this task is not given much serious consideration. Many regard this as a menial task and it is often given to the person with the least experience and training. This is a huge mistake. If a representative sample is not gathered properly, the results of the analysis can be compromised. An improperly taken sample can lead to wasteful action, or even worse, no action.

Every world-class used oil analysis program places a premium on the sample collection process and takes pains to ensure that those who collect the samples are well trained on proper methods and techniques for pulling a representative sample. It is also helpful to keep samplers informed about sample results, so they are aware of the progress the company is making toward its goals and they understand the importance of their part in the program.

Another important aspect to consider is which components to sample and how often. Some companies sample only the major components, such as engines of mobile equipment and only at the time the oil is changed. Other companies sample every oil-lubricated component regardless of size and cost. A world-class oil analysis program will identify each lubricated component of every machine type in the fleet and specify the sample interval for each, based on considerations such as the cost of repair and associated downtime, the mean time between failure (or how quickly a common failure can develop) and the importance of the unit to production.

Adherence to the sampling schedule is monitored by management and it is seen as a high priority. Variances to company policy are addressed promptly.

Getting the sample bottle to the lab

Once a representative sample is collected, the next step is to get the sample to the lab for analysis. It is important to include a label that provides accurate and complete information about the sample, as well as the compartment and machine it was drawn from.

The importance of providing consistent, accurate and complete information for every oil sample cannot be overstated. Unfortunately, people often do not follow through with this step and only provide part of the information needed. This can be summed up by “garbage in, garbage out.” A world-class oil analysis program mandates compliance with this part of the process.

Most basic programs utilize paper labels that are manually completed by hand, where the user fills in blanks on a form. Unfortunately, this method can result in incomplete and inaccurate information. Far better is a computerized method, where information about the machine and the compartment is preloaded into a registration database, which tracks oil sample history. Such a system will auto-calculate the age of the sampled oil, which greatly improves the integrity of the component sample history.

When using a computerized system, all that is required at the time a sample label is created is the input of the date the sample was taken, the current unit age (miles/hours), the lubricant service performed (sample/change/filter), whether the system filter was changed (yes/no) and any new information about the lubricant since the previous sample (change in product/brand/viscosity).

Not only does this type of system greatly improve the accuracy of the analysis report, it improves the integrity of the database of all sample results from the entire fleet. Also, it is much faster and easier to create a label this way versus filling out one by hand. While it may be possible to achieve world-class status using hand-completed labels, the prudent thing to do for any company trying to improve its performance is to move away from manually completed labels to a computerized system.

Once an accurate label is created for the sample, it is imperative to get the sample off to the lab quickly before degradation of the sample starts to occur. We often see samplers that procrastinate about getting the samples sent off to the lab for various reasons – including waiting to fill a shipping container in order to save postage. This is a false economy, as one component failure that is averted because of a timely oil sample report will more than pay for an entire oil analysis program. Don’t get caught up in this trap.

A world-class oil analysis program has stated goals for average and maximum turnaround time – the time required to get samples to the lab and to get the results back. Management should regularly review performance reports for their company and the lab, and should promptly address shortcomings with those who are responsible.

At this point, we’ve covered the first of the two major parts of an oil analysis program, the collection of a quality, representative sample and the forwarding of it to a lab for analysis. In the next issue, we will continue with this topic as we discuss reacting to and managing sample results.