The Value of Desiccant Breathers in the Automotive Manufacturing Industry

The typical car comprises some 30,000 components. These are parts like pistons, brake pads, seats, instrument clusters, oil pumps, and carpets. Most are manufactured by suppliers rather than the automotive OEMs themselves. The top tier of suppliers delivers components and systems direct to the track where they’re installed within hours of arrival. Behind these “Tier 1’s” are thousands of smaller sub-suppliers, the “Tier 2’s,” keeping the Tier 1’s stocked with the materials and components they need. This just-in-time inventory supply chain process requires that each supplier is able to achieve first pass quality parts, on time without delay. But oftentimes, this supply chain is disrupted by poor reliability, either at the Tier 1, Tier 2, or OEM level by something as simple as contaminated lubricants in critical production equipment.

The Industry: Automotive Manufacturing

Competition is global. There’s zero tolerance for quality problems, pricing pressure is intense and just-in-time logistics have squeezed out inventory. In this environment every automotive manufacturer and supplier faces three overarching challenges:

  • Quality (meaning conformance to specifications) is paramount because defective components mean either assembly disruption or warranty claims.
  • Margins are razor-thin, so every cost-saving opportunity must be taken.
  • Schedule adherence is critical as inventory is measured in hours.

Equipment reliability, often measured in terms of Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE), lies at the heart of automotive manufacturing. Minimizing downtime and production of out-of-specification parts depends on keeping machinery in good condition. Planned maintenance programs reduce the risk of breakdown and prolong equipment life, but they cost time and money. That leaves management trading-off maintenance efforts against the risk of breakdowns, quality problems, and ultimately, reduced asset life.

The Problem: Lubricant Contamination

Most machines used in automotive manufacturing have spindles, gearboxes, mechanical or hydraulic presses, slides and cylinders that need lubrication. Spindles in grinding, honing, milling, drilling and turning equipment must be free from vibration. Injection molding machines used to manufacturer plastic components need smoothly-functioning hydraulic systems to provide the high clamping forces that minimize flash. Presses used in stamping and drawing operations must deliver the loads and speeds needed for complex metal forms.

Clean fluids prevent wear, but become contaminated over time. Surfaces begin to touch, seals leak, hydraulic valves stick, friction builds, temperatures rise, and wear accelerates. But all of these can be controlled through simply controlling the level of contamination in lubricants and hydraulic fluids.

The logic is inescapable: extending lubricant life allows longer periods between maintenance while reducing wear and tear, avoiding breakdowns and quality problems. Automotive manufacturing processes rely on precise, repeatable operation to achieve the surface finishes, part integrity, and cycle times needed. Most automotive manufacturers are realizing that maintaining clean oil is one of the best investments it can make, with contamination at the core of premature machinery failure and diminished lubricant life.

The Solution: A Desiccant Breather

The good news is that dirt and water can be effectively controlled with some preventative maintenance techniques. The desiccant breather filter continues to be at the top of the list for preventative maintenance and conquering contamination—a low cost option that proves a significant return on investment.

As nearly all gearboxes, reservoirs and storage tanks are designed to breathe, allowing only clean, dry air to enter the system is essential to extending the life of your equipment. Replacing standard breather/filter caps with a desiccant breather immediately prevents moisture and moves particle filtration from 40 micron to 3 micron or less.

What to Look for in a Quality Breather

Today, there are many variations of breathers to choose from.

Here are a few things to look for when choosing a quality breather:

  1. Integrated nylon standpipe— this key feature provides excellent vibration resistance and dissipates impact throughout the unit, eliminating weak points. It also allows even airflow distribution throughout the unit, preventing inaccurate readings of desiccant saturation. Many breathers that do not have this key feature will also have oil saturation problems in the desiccant due to splashing or oil mist, causing the breather to spend very quickly.
  2. Resilient polycarbonate casing— shock-absorbing, clear casing provides reliable service, easy visual maintenance, and UV resistance
  3. Multi-layer filtration— such as polyester filters and foam pads to protect against migration of desiccant dust or oil mist, providing maximum efficiency
  4. Water vapor adsorbent silica gel— adsorbs water from incoming air and can hold up to 40% of its weight
  5. Check-valves— specifically high-quality umbrella check-valves that won’t clog or stick and are protected without direct exposure to the environment for added protection from washdown environments. Check-valves isolate equipment from ambient conditions prolonging breather life, and protecting system integrity

Where Do I Start?

Most manufacturers will want to prioritize the implementation of desiccant breathers. For many, the logical start point is high precision processes, especially those producing parts where surface finish is critical and tolerances tight. Grinding, honing and polishing machines are good candidates as these are often used for powertrain components with sliding contact. Likewise hydraulic presses where valves are most susceptible to particle induced failure should be considered critical.

Injection Molding machines are also important. These rely on hydraulic pressure to keep dies closed under high injection pressure, where clamping forces are critical. Stamping and deep drawing equipment also fall under this category, and depend on alignment of punch and die for consistent part production and long tool life.

High speed machinery is another good target. Textile equipment, for example, used to weave, cut and stitch, runs at very high speed and needs effective lubrication. If parts rub, heat will build quickly, potentially causing equipment to jam or deform and affecting product appearance.

The Payoff: Money in the Bank (And the Budget)

Contamination control is the single greatest opportunity for gains in the average lube program. Significant gains in machinery reliability can be made with minimal investments.

To date, the automotive manufacturing industry has treated the symptoms of oil contamination by filtering the lubricant, replacing the oil sooner than necessary, and rebuilding or replacing failed components at a very high cost.

Studies show it costs about 10 times as much to remove contamination as it does to exclude it.

The benefits of treating the cause of abrasive and corrosive contamination are:

  • Elimination of water contamination through the breather
  • Removal of water contamination of the reservoir
  • Prevention of rust and corrosion
  • Increased oil life
  • Improved lubricant performance
  • Increased oil filter life
  • Reduced abrasive wear
  • Reduced rebuild/replacement costs
  • Reliable production from equipment
  • Reduced machine downtime

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