NEW TECHNOLOGY: Lubricants represent a key component for Volvo CE customers
by Tony Lawrence
Everyone knows that some components are essential to a machine’s success. For instance, an articulated hauler would not work well without gears, an excavator without bearings or hydraulic valves could not do much excavating, and wheel loaders without wheels would be non-starters.
But some elements tend to get overlooked or taken for granted. Take oil, for example. Imagine trying to operate construction equipment without the help of engine, hydraulic, transmission, axle and wet-brake lubricants, coolants or grease.
Anyone who thinks oils and lubricants are simply oils and lubricants – all the same and simply drilled out of the ground and pumped straight into a bottle – should spend some time with Dr Anders Pettersson and Dr Donald McCarthy at Volvo Construction Equipment’s Technical Center at Eskilstuna in Sweden.
Although the pair could happily talk for hours about hydrocarbons, polyalphaolefins and kinematic viscosity, they get straight to the point that really matters to customers.
“Before, people built a machine and then looked around for some oil to go in it. Today, we see oil as a component – and a vital one,” says McCarthy.
“We consider oil from the very start. Lubricants play a huge role in maximizing machine performance and uptime while minimizing maintenance and cutting the total cost of ownership. The best lubricants are engineered to make a machine more responsive and quicker, enabling it to do more while using less fuel. In certain applications and under certain conditions, we have seen new oils raise performance by as much as 10-15%. Not many people know that.”
The Technical Center, Volvo CE’s largest R&D site, houses around 800 staff carrying out a wide range of cutting-edge research and testing while working on new advanced technology and engineering projects. “There are five of us working full time on lubricants,” says global lubricants co-ordinator Pettersson. “As well as the laboratory, we have testing cells and machines here. We keep an eye on all forms of data coming in from the field and monitor the performance of a large number of machines all around the world. We also work closely with our partners, as well as with other parts of the Volvo Group.”
Volvo CE’s own-brand oils and lubricants, Pettersson explains, “are unique and specific to us – they are tailor-made”. They are researched and designed in tandem with oil companies, additive firms and universities. Volvo is heavily involved in setting original specifications, developing formulations and then carrying out verification tests.
“It’s like creating a salad dressing,” he says. “You start with a base oil – it can be slightly different, whether extra virgin olive oil, rapeseed or whatever – and then you add the spices, depending on whether you want a Caesar salad dressing or a vinaigrette. The additives are only a small percentage of the mix but make a huge difference to its properties.”
Some Volvo lubricants are designed for the most extreme conditions: -40°C in Siberia, or +40°C in desert regions. But the trick is also to produce standard oils which can perform optimally and for long periods in an ever-wider range of environments and temperatures.
“Think of oil as whisking cream,” says lubricants specialist McCarthy. “Poor-quality oils thicken quickly; good oils don’t, so they function well for longer, protecting machine parts and maximizing fuel efficiency.”
“This also means you don’t have to drain the oil from a machine as often,” he explains. “Extending these drain intervals is crucial to improving uptime and makes a massive difference, to large fleet owners in particular.”
And while the focus is on new developments, McCarthy adds, the Technology Center team is also committed to improving existing oils and lubricants. “Not everyone has access to top-level products but it’s important that owners in more remote areas can also get lubricants which are Volvo-approved, tested and functioning at their best.”
Pettersson, a 40-year-old Swede, and McCarthy, a 42-year-old Scot, are mechanical engineers by training; they both have an extensive knowledge of chemistry. They met in 2002 while studying at Luleå University of Technology in northern Sweden.
They say they are different characters but clearly enjoy working and socialising together. They also share a passion for making a difference.
“It can be frustrating that people don’t know what we can do to help them but we see that as a challenge,” says McCarthy. “More and more people are becoming aware of the key part played by lubricants. We are spreading that message through training courses for dealers, so that their staff can explain to customers just how important it is.”
It is no surprise to hear that Pettersson is an accomplished cook and McCarthy a baker. After all, it is all about getting the right ingredients to work together. And if either of them should offer to make a salad, it will no doubt be delicious – just make sure to get for the recipe for the dressing.