As most of you are aware, the American Petroleum Institute, ASTM and the Truck & Engine Manufacturers Association (EMA) have all agreed that the next generation heavy duty engine oil – scheduled to be introduced this December – will be called CK-4. That is, unless its a lower viscosity oil (such as SAE 5W- or 10W-30), which will be called API FA-4. Of course CK-4 will also have an SAE 10W-30 grade but it will be different than the FA-4 version. Are you clear so far?
One of the major issues during the development of these new categories was how to identify them. Some exotic ideas were put forth, but in the end the current API C category naming system was the winner… sort of. API CK-4 was obvious since it simply carries on the sequence of letters that started essentially with CD back in 1980. API FA-4, on the other hand, is unplowed territory and doesnt fit the system.
One of the key requirements for any new API category is that it be backwards compatible. That is, it should meet all of the requirements for earlier categories. Thats a key point since new-category oils often go into older equipment which was satisfactorily lubricated by earlier categories. CK-4 fit that mold perfectly.
Oils meeting FA-4 will undergo all of the engine sequence tests that CK-4 oils do, and will have the same passing limits; so on an engine test basis, FA-4 should be OK. The problem is that CK-4 and prior categories are designed with a 3.5 cP minimum high temperature, high shear rate viscosity. HTHS for FA-4 is set somewhere below that, at about 3.0 cP, in order to achieve a smidgen more fuel economy in diesel engines beginning with the 2017 model year.
All of the above is background to the real issue, which is that the API category system is not well known among oil buyers and maintenance people. So what is it that these folks use to gauge products (beyond price, that is)?
Heres a true story from my days at Pennzoil. Back in the 1980s, so-called mall intercepts became a really valuable tool to determine how people chose which motor oil to buy. As the name implies, mall intercepts meant that someone would stop a person in a shopping mall and ask him or her if they wished to participate in a product evaluation. Some incentive was usually involved such as a hat or a coupon for an oil purchase. While intercepts werent the only market research method used, they captured a lot of information that was very valuable.
Once a group of volunteers was selected, they were invited to discuss what factors influenced their decision to buy a particular oil. In Pennzoils case it was the brand name and the viscosity grade. That was it. No one had a clue as to the meaning of API S or C category designations. At the time, we were overjoyed to know that brand was paramount. Viscosity grade was also recognized by oil purchasers but for mostly the wrong reasons. Most consumers thought it was a measure of quality and the bigger the spread in grade, the better. Ergo, SAE 10W-40 was better than SAE 10W-30. (Huh?)
A funny sidelight was that, at the time, Pennzoil had the letters HD on the label. Generally, most of those folks who were asked thought that it stood for heavy duty or high detergent. There was one lady who was upset by the HD. She wrote to implore us to remove it since it reminded her of her ex-husband, Harry Davis!
Here we are 30 years later, and API has just conducted its own survey of heavy duty engine oil users, asking what they recognize about the C category oils they use in their equipment. Not so amazingly, as API reported in December to the ASTM Committee D2 meeting in Austin, Texas, the survey found that brand name and viscosity were the only two features users could identify.
Oil marketers are now dancing in the streets. On the other hand, engine manufacturers and fleet owners are wringing their hands and grinding their teeth, worried that the wrong oil could find its way into an engine resulting in premature failures. The CK-4/FA-4 category issue exacerbates this problem.
What to do. API is reaching out to engine oil marketers and others for ideas. It wants an educational program created that will help to explain what this is all about. There has even been talk about adding CK-4 or FA-4 (as appropriate) to the brand name on the product label. The possibility of different designs for the API donut symbol is also being discussed. Remember that the launch for this category is Dec. 1 – not far away.
When the API Engine Oil Licensing and Certification System first was introduced, an effort was made to educate consumers. It soon became apparent that the cost of such an undertaking was too high to make it work. Ive been told by some very savvy advertising people that, for an ad to be effective, it must be seen a number of times. Three to even begin to recognize it, and many more before the total message is absorbed.
Speaking as an old oil technical guy, requiring marketers to insert the API category designation into their brand name is not going to be popular. Brands are sacred and any changes create a lot of confusion in the market. Confusion leads to questions about the products quality and could result in brand switching. Theres just too much invested in the brand to risk it.
I think that a more effective way to accomplish this mission is for each oil marketer to develop its own explanation for the differences between CK-4 and FA-4 that emphasizes the backwards compatibility aspects of the API system. Heres how it could work.
First, APIs Lubricants Group must develop a consistent set of talking points that presents the important features of both new categories. The timing is urgent because oil marketers will need to begin delivering the message this autumn, if not sooner. Each oil marketer will want to add its own language as well as features and benefits, but the important points need to be agreed upon and spelled out.
The engine builders need to bring their concerns to the table as soon as possible, too, so these can be worked into the API talking points. EMA members regularly attend API meetings so this should be relatively simple (I hope).
There are some significant contacts that can be made. One is the Technology & Maintenance Council (TMC) of the American Trucking Associations. This is North Americas premier technical society for truck equipment and maintenance professionals. Unfortunately TMCs 2016 annual meeting has just passed, but the fall meeting will be Sept. 19 to 22 in Raleigh, North Carolina. It has study groups on engines and fleet maintenance that could help get the word out, and it has a mailing list that could be a source of contacts to present the story.
Individual companies can tackle this, too. Petro-Canada Lubricants kicked off a Here Comes the Future campaign at this years Mid-America Trucking Show. It also launched a website last month, www.herecomespc11.com, that explains the specialized, two-tier system of oils (while naturally promoting its own Duron brand heavy duty oils).
Besides outreach efforts like these, oil marketers will need to set up a training schedule for their sales and technical support staff to introduce them to the story, as well. It must be a consistent story for the field people.
Oil marketers can prepare the story in the form of technical bulletins and as actual presentations for use by their sales and technical support groups with key customers. These materials can also be sent to their distributors and smaller marketers to share with their customers.
A very effective method of communicating would be through parts suppliers, truck stops and retail stores. A video player with a DVD that loops continuously could be set up on the counter next to the checkout area. Waiting in line can be a chance for owner/operators to get the message. The loop should not be any longer than 90 seconds. Ive seen this idea in use at John Deere locations, among others.
Theres no doubt that time is of the essence, so quick action by all parties is needed. After nearly five years, it would be a real shame if the most important message – where to use the new oils – was lost or late in reaching the marketplace.
Industry consultant Steve Swedberg has over 40 years experience in lubricants, most notably with Pennzoil and Chevron Oronite. He is a longtime member of the American Chemical Society and SAE International, where he was chairman of Technical Committee 1 on automotive engine oils. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.