A label conveys many ideas.

All labels convey a brand identity and usually identify a particular type of product, such as Campbells Soup. They can display images denoting a certain quality or deliver a message that the product meets certain performance standards.

Labels require a lot of development and expense. They are so important that they can be trademarked or copyrighted to protect the brand integrity of the company that uses them.

The motor oil market has its own way of indicating quality, and the right to use those indicators is not earned easily nor without cost. You know these quality indicators as the American Petroleum Institutes performance standard logos: the ILSAC starburst (and now the shield for SAE 0W-16 oils) and the API donut.

(APIs Engine Oil Licens­ing and Certification System, API 1509, is the best source of information about this subject. If you want a detailed read, go to the API website and look it up. I can assure you that it is not a light read, as it covers all aspects of this important industry requirement.)

Theres a lot of stuff that goes into the process of licensing an engine oil so that the Starburst or Donut can go on the label. It includes testing costs and documentation, as well as history. Lets take a look at how we got to the current API system. Its a long story with many twists and turns.

Since its the oldest component of the modern service symbol, lets start with viscosity. In 1911, what was then called the Society of Automotive Engineers developed a system that classified engine oils by viscosity. Chris May of Imperial Oil, now retired, presented a history of the viscosity classification system at an ASTM meeting in 2006. In his presentation, Chris noted that in 1923 the SAE classification also included specifications for flash and fire points, color, pour point, carbon residue and corrosion. However, by 1926 the only requirement remaining was viscosity. In fact, the SAE J300 standard wasnt even used until 1959.

API 1509 notes that the engine oil classification system based only on viscosity remained in place until 1947, when API designated three types of engine oils: regular, premium and heavy-duty. Generally, the regular oils were straight mineral base oils, the premium oils contained oxidation inhibitors, and the heavy-duty oils contained both oxidation inhibitors and detergent-dispersant additives. Although it was a step forward, it still didnt provide enough information for end-users.

Progress continued in 1952 when APIs Lub­ricants Committee, working with ASTM, developed the Engine Service Classification System, which was revised in 1955 and again in 1960. ESCS separated gasoline and diesel engine oil performance with Service Categories for gasoline fueled engines: ML, MM and MS. Diesel engine oils were designated DG, DM and DS.

In 1969 and 1970, API, ASTM and SAE established an entirely new classification system that would satisfy the changing warranty, maintenance and lubrication requirements of the automotive industry. At the time, SAE noted that there were eight separate service categories of passenger car engine oils that were current and should be examined.

ASTM established test methods and performance characteristics and technically described each of the categories. API prepared user language, including new letter designations for each of the eight categories. SAE then published results of the entire project and the methodology as SAE J183.

Since then, API, ASTM and SAE have established new service categories and declared old service categories technically obsolete. For example, gasoline engine service category SA was declared technically obsolete from the get-go. A number of later service categories became obsolete when test methods were no longer available to verify performance.

Diesel engine service categories CA through CG-4 also became technically obsolete when test methods were no longer available to verify performance. Lack of test hardware isnt the only way that categories have become obsolete; the API Lubricants Committee has also voted by letter ballot to retire categories.

In 1992 and 1993, API, ASTM and United States and Japanese automotive manufacturers introduced improvements to the licensing process for engine oils to ensure the quality of products being marketed and to increase consumer awareness of the recommended lubricants for new vehicles. This improved process is API 1509.

License applications, which can be found on the API website, ask prospective licensees to provide elemental analysis data, finished oil physical properties, additive and base oil information, engine test information and product traceability code information. It also requires that current licensees maintain these data so field samples can be compared to license documents. Its a no-no to change formulations under any specific license.

Not surprisingly, API calls on prospective and current licensees to keep company contact information up to date. This includes company address, phone, fax and website information as well as specific contact name, address, phone, fax and email information.

In addition, licensed marketers must complete the steps for annual renewal and may be required to respond to audit findings. More on this later.

API 1509 says that marketers must obtain a license from API to use the API engine oil quality marks. Many believe that simply meeting the requirements of either or both allows them to use the designations on their packaging and in literature. However, such is not the case. In fact, it has gotten to the point that API has a dedicated webpage identifying these offenders, including pictures of their labels.

Using the API marks represents a marketers legal warranty that its products meet the requirements and rules found in API 1509 and their licensing process. To be sure, it puts the oil marketer on the hook for the integrity of its brand name and the quality of its branded product in the marketplace.

When a marketer applies for a license, it is required to certify that its oils meet EOLCS requirements as listed above. One piece of required information, traceability codes, can be a critical factor in identifying when and where the oil came from, should it be needed for customer complaints or audit responses.

Im sure a few of you are thinking to yourself, Audit? Part of API EOLCS is the Aftermarket Auditing Program. Under this program, API purchases and tests licensed oils to determine their physical, chemical and performance properties. The results are compared to licensed formulations on file at API. If a marketers oil shows test results that are consistent with the formulations on file and meet program requirements, everything is A-OK. API puts all samples through elemental analysis, viscosity at 100 degrees Celsius and high-temperature high-shear testing. They may also be tested for cold cranking, pumpability, volatility, gelation, foaming, filterability, flash point and shear stability.

But what happens if an oil doesnt conform? That depends on the type of non-conformance. For instance, if the viscosity is off to a minor degree, a new sample would be acquired and tested. Oftentimes its simply a reproducibility issue and can be corrected easily. However, if a licensed oil does not match the physical and chemical data in APIs file, API and the oil marketer will work to determine what happened and take appropriate corrective action.

If the problem cannot be resolved, there are additional actions spelled out in API 1509. These actions may include termination of the license and removal of noncompliant product from the marketplace. If a licensed or unlicensed oil displays an improper label or unauthorized or inaccurate labeling information, API will require the marketer to cease and desist and will request verification that the violation has been corrected.

One of the big issues for me, personally, is the proper description of viscosity. Ive mentioned it before and am repeating it here, straight out of SAEJ300, just in case someone has missed it:

In properly describing the viscosity grade of an engine oil according to this document, the letters SAE must precede the grade number designation. In addition, for multigrade oil formulations, this document requires that the W grade precede the non-W grade, and that the two grades be separated by a hyphen (i.e., SAE 10W-30). Other forms of punctuation or separation are not acceptable.

Additionally, API doesnt allow licensed company names or brand names to contain any reference to API, API Service Categories, SAE viscosities or any terms that infer API endorsement (for example, the terms certified, approved, licensed, accredited, endorsed, qualified, verified).

Naturally, there are application fees that need to be paid. The oil marketer cant display the API service symbol or certification mark on any engine oil or refer to the oil as API certified, licensed or approved until the applicant has paid the application fee, signed the license agreement certifying that the oil meets API requirements and received notice from the API online system that the oil has been licensed. In addition, there are annual fees based on volume of sales.

From all of this, Im sure you can see that the cost of licensing an oil for a new category can be (and usually is) very high. For instance, the development of the twin API CK-4 and FA-4 heavy-duty engine oil categories reportedly cost the industry in excess of $300 million! I fully expect that when all the costs are counted, the bills for API SP, API SP-Resource Conserving and ILSAC GF-6 will be even larger.

So it comes down to this: As an industry, we need to serve the needs of our mutual customers, and that means new oils for advanced engine designs. Developing the tests is costly and time consuming. Debating and deciding on test limits to define new oils while also making sure older engines are well served by the same oils creates more need for testing and data analysis, and that means more costs. Oil marketers and additive suppliers must develop new additives, viscosity grades and base oil demonstrations-again costly. At the end of the day, a lot of time and treasure goes into assuring that our mutual client, the motoring public, is good to go.

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, ASTM International and SAE International, where he was chairman of Technical Committee 1 on automotive engine oils. He can be reached at