Market Topics



About this series

Ensuring engine oil quality is a multi-step process, from the engine test laboratory to the lube blending plant. This month, Automotive Editor David McFall asks two lube manufacturers – one major brand, one small independent – how they tackle quality.

Valvoline is the largest U.S. independent lubricant manufacturer, the nations fourth-largest producer of engine oil, with seven domestic plants. The company also has a significant international presence (it ranks number 10 in lubes worldwide), with sales in more than 100 countries and plants in Europe and Australia.

While the quality assurance issues that face this single company may not be entirely representative of the industry as a whole, they do illustrate how one large multiregional manufacturer ensures that its products meet not only external standards but its own standards.

All of our company specifications are inside of industrywide specifications, states Quality Control Director Doreen Adams. That is, they are better and tighter than API limits. Valvoline blends to stay within the limits, including blending to meet or exceed fuel-economy improvement targets.

The goal, she adds, is ensuring that our quality exceeds customer expectations.

Seeking Six Sigma

Six Sigma is a data-driven management tool to measure and ensure quality. It was made famous by its adoption at General Electric in 1995; in its first five years of Six Sigma implementation, GE estimated benefits on the order of $10 billion. Since then, the Six Sigma website claims, thousands of companies around the world have discovered the far reaching benefits of Six Sigma.

So Valvoline was in good company when its parent, Ashland Inc., embraced Six Sigma in 2003 as a core initiative focusing on manufacturing operations and quality control. It now has a full-time Six Sigma engineer on staff who leads projects, as Adams notes, to continually drive quality improvement in our processes in all our facilities.

The Six Sigma process, as its web site explains, strives to eliminate defects, defined as whats outside of customer specifications. Its data and statistical focus is found in its name; Six Sigma is derived from a drive toward six standard deviations between the mean and the nearest specification limit. For a process to achieve Six Sigma it must not produce more than 3.4 defects per million opportunities. Six Sigma processes are executed by trained Green Belts and Black Belts within a firm and overseen by Master Black Belts.

In addition to our full-time Six Sigma engineer, Adams points out, we have other employees in the company that are Black Belts and several others who are in training. We support Six Sigma throughout the company, in all plants. Ashland estimates that Six Sigma could improve its Chemical Sector income by $11 million by 2006. That could enable this Fortune 500 company to free up capacity to spur growth with significantly less capital spending.

While Valvoline takes pride in this commitment, Six Sigma is just one of its quality assurance mechanisms. At the top of the quality assurance ledger, of course, is the imprimatur which is now an essential element for doing business worldwide: ISO 9001 certification. Several of Valvolines operational units achieved this certification in 1998 and then reached ISO 9001:2000 in 2003.

Inside Cincinnati

Valvolines Cincinnati blending plant, one of its largest, was built in 1966 and underwent a major redevelopment, completed in 2004, which included a new blending system, several new tank farms and additional support facilities. Ninety percent of the products made in the Cincinnati plant are engine oil (the largest component by far), gear oil, industrial oils and automatic transmission fluid. Quality processes here, Adams says, are illustrative of all of Valvolines manufacturing facilities.

Plant Manager Pat Nelson describes these processes in his plant. Currently, this plant operates around the clock for five days each week. The product in every compartment of every vehicle that comes into this plant, or leaves it, is tested to insure that every shipment meets specifications.

He points out, People from every production level and every shift are involved in our internal plant auditing system, approximately 20 percent of the plant staff. We make certain each shift is covered and the training in the audit process is ongoing. Its a very active program.

As for the blending system, Nelson notes that it is significantly computer controlled, in that we select the product type, the blend size, the tanks and that type of thing from a computer screen. Were able to start the blending process, turn on mixers, pumps, determine what product goes to what tanks, from the screen.

The plant is pretty much hard-piped throughout but we do have some tanks that are dedicated and some that are not. The only hose connection that we really need to make is from a finished blend tank to a particular packaging line or the rail bay. So when we are shipping or packaging product out of a finished blend tank, we will need to make a hose connection at that time. Other than that, it is hard-piped all around. So, for the most part, weve been able to eliminate the traditional snakepit of changing and flushing multiple hoses that most blending operations still have, [for] a very nice, clean operation.

Valvolines principal computer system, Nelson pointed out, is supplied by SAP AG, but we also use software developed by Siemens AG; both are German companies. We have checks and balances between these two systems. For instance, when we begin a blend batch we take a look at what the formulation says in the main system, compare it to the Siemens system with a check-off, and make sure that it is the same from that standpoint.

Most of our computer programs are off the shelf. While we have some flexibility to adapt them to our own needs, we dont do that very often because the providing companies are constantly upgrading and revising their software, and when we customize its difficult to incorporate those changes into the system.

Testing and More Testing

Adams explains, 100 percent of all of our blend batches are tested for all critical specifications. Tests will vary with the type of product being blended – engine oil, ATF, gear oil, industrial oil, etc. She adds, We have in-house quality labs in all of our blending plants and constantly upgrade them with the latest technology. All lab personnel are either degreed chemists or chemical engineers.

Valvoline participates in ASTMs Inter-laboratory Cross Check Program. In addition, we have an internal round-robin testing program three times a year, Adams says. For this our central lab sends out blind samples for measurement to each plant. All technicians at each lab test the samples and return the results to our central lab, for confirmation of measurement accuracy.

How does testing impact on finished products in the Cincinnati plant? Nelson says, When a blend is finished, we hold that blend in the tank until all testing results are complete. That can take 30 minutes or more. Only after all the tests are reviewed and approved by the lab technician is the batch entered into SAP inventory as a finished product. We can then release the blend for packaging into quarts, totes, drums, pails or bulk shipments.

Packaging, however, requires a first-piece sample be pulled and tested at the start of each run to confirm that all specs are met. Product and any necessary packaging tests are done prior to any finished goods leaving the production line.

The Supply Challenge

Possible interruptions of raw material supply will always be a concern for a manufacturing facility. Last years U.S. Gulf storms highlighted how raw material supply, as well as finished product shipments, can be interrupted by external factors entirely outside a companys control. Our most vulnerable point, Adams remarks, is in our ability to ensure the availability of base oils and additives when there are natural disasters, such as the hurricanes which everyone in the industry had to deal with this past year.

Raw material supply is a challenge for all blending plants to some extent, she adds. However, while supply can be a problem, quality of raw materials is not. Each receipt of bulk product, whether from barge, rail or truck, is sampled by compartment and tested prior to offloading at any plant. Outgoing bulk product is handled just like incoming, with the same sampling and testing procedures after loading and before leaving the lot.

Related Topics

Market Topics