Tribology Deserves Strategic Attention

Alaska Airlines Flight 261

The very nature of tribology makes it lean towards operational thinking in contrast to strategic thinking – it is one major reason tribology is absent in executive suites around the world. Operational thinking applies to the ‘here-and-now’ where the rubber meets the road, or where grease is applied to an aircraft elevator jackscrew. By way of contrast, strategic thinking is intuitive and looks to the future with forecasts.

There is extensive tribological ignorance out there. A tribology concept under Material Science from the 7th SAE Edition of the Bosch Automotive Handbook is worth restating:

‘Tribology embraces the science and associated technology devoted to the interaction of surfaces in mutually opposed states of motion. It focuses on the entire range of friction, wear and lubrication and includes the effects at the contact surfaces of solids as well as those between solids and gases.’

So, what has this got to do with a board of directors? A glaring example is the Alaska Airlines Flight 261 crash into the Pacific Ocean on January 31, 2000. ‘Loss of airplane pitch control resulted from the in-flight failure of the horizontal stabilizer trim system jackscrew assembly’s trapezoidal nut threads. The thread failure was caused by excessive wear resulting from Alaska Airlines insufficient lubrication of the jackscrew assembly.’

The nightmare that follows the loss of eighty-eight lives for ‘a cupful of grease’ cannot be erased for the management of Alaska Airlines – death works its way right up to the top of business leadership. What would Alaska Airlines have done differently following the accident final report?


Hindsight is a 20/20 science, but pilot control over the frictional flow of air on the surfaces of an aircraft is strictly not-negotiable. ‘Between 1985 and 1996, Alaska Airlines progressively increased the period between both jackscrew lubrication and end-play checks, with the approval of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)’. All these suited immediate operational conditions, but over eleven years it failed strategically.

The loss of eighty-eight lives and an aircraft enters the realm of top management with a vengeance – they certainly would have followed a different path had tribology and safety been seen as linked and part of strategic thinking. But who wishes to worry about a cupful of grease when the whole airline cost structure is under severe pressure?

There is a distinct difference in thinking and style between operations and strategy. A mind-map template from VISIMAP demonstrates this difference.

Strategy Formation

  • Experimental
  • Vision
  • Insight
  • Inference
  • Intuition
  • Trends
  • Patterns
  • Integration
  • Synthesis
  • Projections
  • Risk
  • Global thinking

Operational planning

  • Procedure
  • Process
  • History
  • Time
  • Detail
  • Sequence
  • Analysis
  • Logic
  • Facts

The directorate board do not have time or inclination to get involved in operational issues, while the operational team gets side-lined by board-room accountants.


Tribology is a casualty of this silo approach as it not considered an organisational strategic imperative. It is only when ‘the aircraft crashes’ that everyone emerges to evaluate what should have transpired and to take up a different thinking position.

What will get tribology into the boardroom and part of strategic intent? The quickest attention-getter is return on investment. The movement of money is the easiest thing to track but it is those unseen impacts that can have a massive tribological economic benefit – extended component life, minimal downtime, environmental care, improved cash-flow forecasts, reduced replacement parts stockholding, and useful benchmarking for risk management.

A good example exists in truck fleet management where tracking engine oil consumption is both a challenge and a problem. Oil consumption is a key indicator of engine health and dependent on many outside factors like load, route, and weather. But eventually an average benchmark can be established which is best measured as an indication that oil consumption is the result of how hard an engine works, and not the distance the wheels roll – in many road transport operations this benchmark is 0,6% of fuel usage. If fleet operatives wish to be heard at boardroom level, then they must interpret and feed operations data into the management pool for strategic decision-making.

It all starts with a written lubrication policy. So where does an organisation’s tribology practice exist in the following strategic matrix?

Strategy Pure & Simple 2 - pages 28-29 – Michel Robert
Strategy Pure & Simple 2 – pages 28-29 – Michel Robert

Strategy Pure & Simple 2 – pages 28-29 – Michel Robert

For example. Truck fleets are big users of lubricants but too many cases lack distinct policies on how these will be purchased, stored, tested, protected from contamination, tracked for usage, applied in training, researched to be fit for purpose, and environmentally acceptable with all the other issues that support good practice.

Sadly, too many organisations consuming lubes end up in Quadrant D – not knowing where they are heading and operationally incompetent. It boils down to quite simple issues such as grease that gets mixed with incompatible types, purchased on price alone, applied excessively to damage the environment and regarded as the lowest skill required for lube applicators.

Policy enables setting up Standard Operating Procedures – SOPs are the ‘way we do things around here’ regards of personnel changes. SOPs smooth the way for training and Tribology needs training, and lots of it.

A positive step on the journey to an effective tribological strategy is to conduct a best practice audit. And then also for boardroom members to indulge in MBWA – Management By Wandering Around. The gains to be made in understanding friction, lubrication and wear are often self-evident.

But Tribology is much more than lubrication. It demands an integrated approach, especially when analysing component failure. To repeat – ‘Tribology focuses on the entire range of friction, wear and lubrication and includes the effects at the contact surfaces of solids as well.’ Related disciplines are condition monitoring and failure analysis. All failures should be investigated, no matter how big or small. A small failure may be a minor maintenance cost but have a big cost to loss of production. Constant failures are not normal and must be investigated.

And finally, who will be Tribology’s champion? Change will not come from a paragraph in somebody’s job description. A worthy cause will only make progress in any organisation with an enabled champion to drive it forward – here lies a major obstacle and challenge for Tribology.

Dave Scott is a 2nd generation South African with a motor industry and road transport career that covers 56 years, starting in 1966 as a trainee truck salesman. Dave is a member of the SA Guild of Motoring Journalists and is a monthly contributor to the press – FleetWatch magazine in particular - on transport and trucking related subjects which also cover tribological issues. He is a well-known trainer and presenter. Dave has conducted many projects involving fleet and safety management and is a member of the South African Institute of Tribology.

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