East-West Divide for Small-engine Oils


Worldwide, the market for small-engine lubricants is divided into two general camps, with Asia on one side and Europe and North America on the other. End users in each of these two regions have very different approaches to how they use and maintain their small engines, and what they want from the lubricants they buy, according to a 2012 market study.

Generally, the small-engine automotive segment consists of gasoline-fueled motorcycles, scooters and mopeds (plus popular three-wheeled versions in Asia), while the leisure market includes inboard and outboard marine engines for fast boats, personal watercraft and small yachts.

Global motorcycle production in 2010 amounted to around 55 million units, according to lubricant additive manufacturer Infineum. A big share of the world demand for motorcycles, 84 percent, comes from Asia, Katie McTavish, the companys sales manager for Europe, Middle East and Africa, told RPIs November 2012 Lubricants Russia conference in Moscow. The global motorcycle market is expected to grow around 7 percent annually, driven by the huge demand in Asia.

In Asia, small engines are basically used for personal mobility, she explained. In Asia consumers increasingly demand fuel-efficient bikes [and] the oil required is fit-for-purpose, with growing demand for higher quality oils.

In the West, by contrast, small engines are mainly used for leisure, the motorcycle population is older, and engines are expected to have a longer working life with the use of a lubricant that offers good protection, said McTavish, who is based in Oxford, England.

Recent statistics from the Motorcycle Industry Council support this appraisal. The trade group said U.S. sales of new units reached 452,400 in 2012, around where demand has lingered since 2010. Thats a far cry from the hot-paced days of 2003, 2004 and 2005, when the industry was moving more than a million units a year. U.S. scooter sales rose at a faster clip than other types, but still amounted to only 34,000 units in 2012. Europe is seeing a similar trend: The European Association of Motorcycles recently reported its fifth straight year of declining sales, with only 1.3 million two-wheelers sold in 2012.

With demand for new units in a slump and owners holding on to their bikes longer, Western motorcycle populations are increasing in age, McTavish pointed out. There are around 10 million bikes in the U.S. fleet, and over half are more than seven years old. In fact, almost a quarter of them predate 1995, and roughly that number are models from 2000 to 2004. Only 3 percent are 2010 or newer.

This shows that it is increasingly important for these engines to be well maintained and their life to be prolonged with a proper lubricant choice, McTavish said.

An Infineum survey of U.S. motorbike owners asked what they value most in lubricants, and how it influences their purchasing decision. The two most prized qualities, respondents said, were engine protection and product quality. Almost 75 percent believed that having the correct viscosity grade is important or very important, and 70 percent said the oil should be formulated specifically for motorcycle use. While still important to half of bikers, price or fuel economy are much further down the priority list, she said.

The market action now has moved to Asia. In 2012, almost 13 million motorcycles were sold in Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Taiwan, according to the Federation of Asian Motorcycle Industries. The Chinese Association of Automobile Manufacturers reported that countrys sales of two- and three-wheelers topped 23.6 million units in 2012.

Three quarters of the bike owners in Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and India have machines that are under three years old, McTavish said. Unlike in the West, ownership of motorcycles in these nations is driven by the fundamental need for personal mobility and commuting.

Popular brands include Honda, Yamaha and Honda Hero.

When it comes to lubricant selection, Asia presents a different picture from the West. In a survey of the four countries named by McTavish, Infineum found that customers look for high quality lubricants because their machines are used day-to-day. Overall, the highest demand from bike owners is for products that offer good heat protection. The second criteria is good friction reduction, while the third is that oils must provide smooth engine startup, McTavish said.

Motorcycle workshops are ubiquitous in these countries, and many of their mechanics recommend products that offer long drain intervals.

Asian motorcycle oil marketers are facing two big challenges. First, how to position their products on the market versus automobile oils. The second challenge is how to effectively communicate the product quality to their customers, she said. Infineums survey found that motorcycle owners have very little knowledge of API oil specifications. Instead, it appears that the strength of brand reputation and explicit product quality claims are the two key differentiators in this market, McTavish observed.

A number of Asian original equipment manufacturers are introducing fuel economy initiatives. Honda leads the way with its new engine and stop/idle technology, as well as with its dual-clutch transmissions, an improved system that reduces fuel [consumption] around 7 percent with practically zero emissions, on engines up to 125 cubic centimeters, she said. The OEM is promoting a new high quality motorcycle engine oil concept based on SAE 10W-30. Honda told Infineum the oils can offer reduced viscosity and greater operating efficiency without sacrificing engine protection.

However, remarked McTavish, there are some concerns that reducing viscosity might introduce some challenges related to engine oils, such as protection of gears and transmissions. Equally, using an oil with higher viscosity [such as 20W-40] brings concerns about fuel consumption, engine durability and low-temperature performance.

The ideal solution would be a lubricant that bridges the gap between these concerns and also addresses fuel economy, but todays riders should heed the viscosity recommendations of their motorcycles manufacturer. These OEMs are increasing the pace of change, and introducing new machines with higher operating temperatures and greater power. An Infineum field trial in Thailand in 2012 concluded that four-stroke bike oils today need to deliver a level of performance that passenger car lubricants are not formulated to address.

For example, motorcycle oils run hotter, and because of the small sump the oil cycles through the engine much more frequently, which means that a really robust oil is needed, McTavish contended. Furthermore, in many motorcycles the oil must lubricate the engine, gear and clutch simultaneously. In order to protect the engine from wear and deposits, the gears from pitting and wear, and to deliver clutch performance as bikers expect, tailored bike lubes are becoming increasingly essential, she stressed.

Passenger car engine oil is simply not up to this job, as it is being optimized for fuel economy through the use of friction modifiers and lower viscosity grades. Unfortunately, when used in motorcycles the former may affect clutch performance, and the latter can increase gear pitting, noise and oil consumption.

Lube Report Asia will occasionally include articles originally published in sister publications of LNG Publishing Co. This article appeared in the May 2013 issue of LubesnGreases – Volume 19, Issue 5 – under the headline, A Fork in the Road for Small Engines.

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