Testing for Confidence: How the Test Monitoring Center Links Consumers and Standards

A key institution in the automotive lubricants industry, the TMC is also a bridge between stakeholders.
JP Ervin

The Test Monitoring Center (TMC) is an ASTM international affiliate that plays a crucial role in automotive lubricant testing, helping to ensure consistency in testing and a quality final product for the transportation sector. In the September-October issue of Standardization News, we explored how the TMC serves as a bridge between standards development and consumers.

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Standards development is a special type of project. It requires careful attention to both the technical concerns of the subject at hand and the regulations of the standards process itself. For this reason, a great deal of work happens at every step of the way, from identifying a need to deliberation to the final approval of a new standard.

Even so, standards have practical consequences that last well beyond the development stage, and they influence the world in many ways. Producers, laboratories, home consumers, and many other individuals ultimately benefit from standards each and every day.

Though standards can enable consumers to shop with greater confidence, it is crucial to build a bridge between the development stage and the final product that sits on the shelf.

The Test Monitoring Center (TMC), an ASTM International affiliate, is one such bridge connecting standards development to the end user. Providing support for laboratories engaged in lubricant testing – along with a wide range of services that assist the automotive industry – the Center responds to the needs of automobile producers, petroleum producers, and consumers. More fundamentally, the TMC also serves as a crucial link in the chain between standards development and the practical concerns that affect each of us whenever we enter an auto shop or start
up our car.

The Test Monitoring Center

The TMC was founded in 1976. It was developed as a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University and originally was housed at the university. Today, the TMC is an independent ASTM affiliate with 20 employees, operating out of a facility in Freeport, Pennsylvania.

One of the primary functions of the TMC is to provide support in the field of lubricant testing, helping to ensure that laboratories follow ASTM test methods when they test automotive lubrication. When companies develop crank-case and drive-train lubricants, their products are subjected to careful performance testing before they are approved for use by automobile manufacturers. These tests help assess these lubricants, determining their overall performance.

To ensure the accuracy of testing, the TMC supplies reference oils – sample oils with clearly defined properties that help to calibrate testing equipment. These reference oils are sent out blindly to laboratories, meaning that recipients do not know which sample they will receive. Next, the laboratories test the reference oils on their stands (apparatus) and return the results to the TMC. If the results match expectations, the stand is considered calibrated. From there, commercial oils can be tested to determine their performance. After the process is successfully completed, producers can put a stamp on their product, letting consumers know what kind of oil they are purchasing and what degree of quality they can expect.

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Big changes came to the organization when Carnegie Mellon and the TMC ended their partnership in 2021, leading to several adjustments. In July of that year, the Center announced a plan to relocate to their present facility in Freeport by the beginning of October. While any such move could potentially bring uncertainty, the move offered an occasion to continue building on the TMC’s successful record.

“It’s been a good move for us,” TMC director Frank Farber explains. “The facility is really nice for us because it’s been renovated. It was in good shape when we moved in, but it gives us some extra room that we didn’t have at the university. It’s in a nice industrial park and it has room for growth, which is a big bonus for us.”

Tim Brooke, vice president of ASTM’s Laboratory Systems, echoes Farber’s sentiments. He adds that the situation offers room to expand not only the physical space, but also to expand the types of services that the TMC provides.

“The TMC has opportunities to expand its programs and services. In the past we’ve focused specifically on reviewing, evaluating, updating, and maintaining about 40 ASTM test methods. It’s called monitoring, essentially making sure the test method is correct, making sure that the equipment is calibrated properly, making sure that the laboratories are evaluating these new engine oils properly. Now we’ve been able to expand into evaluating other test methods from
other organizations.”

Not Just Reference Oils

The TMC is one of five program areas within the laboratory service department at ASTM. Another affiliate, the Safety Equipment Institute (SEI), provides product certification in the personal protective equipment (PPE) space. They support a range of products for industry and sports applications alike, including firefighting equipment, industrial hard hats, football helmets, and soccer shin guards.

ASTM Proficiency Testing Programs (PTPs) are statistical quality-assurance programs for laboratories, particularly serving the petroleum, textiles, metals, and plastic sectors. As an example, they might take a gasoline sample, blend and homogenize it, and then send it out to laboratories who will perform a series of ASTM test methods on that product. ASTM then statistically analyzes the results, which allows the laboratories to determine how well they are performing the ASTM test methods.

Training and e-learning course provide education to individuals about the use and application of ASTM test methods. Courses are available in face-to-face and virtual formats, as well as in the form of hundreds of different self-guided, on-demand training modules featuring video demonstrations, presentations, and quizzes.

Finally, there is the Cement and Concrete Reference Laboratory (CCRL), based in Frederick, Maryland. The CCRL offers laboratory inspections for over 1600 laboratories in 25 different countries, and also supplies proficiency samples to support testing work for the cement and concrete industries.

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The TMC itself offers a range of additional services. The center’s staff engineers are technical experts in automotive lubricant testing, and they present resources to the industry, including statistical support and engineering feedback for ASTM tests. TMC staff conduct lab visits, ensuring that labs are configured properly and performing tests correctly in accordance with ASTM test procedures. The Center also maintains a large industry database that houses test results, and this information is reported on a public website that makes the material available for download. Additionally, they supply registration services for industry groups and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).

One key goal for the center is to stay in touch with new developments and trends in the automotive industry. Farber explains one key area concerns shifts in the industry connected to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limitations surrounding emissions, fuel economy, or other features that affect new and existing automobile engines.

“When there are new limits within EPA, whether it be emissions or fuel economy, auto manufacturers may develop for instance, a new engine, or they may have warranty claims on an existing engine design,” Farber says. “The lubricant industry that we’re involved with may decide that they need to develop a test, whether it’s on a particular manufacturer’s engine or they just need to find a test to evaluate fuel economy. There’s an ASTM test method that involves fuel economy improvement of oils and it measures their characteristics to provide fuel economy improvement that the auto manufacturers use when they deal with EPA limits.”

A second way the TMC is staying up to date is by monitoring the growth of electric vehicles (EVs). “Our big thing right now is finding new opportunities in the EV market, because as the automotive industry shifts a bit that way, we want to be part of it. Our future goals are to get involved more with EV drive train fluids. The automotive internal combustion engine is definitely a big part of our business at this point, but it’s a matter of keeping an eye on future developments and working with industry partners to grow the business.”

A Bridge Between Industries

Even as it is important to look forward to the future, it is worth taking stock of the service provided by the TMC since its inception. In many ways, the TMC connects not only industries, producers, and consumers, but also the world of standards to industry practice.

According to Brooke, the TMC plays an important role as a bridge between automotive and petroleum companies. As he explains it, “If a petroleum company has this great new engine oil, if I’m an automobile manufacturer, I’ll probably want to make sure that engine oil will perform properly before I put it into 500,000 cars.”

In this spirit, the TMC helps both branches of industry to feel confident about their performance expectations for their products.

Farber says that this confidence continues down the chain to the purchasers of commercial products. “When they go into AutoZone or any another store, consumers can look for labeled oil and say ‘That’s going to protect my engine.’”

On a more fundamental level, the work of the TMC and laboratory services more generally integrate standards into the practical concerns of laboratories and manufacturers.

As Brooke explains, “Standards are generated, created, developed by these incredible industry experts, but until they’re applied, they’re just documents sitting on a shelf. That’s where laboratory services comes in. We are assisting individuals with using and applying the ASTM standards in practice to evaluate products and materials. This is the real-world component. Is this steel going to support this bridge or not? Is this concrete going to fracture in the building? The jet fuel in the airplane – you need to know exactly how it will perform. That’s where all these laboratory services come into play. Hopefully, we make the world better and safer.”

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