Plant & Works Engineering
The importance of fluid analysis
Published:  15 November, 2017

It is critical that machinery and equipment in the manufacturing industry operates at optimal efficiency at all times. By taking a closer look at fluid analysis, the industry could save money and improve reliability. Steve Haughton, technical manager at Finning UK & Ireland (Finning), discusses the advantages of a condition-based approach, outlining how fluid analysis can provide visibility of equipment performance and health.

Even when faced with the facts and figures, it can be hard to comprehend the sheer scale and diversity of the UK’s manufacturing sector. In 2016 alone, plants and factories across the country produced goods worth almost £365 billion, ranging from raw materials to finely crafted sports cars and electronics. More than that, the sector makes up ten per cent of the UK’s gross value added and 45% of its exports, directly employing 2.7 million people.

All this demands a diverse range of machinery and equipment, all of which have their own needs and requirements if they are to operate at peak efficiency. One thing that many of these machines have in common, however, is their reliance on the fluids they use, whether this be gearbox oil, transformer fluid or hydraulic fluid. Therefore, it is essential that the condition of these fluids be monitored, to ensure all components are operating as expected. Failure to do this could potentially result in systems falling victim to mechanical problems, or breaking down completely.

Powerful insights

Many manufacturers try to prevent this by implementing a scheduled maintenance programme. However, this rigid approach to servicing fails to offer a predictive approach to potential maintenance issues, anticipating any problems that could reveal themselves in the future.

However, effective fluid analysis means any issues can be remedied before failure. Fluid analysis can help operators achieve considerable cost savings by taking a condition-based approach to maintenance, while reducing downtime and improving the overall efficiency and reliability of equipment.

Identifying issues

There are a number of common fluid issues in the manufacturing industry, all of which can have very serious consequences on overall performance.

The first is external contamination. Dirt, water or other foreign material can make their way into a system through many routes. Once the oil is contaminated it can have significant impact on the system, potentially causing damage to bearing surfaces and seals, or accelerating the wear of critical components.

Another challenge is the use of unspecified lubricant. Too much emphasis on ‘cost per litre’ can tempt factory managers to use unspecified oil, which can have serious consequences for overall efficiency levels. Mixing oils is not recommended, but can occur.

Key fluids to monitor

As a result, there are three key fluids that are essential to monitor in the manufacturing sector: engine oils, transformer fluid and hydraulic oil.

Oil sampling should test for metal and water contamination, viscosity, acidity, oil degradation and cleanliness. This enables the oil drain interval to be optimised and highlights any changes in component condition.

Transformer oil condition monitoring is vital for the efficient operation of electrical equipment. Testing enables issues such as a reduction in dielectric strength to guide diagnostic work.

Finally, hydraulic fluid cleanliness is critical to optimal hydraulic system performance. Particle counting is essential to determining the cleanliness level of hydraulic fluids and provides the clearest indication of solid particle contaminants.

Investing in fluid analysis

Fluid analysis provides visibility of equipment performance and component health. Not only does this improve reliability, but it also helps a range of efficiency and cost benefits that can have a big impact on a business.

As a result, the benefits to fluid analysis are extensive and multi-faceted. Reducing maintenance costs is an obvious but no less important one, ensuring equipment is serviced when required, and optimising fluid life reduces the total cost of ownership of a business’ assets.

Minimising the risk of serious accidents is another key benefit. Fluid analysis ensures potential faults can be identified early, dramatically reducing the risk of vital components failing unexpectedly. Fluid analysis enables asset life to be optimised.

Fluid analysis can also help limit waste and its associated environmental impact. Only changing fluids when they need replacing maximises efficiency and reduces the cost of dealing with waste, as well as a site’s overall environmental impact.

To deliver the best results, a fluid analysis programme should ensure samples are taken on a regular basis. This means a precise picture of performance history and trends can be established. Many modern technologies allow operators to take a ‘live’ sample to provide even more accurate insights, as these will be taken directly from operating equipment.

A comprehensive fluid analysis and condition monitoring programme will help identify common trends, such as comparing component life and wear patterns by analysing oil, and help forecast long-term asset requirements. From this, either a dynamic or optimised strategy can be implemented. The former means oil and component replacement can be proactively managed based on fluid analysis monitoring, while the latter ensures oil and component life is optimised with schedules based on results. Therefore, repairs and maintenance can be arranged for when is convenient. As a result, unscheduled downtime – which can be extremely costly – is avoided.

A lasting legacy

As manufacturers move from planned maintenance schedules to evidence-based, proactive strategies, fluid analysis is transforming how the industry is managing maintenance.

With a comprehensive fluid analysis and condition monitoring programme, packback ratios in excess of 10:1 are common, and given the cost and potential financial penalties that can arise from vital component failure, it could be argued that the risk of not implementing a predictive strategy is the real cost.

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