Time to Trim the Engine Oil Bureaucracy?


Xavier le Mintier, the retiring CEO of Infineum, recently called for a time out to retool the way the industry develops new engine oil categories. Chris Locke, the companys executive vice president of marketing and technology, elaborated at an industry meeting in London in February. One stumbling block, he observed, is that more than a score of committees, panels, trade associations and other groups have a say in new category development. Isnt it time, he asked, to whittle this bureaucracy down to a more nimble and responsive size?
Lubrizol President Dan Sheets issued a similar challenge at the Automotive/
Petroleum Industry Forum in Detroit in April. Sheets stressed that category development today is complex, slow and disproportionately costly for a few stakeholders. And despite eye-popping investments – Lubrizol alone spent $150 million on developing the new PC-11 heavy-duty engine oils, he said – the process results in only a minimum lubricant quality level, not the great advances one might expect.
The crux of both additive companies argument is that the process has become so bogged down in red tape and slow-moving committees that innovation is stifled. Who are these groups, and how did this come about? Read on to find out.
First, a Look Back
Before the early 1970s, engine oil performance was mainly a matter of self-certification by oil marketers. The only U.S. organization evaluating and approving engine oil was the military, with its MIL specifications. Civilian engine oil standards were based on a set of tests and limits developed by ASTM and the American Petroleum Institute, and defined by API under its Engine Service Classification System. Original equipment manufacturers had their own oil brands, plus maybe some additional tests designed to address their specific needs. Both passenger car and light truck (gasoline) and heavy duty (diesel) engine oils followed this same path.
In the early 1970s, a new system came into being to assure more oversight of engine oil performance claims: the API service category system. Categories were defined by a two-letter designation (S for Service in passenger cars, C for Commercial diesel oils) followed by a letter denoting the performance level claimed. The category and the oils SAE viscosity were displayed in the famous API Donut trademark, and each time the performance limits were raised, the next letter in the alphabet took its place in the Donut.
Twenty years later, the GF-series of specifications for gasoline-fueled engine oils arrived on the scene. The GF system began with the API performance level and kicked things up a notch with a requirement for better fuel economy. Automakers championed this system since it included more engine testing and also would be labeled with one consumer-friendly symbol, the Starburst logo, rather than the alpha-numeric codes in the API Donut.
As is so often the case, the system continued to add safeguards, monitors, task forces, requirements and always more tests, without considering whether existing ones could be removed. Today there is a plethora of organizations in North America, Europe and Japan with a say in the development of engine oils; many of these have some sign-off authority before a new oil category can be introduced.
Key Stakeholders
North America operates under three stakeholder industries – oil marketers, vehicle builders and additive suppliers – with further support from two key technical organizations and a tangle of committees, subcommittees, watchdogs and independent labs.
APIs Lubricants Group represents oil marketers, and has direct responsibility for managing the API categories. APIs guiding legal document is API 1509, the Engine Oil Licensing and Certification System.
The auto industry is represented by the International Lubricants Specifications Advisory Committee (ILSAC) on the light-duty side, and on the heavy-duty diesel side by the Truck & Engine Manufacturers Association (EMA). Such OEMs bring most of the new-category requests to the industry since they are on the line for consumer satisfaction and also need to meet government mandates regarding fuel economy and emissions. Members are involved in the development of engine tests and limits, and they supply the hardware (engines and parts) needed for running such tests.
The American Chemistry Council (ACC) represents the lubricant additive suppliers, who are the principal managers of actual oil development programs and test work. ACC members include the Big Four global suppliers of additive packages (Afton Chemical, Chevron Oronite, Infineum and Lubrizol) and numerous others who specialize in one or more additive components.
ACC has a separately funded activity called the Product Approval Protocol Task Group (PAPTG), which focuses on research related to automotive lubricant additives. In 1992, PAPTG developed the Product Approval Code of Practice for engine oil testing. Compliance with the code is voluntary, but all engine tests conducted in support of API-licensed products must be conducted under the ACC Code of Practice.
These interest groups come together as the Auto/Oil Advisory Panel (AOAP), which gathers at the start of each upgrade effort to develop engine tests and hammer out the limits that will define the proposed categorys performance. AOAP addresses the light-duty S category and GF gasoline-fueled engine oils.
On the heavy-duty engine oil side, the Diesel Engine Oil Advisory Panel (DEOAP) coordinates the API C category upgrades. This panel has a clearly defined process. First, a New Category Evaluation Team (NCET) assembles to determine if there is, in fact, a need for a new category. If so, a New Category Development Team (NCDT) is set up to steer its creation.
Technical Supporters
Moving to the technical side, the principal group charged with developing and validating engine test procedures is ASTM International, in particular ASTM Committee D02 on Petroleum Products & Lubricants. ASTM is a voluntary organization of individuals with relevant expertise and an interest in establishing a standard. As a result, many ASTM D02 members are employed by companies that are also involved in ILSAC, API or ACC. This can create a situation where one person can sit on multiple committees. (In fact, some employees primary job is just to attend and participate in these activities.)
Within ASTM D02 are several groups that have input into engine oil development, chief among them Technical Committee B. Tech B must give final approval to any new or revised test methods needed to evaluate and confirm engine oil performance.
Of course, even before Tech B can vote on any test method, it has to be designed, developed and demonstrated. This essential work goes on in two panels that report to Tech B: the Passenger Car Engine Oil Classification Panel (PCEOCP) and Heavy Duty Engine Oil Classification Panel (HDEOCP). These two get information on test needs, and input from organizations that have created a test concept. For that test concept to advance to a test procedure, it must be finalized with regard to all the physical and operational parameters, representative oils (for reference) defined, and statistical analyses of test results made to confirm the proposed test measures the desired parameter(s) and can do so reliably.
Also, once a test has been developed, it is necessary to make sure it stays within operating parameters; that task falls to ASTM Surveillance Panels – one panel of experts for each test method – who scrutinize the reference data looking for aberrations in test outcomes. If they determine a test procedure is out of control, these watchdogs have the power to halt the testing until they are satisfied that it again can deliver valid results.
ASTM also has the Test Monitoring Center (TMC), which is charged with maintaining reference oils for all tests. Reference oils are blended in quantity by TMC for sale and shipment to labs throughout North America, which use them to calibrate their test stands. TMC also registers the data on each engine test performed to support an API license, as well as maintains the precision data generated for new engine tests.
The second technical organization supporting automotive lubricants is SAE International. SAE maintains a series of standards, recommended practices and informational reports on all aspects of the automotive and aviation industries. One of the best-known of these is SAE J300, the Engine Oil Viscosity Classification Standard. J300 has been a part of the automotive industry for over 100 years and is found on virtually every container of engine oil. It is the only technical definition for oils to which consumers can relate, as they seek out the correct viscosity grade like SAE 5W-20 or 15W-40 for their vehicles.
This important standard is maintained by SAEs Fuels & Lubricants Division and its Technical Committee 1 on engine oils. Here youll find the Engine Oil Viscosity Classification Task Force (EOVC), whose charge is to maintain J300 with regard to test limits and test methodology.
Tech Committee 1 also oversees SAE J183, the Engine Oil Performance and Engine Service Classifications (other than Energy Conserving) Standard, which identifies each engine oil category and whether it is active or obsolete, and several other informational documents such as J357, Properties of New and Used Engine Oils (a compendium of definitions and test methods related to engine oils).
Additional technical support comes from independent, for-hire test laboratories, who naturally have a strong interest in proper engine test protocols and oil category development. North America has two principal players: Southwest Research Institute and Intertek, both with acres of testing facilities in San Antonio, Texas.
Europes Way
Crossing to Europe, youll find another circle of organizations involved in engine oil development, again representing the oil, auto, additive and testing industries interests.
The API role is filled by the Technical Association of the European Lubricants Industry, ATIEL. ATIEL represents European lubricants manufacturers and marketers and seeks to enhance the reputation of the lubricants industry by providing expert advice to regulators, industry partners and end-users and promoting superior standards of lubricant technology & performance. ATIEL also publishes a code of practice similar to API 1509, which governs the development and manufacture of engine lubricants conforming to performance requirements.
The automotive industry is represented by the Association des Constructours Europens dAutomobiles (ACEA), which includes passenger car, van, truck and bus manufacturers with production sites in the European Union. Unlike in North America, where API (i.e., oil) is responsible for managing the lubricant categories, in Europe the auto industry is in the drivers seat. ACEA defines the baseline quality of service-fill oils under a system called ACEA Oil Sequences.
For additives, the European version of ACC is the Technical Committee of Petroleum Additive Manufacturers in Europe (ATC). It was established in 1974 to address topics of a technical and statutory nature that were of concern to the additives industry, and became an affiliated group of Cefic (the European Chemical Industry Council) in 1979.
ATC also has a voluntary Code of Practice, similar to the one maintained in North America by ACC, to govern engine testing of automotive lubricants. ATCs code also is used to generate a body of reference data and knowledge concerning the precision and consistency of operation of test methods.
Technical support comes from the Coordinating European Council (CEC), which has as its main objective the development of new performance tests and procedures. A key element of CEC is sponsored test development, which works for short, efficient roll-out of tests. The reason for this is that product upgrades are needed more rapidly and tests may not last for long periods. Thus, it is necessary to optimize processes for new test development.
Among Europes for-hire test laboratories, ISP is one of the leading engine and vehicle testing laboratories, including analytical services, for automotive fuels and lubricants development. Established on two sites (Salzbergen, Germany and Grand-Couronne, France), the company is a recognized partner of the oil and additive industry as well as automotive manufacturers.
Additionally, ATC, ATIEL, CEC and ACEA are all participants in the European Engine Lubricants Quality Management System (EELQMS), which is built on ISO quality-system standards. Formed in 1996, EELQMS guarantees and maintains the quality of service-fill engine oils in the marketplace.
The Final Count
Add them up, and thats more than two dozen organizations that have a role in the forward motion of new engine oil categories in North America and Europe. And it doesnt include the military, or trade groups working in Japan and elsewhere.
Neither Chris Locke of Infineum nor Lubrizols Dan Sheets was ready to name specific organizations or steps that are holding back a speedier process. And each emphasized that the oil industry must not lower its standards for engine oil quality.
Rather, they urged the industry to find a way to consolidate standards, eliminate duplicative efforts and perhaps carve away some of the layers of bureaucracy that have hardened since 1992. Both executives also acknowledged that entrenched interests, biases and habits will make this challenging.
It will take time to change this system. Are the stakeholders ready to start?

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