The complex chore of choosing the right lubrication is getting easier. With artificial intelligence (AI), a new generation of online, smart and mobile platforms could smooth the path to efficient lube procurement.

Oil chemistry is complicated. For operators of commercial or industrial facilities, this complexity is such that the challenge of selecting the correct lubricants and fluids is significant. There are a myriad of different organic and synthetic oils, greases and hydraulic fluids. With their various additives, like lithium stearate, molybdenum disulphide or PTFE, each is suited to any number of specific applications.

Each individual machine may require several different grades and types of oils within a number of separate compartments, for instance the hydraulic systems, gearbox and final mechanical drive. Furthermore, over the lifespan of some machines, OEM-specified lubricants may go out of production, therefore requiring the selection of alternatives.

For an engineer with dozens of machines from different makers, choosing the right lubricants is time-consuming and complex, but also vital. Oil supply companies typically offer online and telephone support to their commercial customers, but now they are looking at new digital tools that can help.

Pass the word

Suppliers have developed many ways to pass on required product information. Mobil, for instance, offers a menu-driven website where searching by application results in product recommendations. A more detailed data sheet is available for PDF download if required, and more complex enquiries can be done via email or telephone.

A rather more complex development comes from Total. Lub Advisor – an online and mobile platform – allows customers to search for the correct lubricants via the license plate or by make, model and type for most modern civil, agricultural and construction vehicles. The software produces a recommended choice from a list of Total’s full range of engine lubricants, as well as transmission, axle and gear oils, antifreeze and coolant. On selecting the vehicle, different lubrication choices are displayed with a few core details. Choices may also depend on the ambient temperature conditions at location of the operating unit. Again, there’s an option to download a comprehensive data sheet on each product.

In addition, like many similar platforms, there is a third party-operated chat window for almost immediate, though technically limited, human support. More complex enquiries are referred back to an experienced team for direct follow up with the customer at a later date.

Alongside the major lubrication product suppliers, OEMs are also building functionality into their web offerings. Coming as a value-added service, these platforms are designed to leverage expertise in, for example, bearings and condition monitoring with knowledge of friction, wear and lubrication.

SKF is one such company. LubeSelect is a web-based product platform for SKF greases, and joins a number of additional SKF lubrication services from specialised lubricants to full systems. As before, this application is designed to help in the selection of an appropriate lubricant for a particular application. Lubricants may be chosen based on application conditions, such as rpm and temperature ranges, or by application profiles. The platform gives best-practise suggestions, SKF says. Relevant pages deliver product and safety technical specification data sheets, as well as information on pack sizes, for example.

Smarter about selection

While all these various platforms offer varying degrees of sophistication, they are, nonetheless, still time-consuming approaches to lubricant selection. Now though, smarter IT systems and AI tools are enabling the next-generation of advanced selection tools to emerge.

LubeChat, from Shell, is one of the first of this new generation of smarter AI-driven platforms to emerge. It’s designed to enable commercial and industrial consumers to make faster, better-informed decisions, Shell says. Ultimately, Shell argues, the platform can help bring down the total cost of asset ownership. Aimed at the B2B industrial sector, the project was initially rolled out in India in late 2017.

‘Shelly’, the Alexa or Siri of oil, is a helpful bot that uses AI to help consumers find the best solution for their lubrication needs. Though not voice-interactive, Shelly finds the right products for any piece of equipment with full access to technical and safety data sheets on the various products available from Shell, as well as case studies. The mobile web-based app platform will also recommend alternatives if there is an issue with existing products or supply chains.

Shell has been working with Teneo and its scalable AI-conversational interaction platform to develop intelligent, multi-lingual cross-device applications linked to legacy system data. LubeChat follows on from the Shell Virtual Assistant trials of 2015 – an earlier attempt at a similar development. Diogo Coutinho, senior product manager at Shell, explains the rationale behind the use of AI in lubrication selection: “We are looking to help our B2B customers and distributors achieve more, whether that is saving on costs to their operation or driving more revenue to their own business. That might be using a new website, mobile apps, tools that require machine learning or AI, to solve those problems when required and when that is relevant – leveraging what is necessary to address the problem.

“The main friction for users that LubeChat came to address was access to expert information. This particular domain is very technical and very specific. Our customers were not satisfied with the time it would take to get someone on the phone that understood what their problem was and would be able to answer their query.”

He continues: “We’re very conscious of the different entry points that a user might have, for example the main ones being the product name, the equipment name or the specific application that the engineer is looking for. Shelly might ask for the year of manufacture, the maker and model number and then will notify the user that, for this piece of equipment, it should be one oil for the engine, one for the gearbox, one for the hydraulics. The entry point may also be the application. You may ask the chat bot what hydraulic oils are available, and it will also handle that different query.

“This is 24/7 virtual assistance for any needs you may have with machine lubrication. It also responds to any commercial needs. The platform will tell you the closest distributor to supply the required oil.”

Smart and getting smarter

Like many of the Tier 1 players, Shell already offers complimentary lubrication services. They include oil analysis reports and an oil condition monitoring service. Shell LubeAdvisor’s suite of services, meanwhile, already offers 24/7 technical help via the Shell LubeMatch and Shell LubeAdvisor websites.

Next-generation digital tools are expected to increasingly leverage this type of additional and supplementary knowledge base to lower O&M costs and improve profitability. Shell is already exploring this type of value-added online development. Coutinho explains: “What we are looking to add next quarter is general troubleshooting advice. Customers can explore a problem from a list of frequent symptoms. We then suggest a solution.”

Shell is also exploring other digital multi-channel options too, such as live video screening to support fault diagnostics. As Coutinho concludes: “LubeChat and these other platforms we’re building, we’re looking to get all the high-quality data signals that we can. Partnerships or even direct integration with sensor data to provide solutions is something we’d definitely be interested in. We’re looking to do as many integrations as possible to leverage that power. We’ve been working more closely than ever to integrate those things.”

Tools like Shelly are designed to save the customer a major headache, and there’s no doubt it’s saving Shell time on customer care, too. But perhaps more significant is the clear trend towards increasingly sophisticated digital tools based on AI and big data. Exploiting growing bandwidth and the exponential growth in data volumes, the phenomena of Industry 4.0 is set to deeply penetrate every sector. 

 

By David Appleyard