MRO Magazine

Understanding ball screw lubrication

Ball screws – mechanical devices that convert rotational motion to linear motion with a minimal amount of friction – are used in an array of industrial applications and particularly in machine tools. However, they must be lubricated...


June 1, 2014
By By Jeff Johnson

Ball screws – mechanical devices that convert rotational motion to linear motion with a minimal amount of friction – are used in an array of industrial applications and particularly in machine tools. However, they must be lubricated to operate properly to achieve their rated life.

Lubricants maintain the low friction advantage of ball screw assemblies by minimizing the rolling resistance between balls and grooves, and the sliding friction between adjacent balls. A properly selected lubricant minimizes friction, reduces torque, increases a screw’s efficiency and extends its life.

A ball screw assembly must be thoroughly cleaned to remove all contaminants before lubrication and re-lubrication. Contamination is a leading cause of premature failure of ball screws. Proper lubrication helps keep most contaminants out, greatly reducing the damage they can cause. Rust-preventive oil used for shipping and storage of the components should be wiped clean before application of the final lubrication.

Lubricants are often taken for granted, but the right choice for each application ensures a ball screw performs properly for its calculated life. Both oil and grease provide corrosion protection, but lubricant choice depends on evaluation of the advantages and disadvantages of each in the given application.

Oil lubrication

Operating temperature, load and speed determine the oil viscosity and application rate needed for each installation. If the oil is too viscous or if you use too much, heat may be generated. If the oil viscosity is too low or you use too little, parts may not be coated adequately; friction and wear may result. The selection of the oil lubrication will directly influence the temperature rise of the ball screw and the life of the assembly.

Ball nut operating temperature should be about 20°C, but this is seldom the case in real operation. Usually, a ball nut stabilizes a few degrees above the screw shaft operating temperature. If you can’t measure the nut temperature, assume it to be 30°C for your initial selection of oil viscosity.

You can apply oil at a controlled flow rate directly to the point of need, and it will clean out moisture and other contaminants as it runs through the ball nut. It can also provide cooling. However, disadvantages of this method include:
• The possibility of excess oil contaminating the process, such as mixing with the cutting fluid in machining applications.
• The cost of the pump, filtering and metering system to apply the oil properly.

Grease lubrication

Grease is less expensive than oil to apply, requires less frequent application and it does not contaminate process fluids. However, it also has some disadvantages:

• Grease is hard to keep inside the ball nut and has a tendency to build up at the ends of ball nut travel, where it accumulates chips and abrasive particles.

• It must be replenished regularly and any excess removed, leaving only a thin film of lubrication on the screw shaft at all times.

• Incompatibility of old grease with re-lubrication grease can create a problem. Be sure to check compatibility.
Greases can be applied directly to the screw threads near the root of the ball track or pumped into the ball nut if lube holes are provided.

Synthetic greases offer many performance advantages over mineral-based lubricants. They function over wider temperature ranges, offer greater stability and retain the viscosity needed to provide an adequate film thickness through a specified range of operating temperatures, speeds and loads.

Special additives can improve the grease’s ability to resist contaminants, reduce wear in the presence of load and vibration, reduce friction, decrease noise and increase load capacity. Do not use greases with graphite or molybdenum disulfide as these provide too low friction, which promotes ball skid and interferes with the rolling process of the ball bearings.

Specialty greases are also available that include but are not limited to vacuum grade, food grade, clean room and extreme temperature types. Match the grease to the application environment and then make a selection based on performance requirements.

Precision ground ball screws, with precise motion and smooth, quiet operation, can take advantage of filtration technology. Additional filtration of grease and oil results in cleaner lubricants, improved homogeneity of the thickening agent and removal of virtually all particulate matter.

Greases consist of mineral or synthetic oil, additives, and a thickening agent such as lithium, bentonite, aluminum, and barium complexes. NLGI (National Lubricating Grease Institute) Grade is a widely used classification for lubricating greases. Greases are classified in one of nine grades based on their consistency. NLGI Grade alone is not sufficient for specifying grease for a particular application but is a useful qualitative measure.

NLGI Grades 000 to 1 are used in applications requiring low viscous friction. Grades 0, 1 and 2 are used in highly loaded gearing. Grades 1 through 4 are often used in rolling contact bearings, where Grade 2 is the most common. Lower numbers are softer and flow better, while higher numbers are firmer, tend to stay in place, and are a good choice when leakage is a concern. Table 1 compares the most common NLGI grades with household products that have similar consistencies.

As a rule of thumb, replenish grease at least every 600-800 hours. However, because conditions vary so widely, you should confirm this interval by inspection and readjust if needed. For extreme conditions, consult a lubrication expert or ball screw manufacturer.

All ball screw assemblies should be run smoothly throughout the entire stroke. If the torque is not uniform over the entire stroke, you should:

• Visually inspect the screw shaft for accumulations of foreign contaminants.

• Using cleaning fluid or solvent, remove dirt from the ball grooves. Be sure to flush the ball nut assembly thoroughly.

• Cycle the ball nut along the screw shaft several times. Wipe with a dry, lint-free cloth and lubricate immediately.

Ball screws should never be run without lubrication. The right oil or grease lubrication for ball screw assemblies reduces unscheduled downtime for repair by ensuring that the assemblies deliver their expected service life.

Jeff Johnson is a product engineer with Thomson Industries Inc. For more information, visit