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About this series Ensuring engine oil quality is a multi-step process, starting in the engine test laboratory and stretching to the lube blending plant. In part 2 of this series, Automotive Editor David McFall looks at quality at the in-house labs.

All along the chain, from development to final marketing, there are points where engine oil quality can be compromised. Quality assurance begins at the front end of the chain, where its the responsibility of engine test laboratories.

There are two types of engine test labs that support engine oils: independent and dependent (or in-house as the latter are sometimes called).

Just two independent lubricant engine testing laboratories remain in North America, both in San Antonio, Texas: Southwest Research Institute and Intertek Caleb Brett. These two participate in the development of new engine tests and – most importantly – conduct test runs of candidate engine oils for a fee. Their income is derived from providing these services to any customer who will pay for them and will abide by their rules. Within their walls, more than half of all engine sequence tests are run. (See February, page 6, The Independent Laboratory Conundrum)

The rest of North Americas candidate engine oil tests are conducted in five dependent engine laboratories. Unlike the for-hire labs, each dependent lab is owned by a company whose principal business is not testing. They include three oil companies, ExxonMobil, Imperial Oil and Valvoline, and two chemical additive companies, Lubrizol and Afton Chemical.

There used to be more in-house engine labs, but industry consolidation has taken its toll. The mergers of the past two decades were accompanied by the sound of doors slamming shut at one redundant lab after another, luxuries that their owners decided to live without. Others outsourced their engine testing needs because they couldnt make a business case for equipping and staffing their own lab anymore.

Each of these five remaining dependent engine labs runs candidate oil tests in accordance with the American Chemistry Councils Code of Practice.

That means they follow rigid quality procedures, the test results are filed with the monitoring firm of Registration Systems Inc., and oil marketers can use the data to obtain licenses for the American Petroleum Institutes two trademarks, the donut and starburst.

Both Lubrizol and Afton conduct candidate tests for their oil marketer customers, and ExxonMobil, Imperial Oil and Valvoline test their own formulations. All others, including additive package suppliers Chevron Oronite and Infineum, use the two independent labs in San Antonio for engine testing and product development work.

Home Court Advantage

So why have a dependent lab?

Victor Kersey, manager of Valvolines vehicle and engine lab in Ashland, Ky., notes that the single most important advantage of the laboratory for his company is our ability to develop and evaluate product performance without delay.

Literally, products can be readied for vehicle and engine testing overnight and having these unique capabilities definitely provides us with a competitive edge, he feels. We can add research engine test stands specific to customer needs and test individual car models.

In Sarnia, Ontario, Imperial Oils in-house engine lab has a long history, notes Patrick Lai, who heads its Automotive Test Section. The company has had an engine testing lab on this site for many decades, as far back as the 40s. He told LubesnGreases that the lab is primarily for research and testing new approaches and formulations. It doesnt do candidate oil testing, however, with two exceptions.

One exception is fuel economy tests for passenger car engine oils; Imperial (an affiliate of ExxonMobil) was involved in the industrys work to develop the fuel economy engine test procedures. Second, says Lai, Imperials lab is the only one in the industry that runs the Detroit Diesel Corp.s 6V92TA, which measures ring and liner distress in two-stroke cycle engines.

We participated with Detroit Diesel in developing the test in the 80s, Lai continues. The test is certified by the ACC and is a requirement of CF-2. We run a moderate number of these tests. All tested oil is run blind, we know nothing about the oil when we receive it.

Tom Cousineau, director of engine oils customer technical service at Afton Chemical in Richmond, Va., sees another advantage: We do a lot of non-standardized testing for research purposes, a screening test for example. We can very quickly set up a stand and conduct the research test – faster and cheaper, we think, than by going exclusively to an outside lab.

Its also not unusual for us to run a candidate oil in a standardized test stand, followed by a research run the next time, and then back to a candidate run, he adds. We are able to quickly switch back and forth to meet our own internal requirements, contributing to our flexible capability.

Lubrizol, the worlds largest additive company, has the largest U.S. dependent laboratory by far, in Wickliffe, Ohio. Here youll find more than 80 test stands, including about 35 fired engine tests for gasoline and diesel engine oils. In addition, Lubrizol maintains testing labs in the United Kingdom and Japan.

Phil Shore is Lubrizols vice president for testing as well as the general manager of its Hazelwood, U.K., facility. Our three labs have been around for a long time, he points out. They are an essential part of our company, providing us with, we believe, a distinct competitive advantage. Our lab has only a single customer, Lubrizol. So our testing folks are intimately aware of our companys goals and are physically located quite close to the people in the company whose job is to produce and sell a product. Our laboratory goals are very closely aligned with the business goals.

Moreover he adds, we run tests from the smallest engines, such as weed-whackers, to the largest. For example, we have six test cells that can take the large, Class 8 multicylinder diesel engines such as the Caterpillar C13. Many of these [test stands] are referenced and approved by ACC to run candidate oils, and the rest are used for research and development in support of company goals.

Weve invested a lot of money in our labs, [although] over the past few years weve had reductions in workforce. Were confident that we are well-positioned to continue our technical support of the company, Shores adds.

Guarding Credibility

Independent labs are just that, independent. Their revenue stream and very existence depends on straight dealing with all clients, at all times. According to a number of long-serving industry specialists with extensive experience with the independent labs, there has never been an incident of technical or managerial impropriety in the two San Antonio labs over the past several decades.

Dependent labs, on the other hand, have no outside revenue and depend for their survival on creating value for their owners. In the past, this opened the door to improprieties, including two serious incidents of faked test data and falsified oil quality certifications in the late 80s.

All that ended more than a decade ago, in March 1992, when ACCs voluntary Code of Practice took effect. The Codes guidelines and the collective memory of the lubricants industry ensure that, like Caesars wife, the conduct of todays dependent labs is beyond reproach.

We have never had an incident where the technical work of our lab has been questioned, declares Lubrizols Phil Shore. We are subject to external audits and these are backed up by extensive internal processes which we strictly adhere to. Our lab has only a single customer – Lubrizol. We dont sell our testing. Our testing laboratory is used only to ensure that our products are performing at the highest level. As stated earlier, our goals are very closely aligned to those of the company.

Certainly we do recognize that there is a potential to be less than ethical, and we are on guard all the time to prevent any slippage, Aftons Cousineau says. While we interact closely with raters and engine builders to understand all we can about a test engine and its operation, when it comes to actually running a candidate test (and that is most of the work in our lubricants testing lab), we have built organizational walls around certain functions to ensure that there is no interference in the running of these tests, rating of test parts and recording of data.

He went on to outline some of the systems in place at Afton: Our formulators will submit blend sheets to our blend room, and then its hands off. The oil is blended separately, our analytical division certifies that the blend is correct and approves the oil to be tested. After the test run, our mechanical lab signs and certifies that they have run the test correctly, applied the correct severity adjustments if necessary, and that it is a valid test run.

We have ethics committees and our organizational structure enforces checks to make sure there is no interference, no compromises in the process.

Price of Survival

At the labs that LubesnGreases talked with, there is no doubt that, as Cousineau puts it, we provide a valuable resource for our companies and are here to stay.

A universal concern, he adds, is the ferocious cost of new tests – Caterpillars C13 at about $125,000, and Macks T-12 at about $95,000, for example.

Lubrizols Shore concurs. The increase in the cost of individual tests is our biggest challenge, he says. For example, completing the 500-hour C13 test takes more than a month, and there are a lot of tests in which the cost is heading upward. Its primarily due to the robustness of the hardware and the quality of the lubricant. You have to run a test a long time before you start to see wear and similar changes in the engine that are measurable.

We look for ways to maximize the value of full-scale testing we have to do, Shore goes on. Bench tests are very useful to help us understand what happens to a lubricant or hardware in a much shorter period of time, or for screening new chemistries before we put them through this series of very robust, long and expensive engine tests. We can get a better idea in advance of whether we will get a good pass or whether the oil is borderline.

We are confident of one thing, notes Aftons Cousineau. New tests are complicated for us, both to install and to fully understand their operation, capabilities and limitations. But we know how to do engine testing, and we are confident we can install and operate any new test.

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