Finished Lubricants

A Blueprint for Managing Oils


Sixty-two of General Motors major manufacturing facilities – 43 percent of the total – can boast zero landfill status; they send none of their normal production waste to landfills. By the end of 2010, that will grow to 50 percent of major manufacturing plants worldwide, it vows.

Lubricants and metalworking fluids were in the vanguard of this effort, Donald J. Smolenski says proudly. The automakers factories are heavy lubricant users, especially its powertrain and stamping plants, yet theyve steadily reduced purchases of new oils, kept their fluids working longer and harder, and learned to embrace used oil recycling. All while saving money. Recycled oil use in our U.S. and Canadian powertrain and stamping plans is over 50 percent, he points out, with annual savings that exceed $3.3 million.

Now in his 30th year with the company, Smolenski in 2009 rejoined General Motors R&D from its Worldwide Facilities Group, where he had spent more than a decade identifying ways to wring waste out of manufacturing processes and get more life out of industrial lubricants. At the recent annual meeting of the Society of Tribologists & Lubrication Engineers in Las Vegas, he explained that this not-overnight success began with GMs LS2 Maintenance Lubricant Standards Committee. It wrote performance requirements for the most commonly used plant lubricants, and then went on to develop oil management protocols for every level of the lubrication process; at the point of selection, point of use, point of collection and point of recycling or disposal.

Life Cycle Goals

In the early 1990s, the LS2 group set out with a list of basic goals for all lubricants and metalworking fluids: protect worker health and safety, improve equipment reliability and durability, and boost quality of manufactured parts. At the same time, Smolenski said, GM wanted to reduce its overall cost of lubricants, with the emphasis on overall – that is, over the fluids life cycle, not just its initial cost, Smolenski said.

In the 1990s, he recalled, lots of manufacturers were still buying their lubricants from what I call donut and ballcap lubricant suppliers. Theyd show up at the plant with a box of donuts and make friends, and get the business. But donuts and ball-caps shouldnt be your sole reason for sourcing lubricants from a supplier.

Instead, lube selection came to be governed by GMs LS2 Committee, which wrote health and safety and performance specifications for all major industrial fluids used in facilities worldwide. The idea was to demystify lubricants, and also to commoditize the bulk of them, so plants could consolidate their inventories. That included creating a lube standard, in a process that was open to anyone who was involved with plant lubricants. Maintenance, engineers, chemists, hourly and salaried workers – anyone could join in the effort. Plant personnel really responded to this, Smolenski added. They took ownership and helped drive this forward.

LS2 now maintains and upgrades written specifications for most GM plant lubricants, and maintains a list of products that are approved for purchase. The written specification (updated most recently in 2004) also drives the plants to favor purchases of recycled oil products.

Data, Please

LS2 also has a rigorous approval process that must be followed for all maintenance lubricants. This includes submitting base oil toxicity data, compatibility with current products, and disclosure of formulation and test data, Smolenski pointed out.

These written specifications enable GM to procure the best products, he said. In one of our transmission plants, we had issues with distribution valve plugging. Lines had to be shut down, and it cost $100,000 in replacement parts alone. After poor-quality, dirty way lube was implicated in the valve plugging, an LS2 approved way lube was substituted. It did the job right, and actually turned out to be cheaper than the way lube wed been using.

However, he went on to acknowledge, LS2 requires such a high level of openness that some suppliers backed away from GMs business. Originally 20 lube suppliers said they could meet our hydraulic fluid specification. They said, OK, send us the form for approval. Once they saw it, we never heard back from half of them. Others did respond, of course. Today, 92 percent of the lubricants and 94 percent of metal removal fluids used in GMs U.S. and Canadian plants are LS2 approved.

Along with assuring safety and performance needs, LS2s members aimed to cut GMs oil consumption by encouraging proactive maintenance, minimizing lubricant contamination, and pushing plants to accept recycled oils. The committee worked on these goals with the UAW and the companys planned maintenance group.

Some big gains came from simple housekeeping, i.e. stop the leaks, said Smolenski. Some would argue that taking time to fix a small leak is wasteful, but leaks are a signal that machinery is not performing at its best. The entire cost of a leak is substantial, and when you really get your hands around the cost, youll find its more expensive not to stop a leak.

Taking the Lead

Weve also set procurement targets for buying recycled oil products, he told STLE. The targets started at 5 percent in 2004, then went to 10 percent in 05, and hit 20 percent in 2006. After that, the plants themselves took the lead because the cost savings became so evident. Overall, recycled oil use in our powertrain and press centers now is at 56 percent, and many, such as the Toledo transmission plant, are at 70 percent, Smolenski said. GM in the U.S. and Canada overall uses about 50 percent recycled oil, and thats saving $2.5 million a year. We also save on disposal of at least 2 million gallons of oil per year as well.

Seeking to further trim oil and metalworking fluid volumes, the committee went on to urge more lubricant recycling, preferably in a closed-loop program. This may involve something as simple as harnessing machines to a portable reconditioning device, such as a vacuum hydrator and filter which removes water and solid contaminants from the oil, instead of dumping contaminated fluid.

Some (but not all) portable devices can be quite effective at extending coolant and lubricant life, Smolenski went on. One engine plant was seeing high rates of coolant contamination in its spindle hydraulic oil for four crankshaft grinders. Ideally, the coolant and hydraulic system would have been redesigned, but this plant was scheduled to close in six months, so we knew the company wouldnt redo the line, Smolenski said. We instead bought a filtration and vacuum dehydration unit, at a cost of $15,000. It cleaned the coolant, and resulted in us having no need to buy new oil or dispose of the old stuff until the plant closed.

The savings in oil purchases and disposal can justify the capital cost of good portable reconditioning equipment – just be sure the equipment is up to the job, he said. There are also vendors who will bring truck-mounted equipment to the manufacturing site and recondition large volumes of fluid for a tolling fee. Sixteen of our GM power-train and stamping plants in the United States can recondition lubricants on-site now. This saves 300,000 fluid gallons annually, adding up to about $850,000 saved a year, he added.

Vetting the Vendors

Whether you recycle tank-side or plant-side, you still own it, Smolenski emphasized. You need to assess the vendors, look at their technology, environmental and transfer procedures. There are some good ones, and some very bad ones out there. He suggested filing Freedom of Information Act requests to review the Clean Water Act and environmental compliance of vendors, to weed out unqualified ones. You can minimize the risk by doing pilot trials, and performing oil analysis.

If the oil cannot be restored through reconditioning, there are other options. Try cascading the used oil, in which you bring your used oil back as a lower-cost or less-critical oil, he said. Off-site reclaiming is another less-severe option, and can help preserve some of the additives. In this case, the used oil can go back to a GM lubricant supplier for reformulation into LS2-quality cutting oils and lubricants for less-severe applications.

Mixing your oil streams can also devalue the per-gallon value, Smolenski continued. Better to collect and segregate used oil, for maximum value when it goes to a recycler. Used oil quality is set by the content of water, solids and other fluids in there. A higher-quality used oil stream has more value, and more recycling options, he explained. In one plant, he showed, used oil was not being segregated, and because of its high water content was fetching only 8 cents per gallon from a recycler. After eliminating the excess water, the plant began recouping an average 50 cents per gallon for its spent fluid. Operators quickly grasped the financial implications of mixing dissimilar oil streams, and took steps to segregate them by quality.

Summing up, Smolenski said GM has dramatically changed the way it manages lubricants and cutting oils. Over 90 percent of the lubricants and metal removal fluids purchased in U.S. and Canadian plants are now GM LS2 approved. At least 300,000 gallons of oil are reconditioned on-site annually at 16 or more stamping and transmission plants. Recycled oil purchases now exceed 1.6 million gallons annually, and comprise 55 percent of total oil lubricant and metal removal fluid purchases.

All that, plus the program is green and clearly sustainable, he concluded.