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Its not unusual to receive phone calls and e-mails after writing a column for LubesnGreases. In fact, its both common and certainly welcome. But my recent series of articles on lubricant additives resulted in an unusually high number of people reaching out to express their feelings and opinions.

And in most cases the messages were the same. That is, the writers sided with those who say it is exceedingly difficult to move new lubricant additive technology into the mainstream and that this stifles innovation. Moreover, many expressed satisfaction that this issue was finally getting some ink.

In the view of those who took the time to write or call, the reason innovation is stifled is because the major additive companies are heavily invested in current technology. As a result, they push back on any upstart technology that could put their existing assets and profits at risk. In addition, these respondents often added, the Big Four additive giants seem to suffer from the NIH (Not Invented Here) syndrome.

Rather than taking gratuitous shots at the major additive companies, this column will focus on possible solutions to what many say is a problem.

So lets start by assuming those who say innovation in the lubricant additives business is stifled are right, and that the big additive companies – maybe for legitimate business reasons – are not eager to play ball with interlopers. If so, accepting this reality is the first step towards breaking down the barriers to entry, strategists say. Instead, they add, maybe its time to change the rules of the game. Rather than complaining about the major additive companies and allowing them to set the pace for technology developments, innovators must take the lead and speak to the agendas of other industry stakeholders – the customers who actually benefit from the use of lubricant additives.

For those familiar with direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising in the pharmaceutical industry, this suggestion will have some resonance. Close to 10 years ago, there was a game-changing event in the pharmaceutical industry when prescription drug makers began promoting their products directly to consumers. This was an astounding departure from the past, when they promoted their products exclusively to doctors and the doctors were the gatekeepers for what did and didnt get put in front of patients (the consumer). Rather than leaving doctors in full control of the agenda, DTC let pharmaceutical companies reach out directly to consumers. And although doctors didnt like it, it worked. The real consumers started asking doctors for specific prescription drugs and pulled through demand.

Some believe a similar model could cause a shift of power in the lubricant additives marketplace – a shift driven by innovators outside of the majors, working more closely and directly with OEMs, oil companies and end users to bring new additive technology into the main-stream. Where in the past such an approach might have resulted in these stakeholders directing innovators back to the additive companies, its a different market today because OEMs are being challenged more than ever to meet increasingly stringent emission limits. As a result, they reportedly are more receptive to exploring lubricant and additive options beyond those of the Big Four.

One example of this is the more stringent EPA Tier 2 emissions requirements, which take effect in 2009. These changes will require automakers to either make costly hardware changes or develop a very low phosphorus engine oil to assure engine durability, emission system compatibility and fuel economy. But rather than trying to convince additive companies to consider the value of its technology, Cork Jaeger of Platinum Research Organization says, the real customers to convince are the automakers – they are the ones that will have to pay big bucks for hardware solutions if additives technology doesnt step up to the plate. He says Platinum is committed to pursuing a direct-to-OEM strategy that allows the automakers to avoid costly hardware changes by providing a very low phosphorus oil that meets all of their performance requirements. Once convinced that such an option is viable, Jaeger says, OEMs will pull through demand for the additive that makes it happen.

Another example is the virtually sulfur-free detergent additive developed by the OM Group. Although some of the major additive companies reportedly have expressed interest in this chemistry, it has also garnered a good deal of attention from OEMs and even some major lubricant companies. This is because there is mounting pressure to reduce the amount of sulfur in diesel engine oil coming from detergent additives. Once again, the OEMs are motivated to consider alternative additive chemistries since this too is an emissions issue that can either be addressed with hardware or with lubricant additive solutions.

Although its difficult to say if Platinum, OMG or others will successfully bring innovative additive technology to market, it appears that a number of young new players have seats at this high-stakes game. And who knows? Maybe one of them, in the parlance of poker, will call the clock on the old players in the business.

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