Improving Speed, Cost-Effectiveness of Vehicle Oil Analysis with Portable Test Devices

Expeditionary Fluid Analysis Capability (EFAC)/Fast Field Fluid Assessment Tools (3FAST)


Uncertainty about motor oil quality can lead to unnecessary costs when oil that has not deteriorated past usability is replaced or when oil that has is left in an engine, decreasing the longevity of its components. Fleet maintainers have traditionally depended on in-house laboratories or commercial testing services, neither of which are an efficient solution when the vehicle fleets they operate are widely scattered and need work in the field.

Being able to obtain accurate data on the physicochemical properties of a vehicle’s oil in a timely manner helps maintainers in the field conserve resources and better allocate their time and energy. As part of the Expeditionary Fluid Analysis Capability (EFAC) project funded through the Commercial Technologies for Maintenance Activities program, NCMS and its partners offered a suite of oil analysis tools for use by the Department of Defense (DoD). Fast and portable, the Spectro Scientific suite of tools measure kinematic viscosity, chemical properties, fluid cleanliness, and metal wear. EFAC is the product of over a decade of work to help technicians in both the military and commercial spheres maintain their inventories with greater efficiency, lower cost, and less waste, based on the real condition of their assets.

As part of regular vehicular maintenance, the Department of Defense (DoD) has had a long-standing need for portable and/or online tools for carrying out efficient, large-scale oil analysis. Oil analysis capability is an important component of a larger strategy of condition-based maintenance (CBM). This approach minimizes waste associated with sustaining an entire inventory of systems and platforms by replacing scheduled or mileage-based maintenance with maintenance informed by real-time data about the condition of individual assets.

Historically, the DoD conducted almost all oil analyses at fixed locations, in brick-and-mortar laboratories that may be thousands of miles away from where the asset being tested resides. The introduction of fast, portable oil-analysis tools significantly increases efficiency, eliminating the need for filling and shipping sample containers, remotely testing them, and reporting results for roughly 2 million oil samples per year.



Oil performs several functions for the engine, lubricating parts, dissipating heat, maintaining cleanliness, and preventing corrosion. Exposed to the heat of an operating engine over a long period of time, oil begins to break down, altering its viscosity, producing sludge, and making it progressively less effective as a lubricant. Particulate contaminants also accumulate within it, causing it to erode parts as it flows through the engine.[1]

Oil analysis can play a valuable role, not only in DoD fleet maintenance, but in commercial industry, on the consumer automotive market, in monitoring of hydraulic systems,[2] and in routine maintenance of engine generators, commonly used in emergency settings.[3] It also provides valuable data to inform condition-based maintenance regimes: regular assessments of oil condition allow maintainers to diagnose engine problems early and to determine when part needs to be replaced and when they are fully serviceable. The delays associated with sending samples to and receiving results back from a laboratory can act as a bottleneck in this process, discouraging maintainers from sampling oil frequently at regular intervals—a practice that maximizes the quality of the data oil analysis provides.

The incorporation of oil life monitoring systems into many cars has helped car owners better time their oil changes, but these systems do not always provide accurate data compared to laboratory analysis. Incomplete and conflicting information still abounds on how often motor oil should be changed: Because modern synthetic oils are more robust and engine parts more precisely tooled than their forebears, few cars require the 3,000-mile oil changes recommended by dealerships or folk wisdom. More accurate guidelines contained in car manuals tend to also be mileage-based, leaving owners with a set of estimates and uncertainty over whether they should abide by a normal or severe maintenance schedule.[4]

Similarly, engine generators operate at varying loads, meaning that traditional schedule-based oil changes lead usable oil to be discarded. Moreover, in the absence of oil analysis, problems such as fluid contamination go undetected, increasing the risk of generator damage.[5]

Studies of the DoD’s maintenance programs show that over two-thirds of discarded oil is still usable, costing the department an estimated $100 million per year. The cost of the wasted oil itself is compounded when one considers the cost of disposal, as well as lost productivity from time maintainers spend on unnecessary oil replacement; vehicle maintainers understand that under a schedule-based regime, much of the oil they discard is still serviceable, but in the field, without access to real-time test tools, they have few alternatives.[6]



The Spectro Scientific suite of tools requires only drops of oil and outputs a “go/no go” result in five minutes; diagnostic software displays a comprehensive analysis of the test results, along with maintenance recommendations. The test process does not use chemicals and does not generate hazardous waste. The tools measure samples’ kinematic viscosity, chemical properties based on infrared spectroscopy, fluid cleanliness levels by particle count, and metal wear based on x-ray spectroscopy and detects contaminants such water or glycol (antifreeze), as well as soot content. This data can be an important red flag for maintainers: the presence of anti-freeze in detected in motor oil can be a forewarning of potentially serious mechanical failure. Metal wear, meanwhile, can be a result of an array of possible problems; early detection can enable maintainers to prevent those failures before they occur.

Every new U.S. Coast Guard cutter being built will be equipped with a suite of these tools, which are also being purchased for legacy ships. They are in wide use in the mining and oil industries.[7] The predecessor to the EFAC project, 3FAST, equipped the DoD and the U.S. government with two last-generation portable tools, FluidScan and the Q3000. Over 400 of them were put into service across the world, including aboard Coast Guard cutters, in U.S. Navy shipyards and other DoD installations, and in various U.S. embassies.

In addition to its testing capabilities, the suite also offers remote connectivity, linking maintenance personnel to laboratory technicians and analytical processes at the maintenance site. In addition, it can connect to a network, wireless or through a physical connection, to transmit results and receive supplementary analysis and feedback from traditional oil-analysis laboratories. To fully realize the suite’s value across such a vast institution, NCMS partner Troika Solutions conducted a study in order to make recommendations and propose a deployment plan for the devices for the DoD.[8]


Project Partners:

  • DoD, Office of the Secretary of Defense
  • Headquarters, Installations and Logistics, U.S. Marine Corps
  • PM AAA, U.S. Marine Corps
  • S. Air Force – Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center GBEA
  • S. Air Force Oil Analysis Program Office
  • S. Navy Air Command (NAVAIR)
  • S. Navy Sea Command (NAVSEA)
  • S. Navy Oil Analysis Program (NOAP)
  • S. Army Oil Analysis Program (AOAP)
  • S. Army Tank Automotive Command (TACOM)
  • S. Army Fuels and Lubricants Technology Team
  • S. Army Aviation and Engineering Directorate (AED)
  • S. Army Aviation Ground Support Equipment (AGSE)
  • S. Army PEO Aviation
  • S. Army Aviation and Missile Command
  • Headquarters, Military Sealift Command
  • S. Coast Guard
  • Joint Oil Analysis Program (JOAP)
  • Spectro Inc.
  • Troika Solutions LLC
  • Sengenuity, Inc.
  • Decagon Devices, Inc.
  • Smiths Detection
  • National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS)

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[1] David Tracy, “I Found Out What Happens When You Don’t Change Your Oil For 12,000 Miles,” The Garage, March 3, 2016,

[2] “The Benefits of Oil Analysis,” Machinery Lubrication, n.d.,

[3] Yuegang Zhao and Dan Walsh, “Portable Oil Analysis Tools Reduce Routine Maintenance Costs,” Power, November 1, 2014,

[4] Philip Reed, Senior Consumer Advice Editor Ronald Montoya, and Senior Consumer Advice Editor, “Stop Changing Your Oil!,” Edmunds, April 23, 2013,

[5] Zhao and Walsh, “Portable Oil Analysis Tools Reduce Routine Maintenance Costs.”

[6] “NCMS Teams With Troika Solutions to Develop EFAC Implementation Plan,” National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (blog), June 6, 2017,

[7] “NCMS Teams With Troika Solutions to Develop EFAC Implementation Plan”; “Troika Solutions Plans for EFAC Program Deployment across the Department of Defense,” National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (blog), January 20, 2017,

[8] “Troika Solutions Plans for EFAC Program Deployment across the Department of Defense.”