Delivery Systems Lubrication Management & Technology

Tune Your Lube-Delivery System

Ken Bannister | December 20, 2016

This mechanically actuated grease pump uses a pitman-arm control connected to a large-diameter rotating-machine shaft. The shaft attachment point is offset from the center to produce a reciprocating arm motion that produces a rocking motion at the pump shaft. This emulates the back-and-forth motion of the manual lever arm. Photo: EngTech Industries Inc.

Optimizing a lubricant-delivery system is not difficult and the benefits are significant.

When a piece of rotating machinery is purchased, it almost always is delivered with a designed lubrication system or approach in place. The type of equipment can be as complex as a high-end, integrated, computer-controlled, automatic lubricant-delivery system that supplies each bearing point with a measured amount of lubricant based on time, cycle, or condition.

Or, if a site’s budget was tight during the initial specification and procurement process, its new machinery could arrive with a more modest form of lubrication technology involving inexpensive grease nipples and/or oiling points at each bearing point and the simplest of instructions in the operations and maintenance manual to “lubricate as necessary with a specified lubricant.”

Those examples represent the extremes in lubrication design and approach. Fortunately, from one extreme to the other and in between, maintenance-department personnel have the ability to tune lubrication-system setups to improve/optimize their particular lube-program deliverables. It’s not as daunting a task as it might seem.

Lubricant-delivery systems are typically designed with one or more areas of adjustability to allow tuning. Take advantage of this capability. Depending on the design mechanics of the system, tuning adjustability can be found in three major places: the metering devices, the pump, and the pump-control system.

Metering devices

Adjustable metering devices, such as those found in single-line, positive-displacement, injector (PDI) systems (oil or grease); dual-line injector systems (oil or grease); or pump-to-point box-cam systems (oil only) allow plant personnel to change the amount of lubricant charge that’s delivered to specified lubrication points. These types of systems are less expensive to design, as they require little or no initial design engineering and put the injector-calibration setup responsibility squarely on the user. The downside to this scenario is that it can easily lead to over- or under-lubrication if the user isn’t familiar with the equipment or doesn’t understand how to calculate a bearing’s lubricant requirements. Maintainers and machine operators can also tinker with settings at will if they feel a bearing requires more or less lubricant—a situation that doesn’t merely change the dynamic from adjustability to “tamperability.” It, too, can lead to over- or under-lubrication and, ultimately, premature bearing failure.

Tuning such systems necessitates calculating the hourly bearing requirement and determining the minimum-to-maximum lubricant output shot per cycle for each injector size/type. The accumulated total amount of lubricant is what must be pumped through the delivery system every hour, and the system must be set up accordingly. From this point on, with all injectors calibrated, any further adjustment is to be carried out at the pump.

Protecting these systems from tampering calls for controlled access. This can be accomplished in numerous ways, the simplest of which is “ganging” multiple injectors together, building a key-access lock-box around them, and allowing access only to designated lubrication or reliability personnel.

NOTE: Popular single-line-resistance and progressive-divider metering devices are non-adjustable. They depend on upfront engineering by the system supplier (incorporated in the cost of the system), before delivery to the machine builder or end user. Their setup adjustability is through pump-output calibration. 

Lubrication pumps, controllers

Lubrication pumps, which come in many configurations and sizes, can be powered manually, electrically, or pneumatically. The delivery rate for all of these can be adjusted on the pump itself or through a pump controller.

Manual pumps are mechanically actuated with a lever arm connected to a positive-displacement piston. The output delivery can be adjusted by restricting the length of the piston stroke with an adjustment at the lever cam. Lubricant is manually drawn into a single-acting piston chamber by moving the lever arm in a back-and-forth arc motion. The lubricant is then moved out of the pump through an internal check valve to the distribution lines and on to the metering devices. The pump is returned through opposite action on the lever or by a return spring.

If reciprocating or rotary machine motion is available, the lever arm of the manual pump can be replaced with a power-takeoff pitman-arm linkage attached to the motion device. The photo on the previous page shows a series-progressive distribution system with a mechanical pump attached to a pitman arm that’s connected to a large-diameter rotating-machine shaft. The shaft attachment point is offset from the center to produce a reciprocating (up and down) arm motion that produces a rocking motion at the pump shaft. This emulates the back-and-forth motion of the manual lever arm.

By changing the length relationship of the pitman-arm attachment point and arm, the degree of arc will change and speed up or slow down the number of pump strokes per hour. As evidenced by the surplus grease around the bearing in the photo, the pump setting is incorrect and needs to be recalibrated to reduce the amount of lubricant delivery.

Pneumatically or electrically powered lube pumps are sized according to the system output requirement per hour. For effective lubrication, smaller amounts of lubricant, delivered on a frequent basis, e.g., every 10, 15, or 20 min., are preferable to a large amount that’s delivered hourly. This approach allows the designer to use a smaller, less expensive output pump and control and provide the ability to adjust total delivery through the number of actuations or lubrication cycles per hour. Setup is accomplished through programming (adjusting) the on/off timer that controls power to the pump.

Pump-lubrication cycles can be controlled in other ways, including through counters that calculate the number of machine or production operations, or by a condition signal, such as an amperage-draw meter that indicates an increase in energy draw from the machine-system motor (due to a rise in mechanical friction that’s most often caused by lack of lubrication). This popular control mechanism is used in automotive-assembly plants to measure the amperage of conveyor-drive and take-up motors that activate and deactivate conveyor chain and pin lubricators.

In simple, modestly priced, manual-grease systems, a grease-gun acts as the pump and metering device, while control is regulated by the grease-gun user and the scheduled preventive-maintenance (PM) instruction. Optimization and setup involves a two-step process in which the grease-gun’s displacement must be determined to first ascertain the number of shots required to meet the bearings’ calculated needs and, second, the frequency of application that must be controlled by the PM schedule. The number of grease-gun shots or the PM schedule is used to fine tune any increase or decrease in the lubrication amount or frequency.

Keep in mind

Automated lubricant-delivery systems are much more accurate, consistent, and easier to set up and control than manual systems. As a result, bearings run cooler (due to less friction), require less energy, and have as much as three times the service life of their manually lubricated counterparts. In short, return on investment from the relatively small purchase and implementation cost of an automated system is quickly realized. 

Regardless of its design, a lubrication-delivery system should be evaluated on a bi-annual basis to assess its effectiveness. Those evaluations should include reviews of bearing-failure incidents, grease usage, changes in bearing running temperatures and energy draw, as well as checks for physical signs of over-lubrication and system neglect. As with the initial setup of these systems, a little adjustment later on—make that a little fact-based, correct adjustment—can pay enormous dividends. 

Ken Bannister is co-author, with Heinz Bloch, of  Practical Lubrication for Industrial Facilities, 3rd Edition” (The Fairmont Press, Lilburn, GA). As managing partner and principal consultant for EngTech Industries, Innerkip, Ontario, he specializes in the implementation of lubrication-effectiveness reviews to ISO 55001 standards, asset-management systems, and training. Contact him at, or telephone 519-469-9173.

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Ken Bannister

Ken Bannister

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