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About this series Ensuring quality engine oils is a multi-step process, beginning in the test laboratory and stretching to the manufacturing facility which produces commercial products. In this three-part series, LubesnGreases Automotive Editor David McFall looks at quality controls at the independent test lab, at in-house laboratories, and on the plant floor.

The essential proof of crankcase lubricant quality lies in the ability to simulate real-world experience in the laboratory.

Actual field tests are the quality gold standard, but high cost and long time-frames severely limit their widespread use. Bench tests, modeling and computer simulations also offer useful contributions to the quality foundation, and we can look forward to expanded use of these techniques.

But the bottom line for engine oil proof-of-quality, today and for the foreseeable future, begins with fired engine dynamometer tests, conducted in two classes of facilities – dependent (or in-house) laboratories, and independent labs.

Independent test laboratories provide over half of the industrys engine test-stand capability. The two largest remaining U.S. for-hire engine test labs are both in San Antonio, Texas: Southwest Research Institute and Intertek Automotive Research. The latter was acquired in November by Intertek Caleb Brett, a worldwide testing company, from PerkinElmer for $34.5 million.

These two conduct candidate engine oil tests for companies seeking to license a product for commercialization. In addition, over the past five years much new test development work has moved from the in-house laboratories of sponsoring organizations – mainly automakers or engine builders – to these independent test facilities. That trend shows no sign of reversing.

Independent test labs provide auditable documentation of product quality. They also have the highly trained employees and the physical resources essential to develop increasingly expensive and technically challenging new tests.

Dwindling Testing

Engine testing facilities are very capital intensive. They require large initial investments in test stands and in the ongoing development and calibration needs of these test stands.

Use of this equipment by chemical additive and oil companies provides the labs essential return on investment. The capacity utilization trend, however, has been on a downward trajectory for a number of years.

In Europe for example, as Lubrizols Derek Mackney told LubesnGreases, in 2004 the number of tests conducted industrywide was only about two-thirds the number of tests in 2003, and only about half the number of tests in the peak years of 1997 to 1998.

The same drop can be seen in North America, where each test must be registered and validated for an oil marketer to claim it for product licensing (see chart, page 10). Data from Registration Systems Inc., which performs the test registration function for both the United States and Europe, confirms this.

Dan Ludwig, president of RSI in San Antonio, reports that in Europe, 1,655 tests were registered in 1998; that dipped to just 640 tests in 2005. While registered tests are a good way to view trends, they will not be an exact match to conducted tests because registered tests can be cancelled prior to start, Ludwig adds. The cyclical nature of European specifications influence test activity numbers. Additionally, new tests have been introduced by European OEMs that are not registered with RSI.

Still, should this cutback in testing and the reduced income for independent labs be of any concern to the oil industry? Yes, without a question, replies Southwest Researchs director, Ben Weber. Whether there will continue to be enough engine lubricant certification tests to support two major independent labs is an open question.

Lower test volumes puts stress on the independent labs. One outcome of this trend, as recently noted by Southwest Research Senior Vice President Walter Groff, could be that lubricant test stand capacity industrywide will be significantly reduced as the cost to maintain excess capacity will not be acceptable. Testing requirements are not time-linear, having peaks and valleys, and the ability to ramp up for peaks will be much more economically difficult.

These peaks and valleys occur primarily when new quality upgrades are under way, such as the major one now on the anvil: PC-10 (API CJ-4) diesel engine oil, scheduled for introduction in October. We expect an increase in testing this year for qualification of PC-10 oils, says Weber, but a significant downturn in 2007 and 2008 while we prepare for GF-5 and PC-11.

Test activity may be low in 2007 and 2008, but we will be investing heavily in preparation for GF-5, which puts pressure on the cost side of the equation but is very strategic, echoed John Glaser, general manager at Intertek Automotive Research.

If the number of test stands is reduced, a likely result could be to extend the testing queue for licensing new products – with the impact felt primarily by smaller, independent lube blenders. Such companies tend to be near the bottom of the American Chemistry Councils priority list when securing product approvals, says consultant Larry Kuntschik, who represents the Independent Lubricant Manufacturers Association on automotive lubricant issues.

Equally as important is the threatened loss of skilled personnel. Our engine raters, mechanics and test evaluators are specially trained on the job. They have singular skills developed over a long time, says Weber.

Speeding Up

Nothing on the horizon suggests that engine testings downturn will be reversed or even slow down, much less stop; a number of factors strongly suggest that an acceleration seems likely.

Industry consolidation. When additive or oil companies merge or form joint ventures (Exxon and Mobil; Chevron and Texaco; Conoco and Phillips; Pennzoil and Quaker State, then Shell; Paramins and Shell Chemical; Ethyl and Texaco Additives, etc.) there are fewer customers for testing labs. Brands are discontinued, testing efficiencies occur.

Fewer bouncy tests. This has been an explicit goal of the additive industry for a long time. Jim Newcombe, now retired from Infineum, recalls that was the target in the early 90s, during the development of the ACCs Code of Practice. Before the Code a company could, and did, run a test as many times as necessary to obtain a pass. We expected that the number of tests would decrease as a direct result of increased test precision … mandated by the Code.

Bench test alternatives. Engine tests are expensive, spurring the development of bench tests – relatively inexpensive, single-parameter tests using a small apparatus. For example, the 32-hour Sequence IID engine test, which measured rust inhibition and cost $13,000 to run, was replaced in the mid-1990s by the ball rust bench test – at a cost of only $500.

Savant Co. in Midland, Mich., is a strong proponent of bench tests as alternatives to engine tests. Its founder, Ted Selby, states, I have always believed that there is no repeatable response of the engine/laboratory relationship that cant be duplicated on the bench. None.

Read-across and interchange rules. A very large reduction in testing, according to Weber, has resulted from the application of Base Oil Interchange and Viscosity Grade Read-Across rules. These guidelines may allow a company to skip repeating a particular engine test for every small variable in its formulation – such as a viscosity grade change – if all bench tests for the candidate oil pass, and similar oils have passing data in that particular engine test. A clear example of this was shown in the testing done for PC-10, he says, where Cummins C-13 engine testing went from 223 passes without base oil interchange, to 36 with.

Strict, explicit read-across rules for engine testing are spelled out in API Publication 1509 and the procedure is now widely accepted. Vehicle manufacturers at first were highly skeptical of the concept, but based on extensive data provided by oil and additive companies as well as extensive field experience, gradually came around to acceptance. Testing volume has declined as support for the rules expanded.

New ideas. In 2003, APIs Base Oil interchange and Viscosity Grade Read-Across Task Force, now chaired by Chevrons John Rosenbaum, worked through a groundbreaking process called the Single Technology Matrix. This employs multiple tests across a range of base oils using a single additive technology. After successful data analysis, this can permit a formulator to certify other base oils without additional engine testing.

The Task Force is strongly technology-based and we generate guidelines only after thorough review of engine test data and considerable debate, Rosenbaum stresses. The Task Force has gained the trust of OEMs, and in order to keep that trust we will continue to require engine test data and employ rigorous statistical analysis to establish interchange and read-across guidelines.

Meeting The Challenge

One way to cut costs, some argue, would be to run fewer reference tests. In order to maintain engine test precision and repeatability, a reference test – using an oil where the testing values are known – is run every specified number of candidate runs; this ensures the test stand stays in calibration. Such reference tests add to the overall cost of each qualification test, but do not generate revenue for laboratories.

Oversight of each test falls to an ASTM Surveillance Panel, and each is alert for ways to minimize the number of reference tests without compromising testing rigor. For example, Lubrizols Bill Nahumck, chairman of the Sequence III Surveillance Panel, told LubesnGreases, When the IIIG came on line for GF-4 to replace the IIIF in 2004, we decided to pilot a lab-based referencing system to replace the traditional individual test-stand referencing system. That change was projected to have a systemwide reduction of 65 to 70 reference tests for laboratories over the life of the category. This will mean a substantial cost savings since each IIIG test costs $35,000, he adds.

Theres also the question of redundant tests. PC-10 has three engine tests that measure valve-train wear (the Roller Follower Wear Test, the Cummins ISB and the Cummins ISM) and three that measure piston deposits (Caterpillars 1N, 1P and C-13). A single test run for the three wear tests costs about $150,000; for the three piston deposit tests, $185,000. Are all these tests really needed?

ASTMs Heavy Duty Engine Oil Classification Panel said yes, reasoning that each measures a different wear or deposit aspect or represents a different type of engine in the field.

Still, redundant tests spill over into the wider issue of resource conservation. For example, roughly one-third of the C-13s $125,000 price tag goes for fuel. Imagine backing up one full tanker truck of diesel fuel to the test stand for each test run. Now imagine backing up 26 tanker trucks to fire the C-13s precision matrix tests for PC-10.

The issue of redundant tests remains active, but Rosenbaum notes, Although we have strong support for our effort to eliminate unnecessary tests, it is not within our charter to recommend deletion of an engine test from a service category. That is the responsibility of the Classification Panel.

Finally, both independent labs look toward new revenue sources using their existing infrastructure, and outside of the United States. Ten to 20 percent of our work originates from European sources and we run some [Japanese] tests, says Weber. We are constantly looking for new opportunities.

Intertek Automotives Glaser points to the recent purchase of his company by Intertek Caleb Brett, and emphasizes growth by capitalizing on synergies between our division and other Intertek divisions worldwide.

We currently do a significant amount of lubricant testing for companies based in Europe and Asia related to North American lubricant test specifications, he continues, and we will continue to cultivate opportunities with the help of the hundreds of Intertek laboratories worldwide.

Obviously, oil and chemical additive companies and vehicle manufacturers are key industries in this business. We certainly understand their desire to reduce testing costs, stresses Weber at Southwest Research. We are a service organization, the tail of the dog so to speak, so we have only a limited influence in stabilizing the reduction in testing.

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