Engine oil specifications: Is the system broken?
By Vicky Villena-Denton and Aaron Stone
There are growing calls for a fresh approach to engine oil specification. A multitude of new standards, test parameters and escalating investment, has left key industry players asking for change. A refined system that reduces complexity, provides greater flexibility, minimises cost and, perhaps most importantly, unlocks innovations is demanded. Many believe change is essential to delivering improved customer choice and products that provide better than minimum performance.
Lube development has long been a dynamic balancing act – harmonising the need for regulation against customer and industry expectation. Engine oil specifications impact almost every aspect of our industry. The testing process evaluates lubricants against physical, chemical, bench and engine testing requirements for a particular standard and reveals component wear, oil consumption, fuel economy, engine deposits and sludge and related performance measures.
Engine oil standards are nothing new. Oil requirements have evolved consistently since the advent of the internal combustion engine and automobile – the first oil specifications issued more than 100 years ago. In a 2009 paper entitled Gasoline Engine Oil Specifications, Past, Present and Global, the authors suggested “even in 1909 a set of specifications were deemed necessary to compel the jobbers to supply high-grade motor oils.”
There’s no denying the importance of lubricant specifications; or that the industry associations that administer them have played a central role in engine oil evolution. The standards have provided improving lubricant protection for vehicles, defined a quality level, and ensured products meet industry requirements; as well as providing end users the confidence to select the appropriate oils for their vehicle.
ILSAC, the International Lubricants Standardisation and Approval Committee, was formed in 1987. Together with a tripartite system that enlists the American Petroleum Institute (API), Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), they later created the Engine Oil Licensing and Certification System (EOLCS). This is a licensing and certification program that authorises engine oil marketers to use API Engine Oil Quality Marks. But this was not the original intent of ILSAC.
Michael McMillan, now retired from General Motors and considered by many as one of the “founding fathers of ILSAC,” suggests “there can be no doubt that ILSAC has been a success. Oil quality has been upgraded significantly by ILSAC standards.” However, escalating concerns from additive suppliers and some OEMs submit that today’s specification system is missing the target. Certainly, the creation of ILSAC has not been without its fair share of controversy.
Recently, we talked to McMillan about key events in the development of ILSAC and its engine oil specification system.
In 1947 API introduced a classification system that divided engine oils into three categories, regular, premium and heavy duty. Just over 20 years later, this initial effort to classify engine oils was superseded as API, SAE and ASTM cooperatively developed a new specification system. The “tripartite” arrangement made SAE responsible for determining category need, ASTM developed test methods and limits, and API controlled user language and licensing.
McMillan says discontent with this tripartite administration provided the impetus for OEMs to advance a new approach to engine oil specification. “One of the main reasons ILSAC wanted to create a separate specification from API was to include fuel efficiency improvement as a requirement in the specification, rather than have it as a separate parameter as exists within the API system,” he says.
After robust discussion within General Motors, a proposal for a worldwide system was taken to then the Motor Vehicles Manufacturers Association (MVMA) Fuel Survey and Test Committee in the summer of 1987.
On 6 November, 1987 the first meeting of what was to become ILSAC occurred at the SAE International Fuels and Lubricants Meeting in Toronto. Representatives from the Engine Manufacturers Association (EMA), Committee of Common Market Automobile Constructors in Europe (CCMC – now ACEA) and Japanese Automobile Manufacturers Association (JAMA) were invited to participate in the development of a new international lubricant standardisation and approval system.
While JAMA and MVMA members agreed to participate, CCMC never formally joined ILSAC, and in due course stopped attending ILSAC meetings, without an explanation why. McMillan theorises they did not wish to relinquish the control over oil quality they believed they held in Europe.
Following numerous meetings, and concerted endeavour within MVMA from 1988 to 1990, a draft entitled the North American Lubricant Standardisation and Approval System or NALSAS was produced and circulated to the industry for comment in October 1990. The aim was to “expeditiously define, approve and maintain the quality of lubricants that vehicle manufacturers deem necessary for satisfactory equipment life and performance.”
While high-level support for the efforts of MVMA was apparent, commitment to change was fractured. Several stakeholders preferred continued use of the existing API system, others feared the operation of two systems (NALSAS and API) would add confusion, become time consuming and “confrontational.” McMillan said there was a belief that “the OEMs would have complete control under NALSAS… and the other stakeholders didn’t like that.” Ultimately the threat of legal action as well as improvements in testing protocols that were being introduced convinced MVMA to investigate a modified approach, working with API, that would realise essentially all of the key objectives of NALSAS, more quickly, with less controversy and at a lower cost.
An alternative proposal was tabled with API on 30 April, 1991 advising MVMA would drop NALSAS if API were willing to agree to a new engine oil licensing system that embraced the key elements of NALSAS. After a (very) brief consultation, API members agreed in principle to work with MVMA to expeditiously develop and implement a new system called The American Petroleum Institute Engine Oil Licensing and Certification System (EOLCS). EOLCS became operational on 1 July, 1993.
In their 2009 publication in SAE International, Johnson, Olree, McMillan and Clark list the major elements of EOLCS as: two API registered marks defined and available for license; a modified tripartite process utilised for new test and/or new performance requirements; CMA Product Approval Code Of Practice required in all engine testing; Compliance with API base oil interchangeability and viscosity grade engine testing guidelines required; and the establishment of a stronger more comprehensive aftermarket monitoring program.
ILSAC GF-1 was created in 1990 and upgraded in 1992, becoming the minimum engine oil requirement for most American and Japanese automobiles manufacturers. The current specification is ILSAC GF-5, introduced in October 2010. ILSAC GF-6 is currently in development.
While there is little argument that ILSAC standards vastly improved engine oil quality and performance over the past two decades, there has been burgeoning discontent from additive suppliers and some OEMs who claim the standards may not meet future industry requirements.
During a presentation at the SAE F&L Conference in October 2016 in Baltimore, Wim Van Dam, global partnership services manager at Chevron Oronite, submitted that “developing new engine oil specifications has evolved into a system that is unsustainable” and that “resources, time and complexity involved in the process can be better directed to deliver more value to the end user.”
Dan Sheets, president Of Lubrizol Additives, in his keynote address to the Biannual Detroit Advisory Panel in April 2016 Detroit Advisory Panel in ? also agrees it is “time to change the model.” He believes the current approach is creating barriers that are working against innovation. Sheets claims category development costs are prohibitive for commercialising innovative products, industry processes and committees are complex, slow and unbalanced, and that specifications mandate minimum lubricant quality levels. He says consumers “deserve more products that give more than minimum performance”.
So is the system broken? Are we putting up road blocks to innovation or do we really need to change the system?
McMillan, an expert on the current engine oil specification and approval system, doesn’t necessarily think so. While he concedes that the process today is somewhat different to when it was initiated, with a greater volume of engine tests, and that getting a license can get “pretty expensive,” he is “not sure what you would change it to that would be better.” He also suggests there are always going to be disagreements or parties saying they don’t like what they have, but that the minimum performance level defined by ILSAC standards has been “pretty darn good.”
Additive companies on the other hand are calling for a change to the entire philosophy behind the system – to deliver a step change towards innovation. During the ICIS World Base Oils Conference in February 2016, Chris Locke, executive vice president of marketing and technology at Infineum called for the set up of an “international cross industry task force comprising senior leaders from oil, additive and testing organisations” to address some of the challenges they are facing in the engine oil testing process. Other additive companies have joined the chorus asking for a joint industry group to be created.
With the recent launch of PC-11 and the upcoming arrival of ILSAC GF-6 and ACEA 16 we are witnessing perhaps the most significant concurrent change to specifications in the history of engine oil specifications. The complexity of this process has meant severe delays. ILSAC GF-6 is reported to have been delayed again, the first licensing date will now most likely slip to 2019. PC-11 was delayed by a year. ACEA 16 is also behind schedule by up to two. Locke, believes this is testament to a system that is ineffective and that a “tipping point” has been reached.
But what does the future of engine oil specifications really look like? McMillan believes a likely scenario is a continued shift to individual OEM specifications as engine oil changes move back to the auto dealership. GM introduced its dexos engine oil specification, specific to GM engines, to create a higher minimum performance level than GF-5, exercise more control over the licensing process and to simplify oil selection for its customers. and improve fuel mileage. One could surmise they felt the API and ILSAC classifications didn’t offer the protection or longevity they desired in their lubricants. European OEMs have been developing their own engine oil specifications for many years and oil manufacturers are forced to adhere to OEM proprietary specifications, alongside the licensing requirements of ACEA.
McMillan also believes, based on the biggest takeaway from his many years of experience, is that engine oil specification development process changes “appear to move in 20-year cycles.” A quick look at the history books seems to support this perspective. In fact, an argument could be made that ILSAC has completed its 20-year course, he said. ILSAC has changed. The ILSAC alliance is no longer involved in the setting of standards, now operating solely as an advisory group to API. ILSAC GF-5 and GF-6 are both non ILSAC-published standards. When considering the current regulatory change and OEM movements, McMillan suggests “when we look back on this 10 years from now we’ll say that we were in a different 20-year cycle.”