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February 22, 2017

Volume 17 Issue 52

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ICIS Panelists Debate Spec Development

LONDON – The process for developing automotive engine oil specifications has been a hot topic for the past several years. Many in the lubricants industry have begun to question the efficacy of a system that is consuming more and more resources, in terms of both cost and time.

As consultant Brian Crichton noted, “The absolute cost of bringing a product to market today is extremely high, and the ability to recoup those costs is extremely iffy.” In chairing a panel discussion on the topic at the ICIS World Base Oils & Lubricants Conference here Feb. 17, he asked, “Are there smarter ways to develop specifications that are less time-consuming and less costly?”

In his opening remarks, Chevron Oronite President Desmond King observed that the current process leaves value on the table all along the way. “Delays are costly,” he said, “and we estimate that every year’s delay costs consumers upwards of U.S. $2 billion in unrealized fuel economy benefits.”

One solution he suggested is for the industry to agree on a minimum quality standard, then have original equipment manufacturers add requirements to meet the performance needs of their engines. “This would allow differentiation in the marketplace."

Jan Trocki, manager of SK Lubricants Europe, noted that questions about improving the development process have been raised for the last 20 years or so. “The fact is that OEMs use lubricants as problem solvers. That’s the source of their specifications.” Automakers’ main concern is to avoid penalties in the form of fines, warranty costs and loss of consumer confidence, he said.

The main issue in Trocki’s view is slow response to OEMs’ stated needs. “Formulators ask too many questions.” In particular, questions about BOI, or base oil interchange, slow the process. “OEMs don’t care about BOI,” he said, “because it introduces risk they don’t want.”

Neste’s technical services manager – Americas, Chris Castanien, echoed the view that the process takes too long. Fresh from meetings on ILSAC GF-6, he noted that the specification has already been in development for five years and probably won’t be released for another two years.

The delay is being caused by developing a new specification and new tests at the same time. “Test development is a huge issue,” he said. “In the past, a new specification typically had only one or two new tests; GF-6 has seven. We have to find a way to decouple test development from spec development.”

Addressing the issue of base oil interchange, Castanien maintained that while BOI provides options, it can’t be based on a spreadsheet developed in the 1990s, when most of today’s base oils weren’t available. “It has to be based on testing.”

Following the session, an industry veteran quipped that one solution was to scrap the system altogether. “Let the OEMs set the lube requirements for their engines, monitor the tests and handle the approvals,” he said.