The Importance of Selecting the Right Lubricant Testing Laboratory as a Maintenance Decision

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G. Simmonds, F. E. Honeycutt
POLARIS Laboratories Europe sp. z.o.o., ul Rubiez, 61-612, Poznan, Poland.


Oil Condition Monitoring (OCM) or Lube Oil Analysis (LOA) is becoming an even more critically fundamental tool in an engineer’s tool box and there has never been a more vital time to select the right fluid analysis partner. The old adages of ‘we test oil because we have to’ or ‘we test oil because it is free of charge’ are no longer viable reasons for selecting a testing laboratory. A modern laboratory must do more than just test and provide results; fundamental services must now include informed maintenance decisions and technical support as a minimum. OCM or LOA is now, more than ever, used to close the loop between lubricant suppliers, Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) and end users operations. This paper will attempt to explain the criteria for making informed decisions that all Reliability and Maintenance Engineers should consider when selecting their laboratory partner.


This paper will highlight some of the common concerns maintenance teams face when evaluating an effective Oil Condition Monitoring testing partner and the criteria used to make the best selection for your needs. Common statements like, ‘I have always used this laboratory, and it is too much hassle to change’, ‘the laboratory is close, so it is easy to deliver samples to them, even if their service is not great’, are some of the many statements heard in the industry on a daily basis. This paper will demonstrate why it’s important to reframe the discussion you have with your laboratory and will outline the necessary services that your laboratory should provide to create a win-win relationship with your OCM partner.

Historically, OCM techniques were considered black arts that independent consultants or oil companies provided for business operations to help maintain equipment and minimise failures and downtime. It has only been in the last two decades that the true value of OCM has been noticed, even though the intrinsic value of sample data has been understood since the technology was first offered to the industry in the 1950s. The financial crisis of 2008 affected most industries and companies on a global scale, but there was a small industry which was not nearly affected as the rest, this was OCM.

Organisations were forced to fully utilise equipment for longer periods, reduce unscheduled downtime and attempt to retain a higher residual value if equipment was to be sold at a later time. Additionally, reduction in new machine sales caused many Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) to implement stronger after-market products and solutions for their customers and OCM was a significant part of the service offering. Industry saw an increased demand for OCM services and as a result some existing OCM suppliers grew in the years preceding 2008 and new suppliers entered the market to provide these equipment life extending analytical services.


‘There is an A.R.T to Fluid Analysis – it must be Accurate, Reliable and Timely’ – Henry Neicamp, 2013

One of the primary concerns for most organisations utilising OCM is the speed at which their results are available. Most reputable laboratories should be able to complete testing and provide reports to customers within 24 to 36 hours for the majority of samples tested. It is also worthy of noting that there are some test packages that take longer than 24 hours to complete and therefore cannot be completed as quickly. Fast, reliable data is an organisation’s key to making informed maintenance decisions. A laboratory with high technical competency will help you understand your data and apply the results in reliable ways that will impact your organization, improve your uptime and save you money.

Regardless of the tests performed, the integrity of the data produced by a laboratory is fundamental to the accuracy of testing. If your organisation relies on meaningful data, utilise an OCM partner who meets your requirements for repeatability and accuracy of testing. Look for a laboratory with a robust Quality Management System. Proficient laboratories will be able to provide certification documents from organisations such as the International Standards Organization (ISO) such as ISO17025 or other country-specific and international equivalents. The audits performed by third party experts, like ISO, demonstrate a laboratory’s ability to provide repeatable and accurate results.

It is also important to note laboratories that are certified by the same certifying body may provide testing in accordance to different test method standards. There are a number of reasons for the variance in test methods including different instrumentation or laboratory preference. All certified test methods carry relevance to their particular speciality and a laboratory can choose the relevant test method as part of their analytical offer; ASTM, IP, ISO or DIN. When comparing laboratories, it is important to understand if the laboratories are testing to the same standard with the same instrumentation, otherwise the results will not be consistent. For example, let’s look at the common particle counting test. A laboratory that offers ISO Code Particle Counting utilising ISO11500 with an automated particle counter will provide different test results as oppose to another laboratory offering the same test but utilising ISO4407 with a manual optical particle counting. The variance in the results produced by the different laboratories often leads to questions about the validity of reported results when identical samples are submitted to two different laboratories as part of a customer-driven audit process. When comparing OCM partners, ensure the test methods are the same, if not, understanding the different test methods will help you make a decision related to which laboratory to select as your partner. There is not necessarily a right or wrong answer when it comes to counting particles, this example simply demonstrates there are two ways to complete the same test and the test could produce different results depending on the test method utilised.


The system an oil sample is drawn from will determine what tests it should receive. While there are a hundreds of tests and methods available that could be performed on samples at a laboratory, each and every sample should, at a minimum, be analysed for the three main parameters:

    • Fluid Propertie
    • Contamination (and levels)
    • Wear Metals

Fluid Properties

The analysis of a lubricants’ overall condition helps determine the future health of equipment and subsequent oil changes or top-ups that may be required. Every laboratory should offer a wide range of fluid condition analysis services based on the machinery that the oil has been sampled from. These tests are a great barometer for the overall condition of the component and the actual lubricant itself. Performing testing on condition is not only an economically viable option, but it should be considered standard for any oil sample. In today’s cost-conscious climate and increased environmentally concerned conditions, extending lubricant life will help decrease costs and protect the environment from early lubricant disposal. With advanced data analysis and interpretation systems it is also possible to make a judgement on how much further an organisation can safely extend an oil drain by, if monitoring the correct parameters and following the associated recommendations


Contamination is a leading cause of equipment failure and different oils will be susceptible to different types and levels of contamination. For example, diesel engine oil may become diluted by the diesel fuel powering the engine, whereas oil in an industrial hydraulic application would not be exposed to the same diesel fuel dilution potential and therefore would not need fuel dilution testing because the potential contaminant is not present in the internal workings of this type of machine.

It is helpful when organisations discuss the operating parameters and environmental conditions with the technical experts of their OCM suppliers. Sometimes, a laboratory’s standard services may not always be the best solution to an organization’s specific requirements for when to apply alarm limits due to extreme operating conditions, such as extremely cold environments or extremely dirty environments. Engaging in dynamic dialogue with an OCM supplier to determine your specific levels of alarms may be helpful in establishing appropriate alarm limits. These types of conversations can take place at the initial set-up or during regularly scheduled program reviews.

Monitoring and reporting actual levels of contaminants present within the oil samples is important because as the amount and type of contaminant present will pose a different set of problems at different levels, as shown in Tables 1 and 2 (related to acceptable levels of water contamination in oils). The majority of OEMs provide guidelines for various contaminants and acceptable levels for contamination for their specific systems. For example, stating that diesel fuel dilution is present in engine oil is not an effective method for determining contamination. Diesel dilution condemning limits stated by OEMs can range from 3% to over 5% and therefore an accurate amount of the contaminants present in the oil (diesel in this case) is also now a pre-requisite when looking to monitor contamination levels in samples.

Water Content Result Reported Maintenance Action & Decision
Lab 1 Result Water Present Check Unit for source of contamination, but as quantity of contaminant is not known, do I change oil?
Lab 2 Result Water > 0.2% Check Unit for source of contamination, but as definitive level of contaminant is not known do I change oil?
Lab 3 Result Water = 0.35% Check Unit for source of contamination, but as level is below OEM recommendation of 0.45% no oil change required

Table 1. Differences of Water Content Results for Percentage Tests


Water Content Result Reported Maintenance Action & Decision
Lab 1 Result No Water Present No problem reported, continue to monitor as normal
Lab 2 Result Water <0.1% No problem reported, continue to monitor as normal
Lab 3 Result Water = 432ppm Check Unit for source of contamination and change oil as level is above acceptable level of 350ppm for this application.

Table 2. Differences of Water Content Results for Parts Per Million (ppm) Tests

Wear Metals

Testing and reporting wear metals and elements is the backbone of every oil sample report in order to monitor the health and condition of the equipment. There are several techniques used to measure types and quantities of metals and elements found in oil samples. A quality laboratory will offer a standard set of elements which can be analysed on all samples and cover the majority of metallurgy which could be found in different machine systems. The number and type of elemental metals measured will depend on the instrumentation the laboratory utilises. Ensure that your OCM partner has the instrumentation necessary to detect the metallurgy within your equipment, the operating environment and potential additive packages.

Wear metal analysis is an essential part of trending data to predict and plan for future maintenance activities. Wear metals should be accompanied by the analysis and reporting of contaminant elements, additives and multi-source metals, as seen in Table 2. Accurate interpretation and reporting of these multi-source metals is based on the laboratory’s technical team’s knowledge of an organisation’s operating environment, and the specific products and equipment. For example, Molybdenum is part of the metallurgy of an engine piston ring, but is also a Friction Modifier additive found in some engine oils. Molybdenum could also be seen as a contaminant if oil became contaminated with a Moly based Grease. Therefore, specificity of the component type and lubricant type are critical in determination of appropriate alarm levels and subsequent maintenance recommendations provided by the analysts.


Wear Metals Contaminants Multi-Source Additives
Aluminium Potassium Antimony Barium
Cadmium Silicon Boron Calcium
Chromium Sodium Lithium Magnesium
Copper Manganese Phosphorus
Iron Molybdenum Zinc
Lead Titanium
Nickel Vanadium

Table 2. List of Metals and Elements Typically Tested.


In the last 25 years, the use of colour has been the standard reporting methodology for many OCM providers. Many laboratories implemented a version of a typical traffic light or Smile/Frown type icon as an easy way report recipients to read sample reports:

Green/Smile: no action required, leave until next sample

Amber/No Smile: slight problem occurring, maybe reduce sampling interval

Red/Frown: inspect machine for possible contamination and/or change oil/perform maintenance.

This format was popular for a number of years and is still present on some reports today; however the demand for added value from modern-day mechanical and reliability engineers has driven a greater demand for more in-depth report flagging systems coupled with enhanced diagnostic comments on the reports. This has led some laboratories to adopt a 4 (or in some cases) 5 levels of severity classification to provide greater variance between the traditional “Go/Hold/Stop” alarm system. The newer 4 or 5 severity levels allows engineers and program managers a higher level of insight into the present condition within the systems being analysed, more accurate levels of contamination and keener insight into the actual condition of the equipment and the lubricant, consequently enabling smarter decision making, and more precise repair and maintenance scheduling.

Another long standing process in the OCM industry is the utilisation of automatic commenting/diagnosis applications that most modern laboratory providers employ to expedite sample report delivery. The benefit of auto-com systems is that when alarm levels are low, the report can be delivered to the customer sooner, indicating no immediate action required. Not all reports should utilise auto-com, reports with higher levels of severity should be personally reviewed by experienced engineering professionals to provide recommended maintenance activities. Coupled with the more technical condemning limit strategies now available, a laboratory’s analysts must relate the data to the equipment and type of fluid sampled, and provide timely maintenance recommendations, explain the results to the organization in a clear and concise manner that is easy to understand, but also to be able to provide higher levels of advanced engineering and chemical discussions with more savvy organisations and engineering professionals. Data interpretation and analysis should be supported with a technically competent team that can engage in follow-up conversations and meetings with the customers in order to achieve a greater understanding of equipment life cycle and program satisfaction.


Figure1. Advantages of Advanced Data Analysis.


The days of laboratories physically posting reports to a customer by mail as the preferred method is long gone; facsimile is also nearly extinct as well. Today’s sample reports are typically available electronically through email, supported by a reliable web portal for the storage and technical review of sample test data. Today’s in-the-know consumers of OCM services want access to data 24-hours a day for all of their equipment regardless of location. There is a high demand for a global database where all data, for all equipment, at all customer locations is readily available. A customer in the mobile equipment sector may need all sample results for a particular machine to be displayed on a single report. This would allow him to ensure that current and historical analytical data and diagnosis for every component sampled (engine, hydraulic, transmission, axle, etc.) can be easily reviewed at one source rather than looking at several reports or emails for the same machine.

An enhanced sample reporting website can also offer a variety of added functionality in addition to the storage of historical sample reports. Additional features can include, comparing results from the same OEM across a fleet, monitoring oil suppliers products against another, quick access to equipment lists, sample scheduling reports, comparing results from different markets and countries, and also general statistics measuring samples submitted over a specific period of time. To an international organisation these additional features are helpful when comparing data of multiple types of equipment operating in many regions. In today’s data hungry and time constrained world, access to sample history for an entire global fleet is the future of the OCM industry for laboratories who position themselves as a technical services partner.

As the industry has evolved, the nature of client’s requirements has advanced too. Maintenance management now want more in return from their OCM suppliers, which places more emphasis on an OCM supplier to provide not just the sample results and reports, but also measurable matrices which can enhance a day-to-day analysis program. Therefore the provision of multiple Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) or management reports is now something that some OCM suppliers can offer as part of the analysis service. Such as sample severity ratings for a specific location, program condition for an entire global fleet, and sample turnaround time, etc. These KPIs supply additional data and statistics to organisations supporting maintenance planning and scheduling, warranty review and even new equipment procurement.


In many cases, the biggest issue that impacts the OCM industry is the type, style and amount of information that customers provide the laboratory prior to and when submitting samples for testing. Account set up is critical to the effective launch of a new program. Registering equipment with your OCM supplier and the applicable industries for the equipment reduces the errors when samples are sent to the supplier.

The example pre-registration form shown in Table 3 provides all relevant data that will impact the value of the interpretation of the sample data. The more the laboratory knows about the specifics of the equipment and the lubricant, the higher the quality of the maintenance recommendations will be provided. Completing this information prior to submitting samples to the laboratory will help expedite the sample report delivery process. Additionally, when making a transition to a new OCM service provider, historical information on the equipment will not only allow for customers to have access to all of their data in a single location, but can also serve to efficiently set up all equipment that will be tested by your OCM provider.


Table 3. Example of Equipment Pre-Registration Form.

Ideally each submitted sample should be accompanied by full customer contact details (someone who can answer questions about the sample, or the specific test slate if needed), machine information (including make, model, serial/asset number), account number, information related to fluid being tested (brand and grade) and supplementary information such as machine age, fluid age, sample date, if additional lubricant was added, etc. However, in many cases only selected pieces of information are provided on the sample label, which leads to registration mistakes and sample logging errors. These errors impact quality, overall data interpretation and errors in reporting. It is important to note that the quality of the interpretation depends on the information provided with each sample. Some web reporting tools provide solutions to reducing errors through pre-printed labels and online sample submission. Pre-printed sample jar labels often contain all relevant information (account number, equipment information, fluid information, etc.) and are easily attached to the sample jar. Online sample submission allows the customer to choose test packages, update information about lubricant time, machine time, and any provisional notes that should be sent to the analysts and print sample jar labels on demand.


Selecting an Oil Condition Monitoring partner means understanding the true value of the partnership and how that provider will help you achieve your operational goals. Consider the impact that OCM services have on the organisations goals and savings that can be provided.

        • Is their turnaround time within acceptable to the organisations requirements?
        • Do you have access to the analysts providing the interpretation?
        • Is the laboratory certified to the organisations requirements for quality?
        • Does the laboratory know your organisations equipment and lubricants?
        • Does the laboratory provide maintenance recommendations that are clear and concise?
        • Does the laboratory provide sample reports in a format that the organization prefers?

A well-managed program can offer Return on Investment (ROI) of ratios greater than 40:1, and while cost per sample is part of the discussion when selecting an OCM provider, consider the overall value of the program’s impact to organisational goals, the impact of increased equipment availability and longevity, as well as the near an long term savings that will be realized. Remember, the value of the analysis provided by your OCM partner is only as good as the information provided about the sample and the scope of the test-package selected.

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