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When the Music Dies


As Don Mclean so eloquently put it in his 1971 rocknroll masterpiece, American Pie, I was a lonely teenage broncin buck with a pink carnation and a pickup truck but I knew I was out of luck the day the music died.

How do you know when the music dies for any lubricant specification or category? What are the reasons, both technical and practical, and how do they influence the market? These questions have come to the fore as engine oil manufacturers prepare to step up from the current ILSAC GF-4 engine oil category to ILSAC GF-5, beginning October 1. Some ILSAC GF-4 engine oils will continue to be licensed, but only until Sept. 30, 2011. On that day, GF-4 dies as a licensable product and heads for the scrapheap.

Meanwhile, the American Petroleum Institute is prepping its own new category called API SN, an upgrade of todays API SM passenger car engine oils. In contrast to the ILSAC system, API SM will not disappear – and theres no sign that two prior ones, SL and SJ, will expire either. So who decides when a categorys time is up, and why?

The important groups involved are API, ASTM, automotive manufacturers and their ILSAC committee, government agencies and the marketplace itself.

Certainly, API has huge impact here since they are the ones who manage and license the basic category designations which are supported by industry. APIs Lubricants Committee, which is made up of engine oil marketers, additive companies and base stock manufacturers, has oversight for both the ILSAC GF-series and the API S series (for gasoline engine oils) and C series (for diesel engine oils).

Oil categories can be declared obsolete by original equipment manufacturers as well, particularly heavy-duty engine builders. For example, Mack Trucks has published its own specifications and list of approved engine oils for years. Periodically, Mack upgrades its performance requirements and rewrites these engine oil specifications, leaving some of the older products out in the cold.

Oil categories can also obsolesce if engine oil test facilities eliminate a required test. If the needed test stands arent available, no one can demonstrate their engine oil complies with the specification. This recently occurred when the last Detroit Diesel 6V92TA engine test stand was shut down. The test stand was out of reference and no one was willing to pay to re-reference the stand. And without the test to support it, the API CF-2 two-stroke diesel oil category expired. The death notice went out last July 29 to licensees, who were told to remove the CF-2 designation from the API Donut logo on any oils made after Feb. 1.

Category upgrades also may alter the test hardware available to evaluate candidate oils. If the changes in the tests or their limits cannot support the older spec, it can have the effect of making older categories obsolete.

ASTM and the Test Monitoring Center (TMC) also play a major role in making an oil category obsolete. Ben Weber of Southwest Research Institute, the independent test laboratory in San Antonio, Texas, said this can happen if an engine test is taken out of these groups care.

ASTM and TMC are responsible for ensuring that all engine tests are precise, reproducible and repeatable, Weber explained. Additionally, under the additive industrys Code of Practice, every test run on an oil formulation for licensing purposes must be monitored by TMC. Without TMC there can be no more referencing of the engine test stands, and therefore no category.

Kevin Ferrick, engine oil manager at API in Washington, D.C., said that API also retires categories, and then stops licensing them to display the API Donut and Starburst trademarks.

A category might be declared obsolete if requested by an interested party and then approved by letter ballot by the Lubricants Committee, he noted. This occurred recently with API CG-4 heavy-duty engine oils. The Engine Manufacturers Association requested it be removed as a licensable category, and the Lubricants Committee approved its obsolescence by letter ballot. API discontinued licensing CG-4 on Aug. 31, 2009, after nearly 15 years, and urged oil marketers to upgrade to a more recent category such as CH-4.

The surest way for oil categories to be declared obsolete is if their test hardware is no longer available. A prime example of this is the API CF heavy-duty category, originally introduced in 1994. For years Caterpillar produced the hardware and maintained a family of single-cylinder test engines to support CF. Recently, it decided that one of the test engines, the CAT 1M-PC, would no longer be produced and spare parts no longer available. With Cats decision, API CF was killed outright.

The loss of CF and CF-2 does not result in a large impact in the marketplace, but it does result in some short-term scrambling. Given the API mantra that each successive category must be backwards compatible, customers using an API CF oil can move up to the next active API category (in this case API CH-4). They may feel the impact in increased product cost though.

Less obviously, its possible to have API categories survive even when a key test disappears. This is due to the fact that ASTM can work out limits for current tests that match limits from older, obsolete tests. For example, API SJ (introduced in 1996) requires candidate oils to pass a Sequence IIIE engine test for oxidation and wear. That test is no longer available, but ASTMs Sequence III Surveillance Panel developed limits for its successor, the Sequence IIIG test, that demonstrate passing IIIE oxidation and wear performance for SJ. Using that methodology for other obsolete tests allows older categories to remain current.

What happens when an oil has been tested and qualifies for a category, but that category is dropped? The producer may continue to reference that category in its labeling and advertising copy, even after the test procedures are no longer available and the category is obsolete. So long as the oil doesnt change in composition, the claims are technically accurate. However, the labels must be revised so they dont show the withdrawn category within the API Donut trademark, and ideally they should indicate that the category is obsolete.

What typically happens next is that demand fades for the additive package needed for the product. Eventually, the volume becomes such a small part of an additive companys portfolio that it no is no longer produced. That effectively buries the category since the approved additive can no longer be purchased.

The technical impact of a category or specification becoming obsolete is pretty obvious. Upgraded formulations have to be developed to meet new requirements. In addition, the non-technical aspects need to change as well, and the impact on oil brands and marketers can be greater than many imagine.

For instance, when the category level of a marketed oil is upgraded, the label on the containers also has to change. That means new label artwork, new printing plates, new labels, new cartons – often for scores of container sizes, viscosity grades and brand configurations and at numerous manufacturing locations. That is not a free exercise. The effort to update labels can lag behind putting new oil in the container. Since oil marketers want to promote the newest and best as soon as possible, the timing issues can also cost money.

The current dilemma over API SN and GF-5 is a good case in point. As this issue goes to press, API SN still is being balloted. If the categorys approval is delayed further, oil marketers will face some difficult decisions. Do they go ahead with their ILSAC GF-5 roll-out on Oct. 1 and not put the corresponding API Donut on their label? Can they put API SM on the GF-5 label and change it later to SN? Or should they perhaps wait to unveil their GF-5 formulation until they can include SN too? None of these choices is optimum and each has an economic penalty.

Changing a category impacts many areas of the marketplace. If done well, it provides enough time to give all marketers a chance to bring the next great development to their customers.

Category change is driven primarily by engine manufacturers who are searching for better performance, longer engine life, better emissions control or fuel economy from their hardware. The industry organizations such as API or ASTM have a role to play in setting limits for new oils and eliminating the old ones. But in the final analysis, the marketplace is the ultimate executioner. If the oil doesnt sell, the oil must go.

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