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African Lube Business Gets a Lift

Installations of elevators and escalators are set to increase by up to 6 percent in Africa, fueled by new urban commercial and residential construction projects, according to a recent report by Delhi-based 6W Research. Growth is being further spurred by the modernization of existing buildings to make them compliant with updated building codes governing elevators. But for such a fairly small segment, companies face several challenges to capture a market share.

Elevators and escalators are complex machines comprising many components that need effective lubrication. In the case of elevators, they include the gear machine that lifts the car and a speed governor that controls acceleration, as well as guide rails, brakes, wire rope, door mechanisms and hydraulic buffers.

Determining lubrication depends the original equipment manufacturers specifications, location, type and maintenance procedures, according to Ian Blackman, managing director of Nairobi-based company Elevator
Concepts Ltd. This requires a combination of automated and manual lubrication for trouble-free operation and user safety.

The diversity of lubrication requirements presents challenges to African marketers of elevator lubricants. Products for this equipment may not necessarily be specifically developed for the application but may instead be just packaged for OEMs and operators, according to Elvis Kahi, National Oil Corporation of Kenyas assistant manager for lubricants.

Another challenge to lubricant suppliers trying to break into the segment is an OEM sourcing products from one lubricant producer. Kahi explained that there are several factors behind why some lift makers insist on single sourcing, regardless of available alternatives or application suitability.

Probably because of a lack of awareness of what oil marketers have to offer, fear of the unknown and there may be no significant incentive for alternative sourcing, as the cost maybe dwarfed by other inputs and margins, he said.

Single sourcing has risks too, such as choosing between potentially long delivery lead times for imports or investing in inventory, which has inherent costs, as well as overpricing by suppliers and a lack of alternative products, according to Kahi.

Blackman added that there may be commercial agreements between elevator and escalator companies and lubricant manufacturers that lead to single-source specification for lubricants. This is not a good idea and not legal in certain regions, he said.

Trends in elevator lubrication are largely driven by evolving technology introduced by major elevator OEMs and larger lubricant companies. The global trend is toward improvingefficiency of elevator maintenance to reduce lengthy equipment downtime, health and safety risk to personnel and human resources costs. This has given rise to automatic lubrication systems and sealed bearings, which do not require labor-intensive checks,
Blackman explained.

This approach is particularly useful on elevators and escalators as much of the equipment is in hard-to-reach areas, such as underneath elevator cars and deep within escalator trusses, which often requires extensive work to reach them, he said.

However, for the African market, Kahi said the issue is not about the availability of lubrication products
but rather uptake of automated systems that will eventually eliminate manual lubrication.

Automated lubrication systems for elevators [are] a niche segment, and the lubrication requirements are not huge compared to other segments, such as automotive and industrial that attract the most attention, he said.

Blackman observed that in East Africa and around the world, modern elevators and escalators are required to be designed with maintenance in mind, not only for safety but also to make lubrication increasingly automated, efficient and reliable.

As such, many components are lubricated automatically or sealed, so it is much less of a time-consuming job for more modern equipment, he said. Blackman recounted the maintenance of an elevator dating from the 1930s that required removing the rope and partially dismantling the lift just to check, clean and re-lubricate pulleys.

The modern equivalent would to use sealed bearings that are designed to last the lifetime of the elevator with no additional lubrication, he said.

Automated lubrication also eliminates over- or under-lubrication and spills, especially in the passenger car and wire ropes. BP brand Castrol currently markets LubeCon, an automated lubrication system that features a central reservoir that dispenses precise quantities of lubricant at regular intervals. Other systems are available by manufacturers such as SKF from Sweden and Swiss company Simatec.

For ECL and other elevator and escalator companies in Africa, there have been opportunities to work with the regions main oil companies, although at times Blackman said he has had to import some specialist lubricants, especially for preventive maintenance.

Wire ropes in elevators have a core, either made of synthetic or natural fibers or wire, that must be lubricated. Both take two types of lubrication: a penetrating lubricant with a solvent that draws the lubricating substance to the core and a covering lubricant that prevents corrosion. They are made from a variety of materials, including mineral-based greases, asphalt, paraffin and vegetable oils.

Poor lubrication or the wrongproduct could result in a loss of traction, causing the ropes to slip and the elevator car to drop, a life-threatening condition, which though an extreme example but a very real possibility if incorrect lubricants are used, said Blackman.

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