In every food plant, there are gears and bearings that need grease, machines that need oil changes and components that need regular lubrication to continue performing at their best.

This is, of course, no shock to anyone who has to make sure that everything is greased, oiled and lubricated when it needs to be, and it’s no surprise that a manufacturing environment needs all of those things. But the additional challenge for food processors is that they can’t just buy grease or other lubricants off the shelf; they have to be sure that they’re staying in compliance with food safety regulations and standards that require the use of food-grade lubricants to ensure food doesn’t get contaminated. In addition to that, lubricants have to be environmentally friendly, able to stand up to frequent cleanings with hot water, steam or alkaline solutions, and long-lasting to meet the needs of production schedules that are constantly becoming more demanding. 

Being able to meet all of these demands would have been out of the question when food-grade lubricants debuted, says Jim Girard, executive vice president/chief marketing officer, Lubriplate Lubricants Company.

“When food-grade lubricants were introduced in the early ‘60s, they really weren’t good,” Girard says. “They didn’t last long, they were extremely susceptible to water washdowns, to heat and steam, to alkaline solutions, and that made a big problem for food processors. They had to lubricate much more frequently.

“In the 21st century, food-grade lubricants are now the equal to general industrial lubricants. Their performance is outstanding, and it’s because technology has evolved.”

That evolution offers food processors the ability to select lubricants that can stand up to heavy production demands, resist harsh cleaning methods and reduce the risk of contamination or environmental damage. But being sure you’re meeting all your lubricant needs requires careful evaluation and understanding of exactly what you need and where you need it. 

The standard

In a lot of categories of equipment or products designed for food manufacturing, there is no standard definition of “food grade,” or at least one that everyone can agree on. For example, an equipment manufacturer may say their product is made of food grade stainless steel, but without an industry standard for what that term means, it still requires processors to dig deeper into the specifications to make sure it meets their needs.

But with lubricants, there is a clearly defined standard. The National Sanitation Federation maintains the H1 standard for food-grade lubricants, and it defines how a lubricant can—or can’t—be classified as food grade. To put it in the most simple terms, an H1 lubricant is one that if it did somehow get into food, it would not cause any kind of physiological hazard, nor would it affect the food’s color or taste. 

With that as a starting point, processors can begin to determine what lubricants meet their needs. If you use an H1 certification as a floor, then you’re probably in good shape when it comes to things such as HACCP compliance. 

“The NSF H1 certification of products is very important to customers,” says Marius Czech, food market manager, Klüber Lubrication NA LP. “H1-certificated products help ensure food safety. When manufacturers can select specific products for their application from a large product portfolio, they are able to satisfy precise requirements.”

As Girard mentioned earlier, lubricants that can be certified as safe for use in food plants have been around for quite some time, but have changed dramatically over that time. 

“Back in the early ‘60s, you could just use USP white mineral oil or technical white oil to manufacture oils for gear reducers,” Girard says.

If that makes you pause as you think through the ramifications of that, you’re probably not alone, because lubricant manufacturers have focused on delivering better, safer lubricants that can both meet H1 standards and hold up to heavy production demands. One way they’re doing that is through the use of polyalkylene glycols, which are synthetic fluids that reduce friction and thermal build-up, two of the biggest killers of drives and other moving parts in a manufacturing environment.

But what really makes polyalkylene glycols valuable to the food processing industry is that they can be used to make food grade or even biodegradable lubricants. So not only do they perform better than previous lubricant components, they’re also safer. 

“Food grade lubricants, because of the significant technological advancements, can satisfy every application in a food and beverage processing facility,” says Girard.

Production demands

Every processor is always looking for ways to produce more product in less time, because squeezing as much production into a small window of time as possible helps out the bottom line. But all of those components that keep running faster and longer need lubrication to keep them moving and operating at peak efficiency.

Manufacturers are constantly looking for increased efficiency, which leads to strategies such as more automation to allow for faster processing and greater throughput. But that means more strain on the equipment, says John Lorimor, CLS, CLGS, technical director for Aerospace Lubricants.

“In this environment, reducing equipment downtime becomes paramount in order to reach the equipment’s cost saving potential, and therefore extended lubricant life and reducing maintenance intervals is a key aspect of lubricant selection,” says Lorimor.  

In addition to the increased speed and volume of production, processors are also changing how they clean production equipment. With the increase of clean in place strategies and equipment being designed to be cleanable with a washdown instead of having to be taken apart, processors are turning what used to be extended downtimes for cleaning into short pauses of production. That, in turn, puts more strain on equipment because it’s running more often and for longer periods of time. 

But if processors are looking for efficient cleaning, lubricants have to be able to hold up to washdowns and cleaning chemicals so they don’t have to be constantly replenished. In a lot of cases, equipment that is lubricated is tightly sealed to avoid water or cleaning chemicals. But you can’t seal everything, and components that require grease are often exposed to regular dousing. Lorimor points out that to fight this, greases are now made to be water resistant, even when the water is pressurized. 

“Greases selected from modern higher performing types such as calcium sulfonate complex can work even when mixed with water by drawing in and binding it into its structure, preventing corrosion to lubricated surfaces,” says Lorimor.  

The environmental impact of operations

The most glaring evidence of the potential environmental impact of lubricants and their components comes up every time there’s news about an oil pipeline leak or a tanker crashing on some rocks and dumping massive amounts of oil into the ocean.

Of course, those incidents are on an entirely different scale than the possible environmental impact of some lubricants from a food plant, but the appropriate enforcement agencies still won’t be very forgiving of leaks or spills. Even if lubricants are carefully managed and disposed of properly, they still require specific steps to ensure they aren’t contaminating the environment. In addition to all or that, corporate policies and people’s attitudes in general about environmental impacts make it a bad idea to overlook the potential effect of lubricants on the environment. 

The main element of this is the components of the lubricants, which lubricant manufacturers are regularly improving upon to lessen their environmental impact. But there’s another aspect to being more environmentally friendly with your lubricants, says Lorimor.

“Manufacturers recognize that a longer lasting lubricant means less lubricant eventually entering the environment,” he says. If component only needs to be lubricated once a week instead of daily, not only are you saving money, but you’re also creating less lubricant waste that has to be disposed of properly.

The challenge here is equipment operating at higher speeds and increased operating temperatures. When equipment runs faster, it runs hotter, and friction increases as well. Oxidation speeds up, and other deterioration reactions put strain on lubricants as well. 

All of those things combined can burn through lubricants quickly, so they need to be taken into consideration when deciding on lubricants and their specifications. Lubricants with higher levels of antioxidant chemistry and thicker oils to compensate for breakdowns in viscosity are options to help ensure that equipment can run faster for longer while still being properly lubricated. 

The other environment

While concerns about the effect of lubricants on the outside environment are part of the equation, the effects of the inside environment on lubricants should be as well. If a plant is running nothing but dry products, that will create different demands than a plant that runs wet products as well. Frozen food plants will be different from plants running ready to eat products. Dairy will be different from meat, and so on. 

“Choosing the right lubricant for an application is not as easy as it sounds,” says Czech. “Aside from the mechanical aspects that must be considered like load, speed, etc., a detailed look at the environment is needed to make the correct choice. Temperatures, humidity, cleaning intervals, compatibility and miscibility must be considered. Lubricant selection should always be done in cooperation with a well-trained lubricant specialist.”

Evaluating the production environment from a lubricants perspective is really no different from bringing in an architect to discuss renovations or an engineer to commission equipment.  As Czech mentions, there are multiple factors that change how lubricants will perform in the setting, and they need to be considered before choosing a lubricant. A production line that processes peanuts for eight hours a day will have entirely different needs from one that runs ice cream for 12 hours, so attempting to apply a one-size-fits-all solution is asking for trouble.

This is also something that needs to be kept in mind as your production schedules change. Even if you’re running the exact same product, if you increase production on a line from eight hours per day to 12, you’re changing the operating parameters of the equipment, which means you have to reevaluate whether the lubricants being used and how often they’re being applied are still correct. Or, if you automate more of your production, you may be running the same type product for the same amount of time, but producing more of it because of automation. You might also be decreasing your downtime, which is generally a good thing, but must be kept in mind when you’re thinking about how to manage the strain being put on equipment. 

“In this [increased automation] environment, reducing equipment downtime becomes paramount in order to reach the equipment’s cost saving potential, and therefore extended lubricant life and reducing maintenance interval is a key aspect of lubricant selection,” says Lorimor.  

Ultimately, production changes are going to be driven by a combination of financial concerns and what you can and can’t do with the resources you have. But if there’s one common thread in any food plant in any environment, it’s probably that you’re being asked to get more out of the resources you have. Doing so is possible, and can be done without needing to completely overhaul equipment, but if you asking your equipment to do more, you have to make sure it’s being operated and maintained in a way that will allow it to operate efficiently.  

“It is a huge challenge today to keep food processing plants profitable,” says Czech. “With shorter production times, faster machinery, warm and cold loaded machine components, (and) hygiene requirements are just some of the challenges.”

Challenges and solutions

As mentioned previously, changes in operating environments, production demands and operating schedules can all change what you need from lubricants. But it’s not as simple as “we have to change the oil more often” or “grease these gears twice a week instead of once.” Increasing runtime or throughput isn’t necessarily linear in terms of how it affects equipment and all of the moving parts within that equipment, so lubrication needs should be reevaluated as the variables change.

But if you do need to switch to a different type of lubricant or lubrication schedule, you also need to keep in mind if there are potential compatibility issues. Lorimor points out that if you’re switching grease in an application, there can be different thickeners or additives. If you mix those types together, you run the risk of softening the grease or reducing its ability to stand up to high temperatures. 

“When an incompatible mixture occurs, the grease can change consistency so severely that it runs out of bearings,” says Lorimor. “The solution may be as simple as changing to a single multipurpose grease type plant wide, so that this type of occurrence becomes impossible.”

This can be avoided or mitigated by working closely with your lubricant suppliers, which is a trend that Girard is seeing happen already. Customers are asking for help with understanding how lubricants are being used in their plants, how they should be used, and how employees should be trained in applying lubricants. 

“They are demanding – and rightfully so – more from their suppliers. We’re not just shipping in lubricants,” says Girard. “We’re providing services as well as lubricants.”

Those services help processors ensure they’re meeting production needs, getting the most out of their equipment and keeping food safe. Being able to do all of those things effectively is what processors are asking for out of their lubricants and lubricant suppliers, says Girard.

“They want to contain costs, they want to make their products safer, they want to ensure that the product that they deliver to the ultimate consumer is safe all-around,” he says.  

For more information:

Aerospace Lubricants,
Klüber Lubrication,