Why new lubricant testing is no longer up to the job – is it time to shake things up?

Are lubricants being designed more to pass a specification than real world conditions?

Almost without exception every machinery lubricant you can name will have had a raft of new lubricant tests before you even knew it existed. These can range from the additive manufacturers test bed testing to equipment manufacturer approval tests to even batch production testing to confirm the product still meets specification before being released from the production line to the end users.

You only need to look at your average vehicle engine oil container to see it has more qualifications than you do. The problem is there are only a limited number of additive manufacturers in the world but thousands of lube oil suppliers meaning lubricants get harder and harder to differentiate. Having previously worked in a job as a secret shopper buying and testing new lubricants for a major lube oil manufacturers governing body I can say from experience the European market for lubricants is very good. However, it felt too good in that despite a wide range of lubricant manufacturers tested they almost always passed the specification testing with flying colours.

In a world where we have higher exam pass rates than anytime in history, yet it is often said education doesn’t train people for industry, are we doing the same with our lubricants – i.e. teaching them to pass specifications first and lubricate second?

So with that said and with such a high specification pass rate, if so many lubricants are great how do you truly tell the difference between a good and an exceptional lubricant?

The answer unfortunately can’t be found in the current batch of new lubricant testing schemes, so you might think do lubricants even need the current range of new lubricant tests?

Do we even need new lubricant testing?

The answer is of course we need new lubricant testing. Nobody in their right mind would think to say that new lubricant testing is a bad thing and it helps set a quality benchmark we all know and recognise. What can be argued though is, might there be an additional way to test lubricant performance beyond traditional new lubricant tests?

In steps used lubricant testing, which I would argue is as important if not more important than new lubricant testing at really testing lubricant performance. If you think about it, this makes sense as the only time a heavy duty engine oil for instance is free of soot and fuel is the moment before it is put into the engine, so why do the majority of new engine tests focus on the lubricant without these contaminants. The new lubricant tests do cover a lot of aspects of lubricant performance, but used lubricant testing fills the gaps it misses.

So why is used all testing not part of every lubricant test suite already? Well in part it already is. Many additive and equipment manufacturers conduct their own in-house research when developing new lubricants and components. Believe it or not there are people who get paid to find new and inventive ways to break machinery and lubricants. Examples of tests I have known performed include filling an engine with sand, fitting two pumps that pump in opposite directions, fitting a greased bearing inside a high temperature oven and dosing engines with high concentrations of diesel. The effects are then monitored until the machine eventually fails. Used oil analysis and particularly wear metal monitoring is fundamental to this research and has for decades helped develop new lubricants and advance lubricant technology. However much of this research tends to stay internal and so doesn’t really help the end user in selecting a lubricant. Equally, the fundamental methodology of testing the wear particles by standard ICP, XRF or RDE elemental analysis methods has been flawed. That is 2 out of every 3 normal wear particles are missed and nearly all the abnormal wear is missed by these methods – you can find out more about this in an article we featured last year on the subject.

“The fundamental methodology of testing wear generation during lubricant approval process is flawed.”

This means that much of the lubricant research into wear metal analysis of a machine is fundamentally flawed as the wear measured was never truly the right answer.

Case Study 1 – an oil was nearly approved that was causing serious engine wear

A good example of this was highlighted after speaking to the UK technical manager of famous luxury car manufacturer who shared this interesting anecdote with me when I was discussing advances in wear metal analysis. He explained they were doing work with one of the major lubricant additive manufacturers testing a new additive package in their engines as part of the approval process. As part of the testing regular used oil analysis was used, using a reputable independent lab supplier and with all the correct sample taking procedures to ensure a representative sample. The data was collected over a period of months and showed the lubricant was working really well with little to no wear being generated after an initial short running in period. In fact the wear results were the best they had seen for this particular test bed experiment. The additive was about to be approved, but at the last minute the technical manager of the car OEM decided to strip down the engine to check the condition and found almost catastrophic wear to the liner, rings and pistons. This was so severe that the normally visually flawless and smooth parts showed huge amounts of visible damage and wear, far beyond normal expectations. As you can guess, the additive was not approved, but it just goes to show it nearly was if it wasn’t for the fact the technical manager suspected the data was too good to be true and hence it’s only a lucky break that the additive didn’t make its way into hundreds of new lubricants. In this case the wear was almost entirely large and abnormal and so it was severely underrepresented by traditional wear metal analysis that only detects small particles.

As you can see current new oil testing even including test bed testing is simply not robust enough to really truly replicate the real world conditions in millions of unique machines.

Is there a better way?

The current new oil testing regiemes and test bed testing still form a fundamental basis for early designs, approvals and even batch quality testing. However just because an oil has an approval that doesn’t mean it is automatically the best lubricant for you. That is why oil analysis condition monitoring is a vital tool not only in preventative maintenance to help you save money, but in ensuring you keep the right oil too. If buying for yourself, you probably just buy your oil over the counter or online, but if you have a large demand for lubricants then you will naturally come across lubricant sales people who will want you to try their latest product or even need your help in gaining a new approval.

Whether buying oil for yourself or on behalf of a huge multinational you would all benefit from this advice of trying the LubeWear Tough Enough challenge. Essentially when deciding to switch suppliers or using a new lubricant, use a LubeWear analysis to sample at the end of a single drain interval on the old oil and on the new oil and see the difference in normal and abnormal wear. You can do this as part of a regular condition monitoring package or just as a one off comparison between two machines, two oils or even two aftermarket additives. Clearly if you are going to apply this to a whole fleet to make it more statsictically significant it helps to do it on more than one machine.

“If a lubricant supplier truly believes their oil is the best they will back it up with a LubeWear elemental analysis.”

Equally if you are a lubricant supplier looking to get someone to try your new product, if you truly believe your product is the best then what better way to back it up than to offer a free independent oil analysis with a trial to each customer to prove it. It will also help you distance yourself from those in the industry that make claims they can’t substantiate or highlight good results on new oil tests that are not relevant.

LubeWear used oil analysis detects if lubricants are Tough Enough for the job.

So in addition to condition monitoring to monitor machinery health that includes wear metal analysis, used oil analysis with the help of LubeWear analysis helps you select the lubricant it’s right for you. Sure there may be 50 oils that all meet the OEM approvals, so you need something else to differentiate and used oil analysis helps this.

Additional Case studies of using used oil analysis to select a lubricant

Case study 2: it’s all about the pour point.

This was an example of a sales person being a little disingenuous with their sales strategy to get someone to switch. Although the vast majority of all sales people (I am one myself) are honest, some spin things to get a sale. A customer with approximately 40 combined heat and power generation engines that were almost always in continuous operation was encouraged to switch to a competitors oil based on a new product datasheet. Both oils were from reputable oil suppliers, similarly priced, had the same OEM approval and had similar ash contents. However there was a difference between the oils, in that the oil not in the machinery had a much lower pour point. The pour point is a measure of cold weather handling and how cold the oil needs to be not to pour any more. The sales person realised this and showed the customer a sample of their oil and the emcumbants oil after putting in the freezer and it showed their oil was still nice and clear and oil like, whilst the emcumbants oil was very cloudy and viscous. This convinced the customer to switch.

This little demonstration used a new oil property that really wasn’t relevant as the systems were extremely hot and so the pour point was never going to be reached, yet it convinced the customer to switch. For a fridge compressor or for cold areas of the world this is a relevant test and very important, but this customers engines were not going to experience these conditions.

Over the next 2 months the customers regular oil analysis showed a huge spike in serious reports on wear, acid formation and viscosity increases. The condition went from approximately 80% being green normal reports to less than 50%. The customer after seeing this data side by side switched back to their old supplier. However, it is worth nothing that both oils had the OEM approval, but there was a vast difference in condition for oils that should have given similar results. It also shows that simply comparing product datasheets is not necessarily the best way to pick a new lubricant and used oil analysis is the best way to differentiate between similar lubricants.

Case study 3: differing limits or methods for approval for different lube oil manufacturers

This is less common place than it used to be and certainly not the case on internationally recognised approval systems, but on some OEM specifications the point of a pass/fail changes depending on the brand of lubricant. So technically an oil could have better results than another, but fail because it doesn’t carry a certain brand name that the other does. You come across this in some oil analysis limits for OEMs where if the customer forgets to write the oil brand and later provides it a serious report can suddenly change to normal based on the OEM limits. If you are aware of this difference you can take it into consideration and if you are in the industry you can probably think of a few examples of where this happens, but to average lubricant user this may come as a suprise that the limits are not necessarily equal across all brands.

There are also examples where certain brands of oils are excempt from certain batch quality tests such as oil cleanliness codes and so do not have to meet the same cleanliness requirements of another brand of lubricant. Other instances include switching the method of testing for a specific brand name too.

In addition you may have also come across extended drain intervals only being covered for certain OEM own brand products even when the formulations are near identical to a competitors product. So the suggestion an oil is longer life than another may be again down to brand name rather entirely the base oil and additives.

Case study 4 – you can’t believe all you see on the bottle if claims are incompatible

This probably comes down to false or at least over enthusiastic advertising and I know the governing bodies for lubricant companies do try clamp down on this when raised to their attention, but you can walk into oil your local garage and pick up oils that make claims that are impossible or incompatible. This has included reputable brands too in the past. This is particularly true where e.g. a specification says the value must be above a certain number and another specification says it must be below that same number. In this case the oil cannot meet both specifications, and so even without testing you know the claims are false if a lubricant says it meets both. Hence although the vast majority of oils do meet the specifications they claim and as already mentioned the quality of lubricants in Europe is very good, some oils let the side down and because of this you cannot always 100% rely on just the claims on the bottle to prove it’s a good oil and need to support it with some type of independent used oil analysis programme, or indeed test it with the LubeWear challenge.

Case study 5 – it’s not just the lubricants and it applies to fuel, coolant and AdBlue/DEF too

You may have seen in the news over the years cases where manufacturers of equipment or machinery fluids have made a mistake whether in product design or in the supply chains that leads to serious mechanical failures of fluid systems. In each case it was used fluid analysis that identified the problem, not the new production analysis or approval processes as they would never have reached the end consumers and you wouldn’t have seen them on the news. This can include supermarket forecourts problems with fuels, bulk supply cross contamination of AdBlue / DEF or incompatability of new formulations of engine coolants with seals. Since we are an independent site we have not mentioned any specific names of companies where this has happened but a simple Google or Wikipedia search and you can find details about legal cases where new product testing or at least the supply chains after this testing have failed and lead to end customer machinery damage. Hence even with the most reputable suppliers you still can’t ensure that in every step in the supply chain post testing nothing has gone wrong to lead to a poor quality end product. This means condition monitoring fluid analysis is critical to ensure your machinery is kept in the safest and most usable condition.

If you would like to find out more about anything discussed in this article including testing your fluids whether as a supplier or end user click the contact us blue button at the bottom right of the screen.