Managing Your Lube Room

Managing Your Lube Room

Alternatives to 55-gallon drums that will increase efficiency, accuracy, cleanliness, simplicity, safety and, in the long run, economy.

Alternatives to 55-gallon drums that will increase efficiency, accuracy, cleanliness, simplicity, safety and, in the long run, economy.

A storage area for 55-gallon drums.

Eight-container IFH storage-and-dispensing system.

Lubricants are all over the machine shop. Cutting oils, gearbox oils, threading lubricants, grinding fluids, tapping fluids. The list varies depending on the operation, but typically, it’s a lengthy one. Obviously, your supplier has a critical role in determining the quality of the lubricants you use, so making sure your supplier follows a strict quality control program is important — especially because many shops rely on their suppliers to provide returnable drums and semi-bulk containers without considering the cleanliness of the container or checking the cleanliness of the lubricant that is sent back from the supplier facility.

And, what happens after the lubricants have been delivered? Storing, handling and dispensing these various fluids can be a chore. Even worse, it can slow productivity, take up a lot of valuable plant space, and can even pose a safety hazard. Bad lubrication practices cut deep into operating profits, risking lost production, tying up valuable resources and space and, in some cases, even endangering plant maintenance personnel.

Whatever you’re machining, you have to find a way to store, handle, and dispense lubricants that is efficient, cost-effective, clean, safe, and compliant with the standards and practices of your shop.

There are a number of issues to consider, including:

  • What types of lubricants are being used?
  • How much of each fluid is being consumed?
  • Are there several lubricants being used that meet the same specification? If so, have you considered consolidating them?
  • Are the lubricants being stored in an aggressive environment that might corrode or rust metal?
  • How much of each type of lubricant is used in any particular area, and are these areas close enough to each other that using a single storage area is efficient?
  • Are the lubricants in use purchased in the appropriate quantities (small containers, 55-gallon drums or bulk containers)?
  • Are the lubricants in use susceptible to separation or cold oxidation during storage?
  • Could current placement of product be more efficient?
  • Do the fluid handling and dispensing methods currently in use maximize or impair cleanliness? (Contaminated or improperly handled lubricants account for 75% - 85% of all hydraulic component failures, for example.)
  • Are your plant lubrication technicians subjected to needless physical risks in the handling and delivery of lubricants that may contain ingredients such as sulfur, chlorine or phosphorus?
  • Do the policies in place in your plant help or hinder the overall lubrication program and the attitude of the employees involved?
With all of these issues to consider, you would think that the technologies for fluid storage, handling and dispensing in machining operations would have advanced considerably in recent years and would present the plant maintenance engineer with a variety of options to create the most efficient, safe and cost-effective system.

55-gallon drums
Let’s start with the most basic method: dispensing the fluids straight from of the containers they’re received in -- usually 55-gallon drums or, in some instances, large semi-bulk or bulk containers (or “totes”). For many operations, this is the standard solution, and customarily involves:

  • Getting the fluids, oils and lubricants delivered by truck, typically in 55-gallon drums;
  • paying a deposit to the supplier (this can be as much as $40 per drum);
  • storing the drums in the plant;
  • getting to the fluids inside the drums by hoisting them up onto a drum stacker with a crane and dispensing the fluids via gravity from valves inserted on top of the drums, or;
  • physically moving the drums to the machinery on drum handling carts, or;
  • transferring the necessary qualities of the fluids to where they’re needed in small plastic containers;
  • Returning the “empty” drums (more about this later) to the supplier and, finally, getting the deposit back.

There can be a variety of reasons for continuing to use 55-gallon drums. One is familiarity, which may create a certain level of comfort and, often, inertia: It’s the way we’ve always done it … It seems to work OK … Why bother to change it?

Cost is another reason for continuing to use 55-gallon drums. In addition to the time and trouble involved in exploring an alternative method, there is always the fear that it will raise operating costs beyond an acceptable level. This may be especially true for small operations that are using a limited number of fluids in relatively small quantities. And, for those operations where keeping operating costs down to an absolute minimum is what matters most, staying with 55-gallon drums may be perceived as the best way of doing things, creating a modus operandi that isn’t likely to change.

But, is using 55-gallon drums the cleanest and safest method? Is it really the most efficient? And, particularly for larger, more sophisticated operations that use a wider variety of fluids in greater quantities, is it really the most effective in the long run?

Alternatives storage, dispensing
Storing lubricating fluids in 55-gallon drums is considered acceptable by many machine shops because it’s simple and it works, offering short-term savings compared to alternative methods such as an engineered storage and distribution system. However, the practice of storing lubricants and oils in drums presents several problems that increase maintenance costs.

For one thing, accurate inventory control is almost impossible with drum storage and, all too frequently, the drum from which a product is retrieved runs dry before the operator has dispensed the necessary amount of lubricant. Conversely, “empty” drums returned to the supplier often have as much as 2-5 gallons of fluid left in them which, over time, amounts to a lot of wasted product. And, you don’t get your deposit back on that.

Drums also take up a lot of valuable floor space. They’re messy. And, there is a chance of workers getting hurt as they move them around.

So, while many operations still use 55-gallon drums, some companies are converting to centralized storage areas using modernized storage and dispensing systems and enjoying the benefits – financial and otherwise — associated with long-term planning.

Centralized storage area
A modern, efficiently designed facility is likely to employ one of two methods for lubricant storage and dispensing. One is a single, centralized storage area where high-volume lubricants that are dispensed in large quantities can be stored in bulk containers and dispensed through filters into sealed containers via gravity feed or pneumatic or electric pumps. The lubricants used in low volumes can be stored in smaller containers, or purchased in small container sizes that are appropriate to their individual quantities and frequency of use.

Another method involves is a series of strategically located storage areas for different types of fluids. In a large facility using a lot of different lubricants, this method can reduce the number of man-hours required to dispense products compared to a single, centralized storage area.

Whether using a centralized fluid storage area or several strategically located storage areas for different types of fluids, there are alternatives available to 55-gallon drums that will increase efficiency, accuracy, cleanliness, simplicity, safety and, in the long run, economy.

A rack-mounted storage and dispensing system with multiple lightweight carbon steel or stainless steel containers, each containing a different fluid, can be used at a central location or — for larger shops with more varied lubrication requirements — several locations. Either way, it is a modular system that can be located near the machinery to be lubricated.

The containers and the self-closing faucets used to hold and dispense the fluids can be labeled clearly to eliminate the chance of the wrong fluid being used. The number and capacity of the containers can be varied to suit plant requirements. The system shown in Figure 2, e.g., has eight 65-gallon containers. The extra 10 gallons of capacity, combined with easily visible sight gauges, eliminates the danger of prematurely running out of product. And, an eight-container system holds 25 more gallons of product than eight 55-gallon drums. If you’re using as much as a couple of drums of lubricant each day, that adds up to a lot of savings in replacement time and costs.

Such a system will take up a lot less space. For example, nine 55-gallon drums will take up about 120 square feet of floor space. A nine-container system of this type will occupy only 19 square feet. When the fluids are initially delivered to the plant, a 110 volt electric transfer unit can be used to move the fluid from the drums or totes into the containers in minutes, and the drums can be retuned on the delivery truck, so there is no more waiting to get the deposit back.

Maintenance personnel dispense as much fluid as necessary into an oilcan or other container, with none of the tipping, cleaning, switching and replacing necessary with drums and pumps. The containers will yield every ounce of fluid, so there is no wasted product, and a containment pan can be provided underneath the containers for total spill containment.

Are there drawbacks to using such a system? That depends on your needs and your perspective. This type of system may represent an initial cost of several thousand dollars, which may be a lot more than that shipment of 55-gallon drums coming off the delivery truck. If you’re using just a few 55-gallon drums of gear lubricant or cutting oils each month, for example, it might be cheaper to stick with the drums.

But if you are using a couple of drums every day, it pays to invest in a method that, at the end of the year, actually costs less and works better. And, even if 55-gallon drums are perceived to be the least expensive method for your particular operation, they are still not the cleanest, safest, or most mistake-proof way of storing, handling and dispensing lubricants.

The shop manager who closely scrutinizes his storage and handling practices for lubricants and other industrial fluids may discover that there is a big opportunity to increase the profitability of the company. A well-designed lubricant storage and handling system can make it possible for companies to realize not only a return on investment in a short period of time, but also to save thousands of dollars annually in maintenance-related expenditures.

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