As enthusiasts, we all probably know the basic differences between synthetic and non-synthetic motor oils. However, what I think a majority of us don’t know — because really, why would we — is how synthetic oil is actually made. Gale Banks of Banks Power has our same sense of curiosity and wanted the inside scoop on the process. And if Gale Banks calls up AMSOIL and asks how they make their oil, the red carpet is rolled out. Luckily for us, Banks took a cameraman with him on his trip and we get to follow along as AMSOIL’s Scott Davis walked Banks through the production process.
From The Base
Synthetic oil starts life as one of a variety of inorganic base stock products. AMSOIL receives these base stock in large quantities by rail, at what they call the “Indoor Rail Spur” – an indoor train depot filled with liquid offloading equipment. “There are six months of winter here in Superior, Wisconsin,” says Davis. “Can you imagine all the ice and snow that would be covering these pumps? We would have to move every time it snows. Plus, the employee safety risks of having to wrestle these big anaconda hoses in the poor weather.”
The average rail car is about 23,000 gallons but they can range from a split-product tanker with 10,000 gallons each of two different materials, to jumbo 30,000-gallon cars. However, AMSOIL’s quality control starts before the product ever leaves the tankers. “The first thing we do is pull a sample off of the rail car and send it to our lab to test, to ensure it meets our base stock specification,” says Davis.
“Once it’s accepted, we hook up the hoses and offload it. We can offload six railcars in four hours. We steam the railcar to bring the product up to about 160 degrees to get the product to flow through the system.” Once the base stocks are transferred from the railcars into the facility’s massive network of storage tanks, the real fun begins.
Stirred, Not Shaken
“We have 50 tanks with a little over a million gallons of product storage,” says Davis of the single facility he’s showcasing. “We have over 2,100 valves, all automatically controlled. Some of the tanks are heated as well to keep product flowing.”
The complex network of tanks and valves being automated greatly simplifies the routing and control that would take an incredible amount of time to address manually. “The automated system gives us the ability to respond quickly to different orders. There’s over 250 miles of instrumentation wiring alone in the system, explains Davis.
While the actual mixing of base oils and additives is all computerized, it’s not autonomous. A human is at the controls to ensure the blends are exactly to specifications. The beginning of a batch of product starts with the additive blend being mixed into a single “decant” tank.
Some of the components are used in such relatively small quantities, they are added via a 55-gallon drum instead of the network of pipes. The mixing tanks have load cells in the legs, so a precise amount can be measured out by weight. “It’s taking the degree of accuracy up a notch. We’re not just guessing at the gallons, we’re actually weighing the product as it’s added to the mix,” Davis says.
Once all the additives are properly combined, it’s time for the blending with the base stock. To do this in volume, efficiently takes significant effort. Thanks to AMSOIL’s simultaneous meter blending system. “The primary base oil is brought in through the pipe system, and run through a heat exchanger and heated to roughly 180 degrees at a rate of about 150 gallons per minute,” Davis explains.
“The additives will then be pumped, inline, from their individual, decant tanks through precision metering pumps, simultaneously, for a very high degree of accuracy. The hot oil “picks up” the additives, and at the end of the line it’s flowing about 200 gallons per minute because it’s mixing in the pipe.”
The system deposits the mix into a holding tank, where pumps continuously circulate the mixture. Davis elaborates, “A majority of the blending is happening in the tank. Each of these blending stations are dedicated to a specific family of products so that cross-contamination cannot occur to ensure the purity of every blend.” From there, the oil circulates for 15 minutes, and then a sample goes off to the lab.
The cleaning system runs a scraper plug, known as a pig, through the pipe at the end of the run, both to ensure that every drop of the blend and its components make it into the tank, and to clean the pipes. “Once we complete a run of product, say a 0W-20 passenger car motor oil, we’ll take one of the pigs, put air pressure behind it, and it will move through the system and squeegee all of the product left in the line. Then, once all the residual is collected, we reverse it and send the pig back down the line in the other direction,” says Davis.
Of course, the product still needs to be packaged — bottled, sealed, and labeled — and AMSOIL gives the same attention to detail there as the blending itself. The goal of the packaging innovation is to get the bottles filled as quickly and accurately as possible. Inefficiency and messiness mean both time and money down the tube.
First, oil bottles go through an unscrambler, an ingenious contraption that orients and arranges all the empty bottles correctly on a conveyor. Then, the bottles move to a 24-head carousel filler. “It’s weighing each empty bottle, tares it to zero, and then fills the exact amount of product into the bottle by weight,” says Davis. “Each bottle is within 0.8 grams of product weight of each other.” From there, the filled bottles are fed into a rotary capper and then to a labeler. Between capping and labeling, random samples are taken and sent to the lab for the last line of quality assurance.
While the process seems simple and straightforward, that’s because it is the result of 50 years of constant refinement of the entire process. The result is what you see today — an incredibly efficient process producing extremely accurate blends of products, at a rate that would be unbelievable to AMSOIL’s founder 50 years ago.