Tucked away in the South Pennines with just 105 staff, Millers Oils punches well above its weight in using hi-technology to create top-performing products. James Lawson reports.
Founder John Watson Miller started out in 1887, selling lamp oil and lubricants to the thriving textile industry in nearby towns like Huddersfield and Bradford. When those factories switched from water wheels to steam, Miller started producing engine oils.
Three generations of Millers and some 130 years later, the company still sells its washable ‘water white’ oils for weaving machines as far afield as Bangladesh and Sydney. But it also manufactures more than 2,000 other products to satisfy a diverse worldwide client base.
Millers Oils now exports over a quarter of its output, winning the Queen’s Award for this in 2012.
“We supply almost every sector except aviation and large marine,” says Martyn Mann, the company’s technical director. “Motorsport is a big, high-value business for us in the US, while heavy transport lubricants are our main line in South America.”
An extreme willingness to innovate is the company’s hallmark, averaging a staggering 75 new and updated products every year. It developed the first engine oil specifically for diesel cars in 1967. In 1979, it was first to market with extended-drain-interval lubricants for heavy goods vehicles.
“Our team of chemists are multi-skilled with varying backgrounds in the oil industry,” says Mann. “That lets them approach problems from original angles and bounce different ideas off each other. We’re fast on our feet and very, very flexible.”
The business case for that HGV engine oil was simple: it might be twice the price of conventional lubricants but, with oil change intervals that today exceed 100,000km, it has four or five times the lifespan.
The company’s Nanodrive range of motorsport oils also justify premium pricing through exceptional performance, incorporating nanoparticles which significantly reduce friction and increase durability.
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“They act as microscopic ball bearings and also adhere to the metal’s surface,” explains Mann. “When we first tested the gearbox oil in the British Touring Car Championship, the gearboxes lasted for two or three race meetings instead of just one and we saw horsepower increases up to 5.5%.”
Nanodrive transmission lubricants won the World Motorsport Symposium award in 2009 with the MIA Innovation Award following in 2012. There, Millers bested fellow nominees Williams and McLaren – no slouches when it comes to original motorsport ideas.
Nanodrive has now been extended to other automotive markets, with low friction fuel additives as well as engine and gearbox oils. These cut maintenance and can reduce fuel costs by 3% – a significant amount for fleet managers.
“Engines are getting smaller and working harder while drain intervals are staying the same,” notes Mann. “There’s definitely more need for high-tech oils like ours.”
To support this culture of innovation, the company opened a new R&D Centre in 2011 with an oil-testing laboratory at its heart.
Here, analysts evaluate the performance of the chemists’ latest formulations, as well as rapidly assessing 30 to 40 daily samples of incoming raw materials and oils produced on the factory floor.
This workload requires a plethora of sophisticated test equipment. Viscosity, the classic oil parameter, is calculated using various viscometers, in some cases bespoke designs to allow measurement at different temperatures.
There’s a very accurate oven and balance that tests oil volatility – quantifying the high-temperature stability of lubricants or the amount of contamination in the used oils that Millers tests for its clients.
Multiple spectroscopes employ analyses like Fourier Transform Infra-Red and X-Ray Fluorescence. They produce a unique ‘fingerprint’ for each oil, showing its constituents and their relative concentrations.
Knowing the chemical make-up also helps to identify specific types of contamination such as oxidation and nitration. Other equipment replicates the friction environments of engines and gearboxes, giving the Centre the ability to vary temperature and pressure while sliding and rolling oil-separated test pieces. An extreme pressure tester can exert over a million PSI.
The heat treatment rig helps chemists tailor quenching oils to give the required rate of cooling and so depth of hardness. Then there’s the micro-torque tester that evaluates the effectiveness of Millers’ range of cutting fluids in helping tap different metals.
“Being able to reduce tool wear is a huge plus for our manufacturing clients and it’s also very energy efficient,” says Mann. “Constant investment in new equipment allows us to carry out almost every test in-house.”
Advanced bespoke products
That capability makes the company extremely responsive, helping it win prestigious clients like Aston Martin. Up against incumbent suppliers Shell and Castrol, Millers Oils had a working sample ready three weeks after the initial meeting.
“It comfortably exceeded their specification and our Nanodrive transmission oil has been the standard factory fill at Aston Martin since 2013,” says Mann.
The nimbleness also extends to the factory floor. Piped from tanks high in the roof, base oils and additives are blended in mixing vessels ranging from 16 tons down to a few hundred litres. Pneumatic tubes convey samples from the factory floor to the test lab where results are available in under 15 minutes.
Millers’ swift and cost-effective batch production lets it bespoke products to each client’s needs. For vehicle manufacturers, staff might start with the 5W/30 API standard and then adjust the grade to precisely match the client’s specifications in areas like fuel efficiency and emissions.
Maximising production efficiency for this short-run model demands suitable equipment. That often means adapting off-the-shelf machinery or building from scratch.
Controlling the mixing process is a prime example. To log the source components in each oil batch, the engineering team modified software from the pharma industry.
“We can tell you the supplier, batch number and delivery date for every constituent in every one of our products,” says Mann. “That’s a unique capability.”
Swapping quickly between batches with the minimum of waste is vital when filling containers with finished lubricants or other fluids like anti-freeze. Here, Millers Oils constructed seven filling machines whose source feed hose can be switched within two minutes with the loss of only five litres of liquid.
“We built them for £6,000 where commercially available ones are closer to £100,000,” explains Mann, noting that almost all the lost oil is recycled into future batches. “We have very little waste on-site.”
Two production lines for filling small fuel additive bottles were built in-house as well. In contrast, the three larger machines that fill 25 up to 205 litre containers were bought in.
“Those gave us exactly what we needed, but if we can build it in-house then we will,” notes Mann. “If we’re going to do a job, we want to do it to the best of our ability.”
Always looking for new markets
Finding clever ways to solve problems continues to produce new income streams.
That might be chain lubricants capable of handling the very high temperatures found in bakery ovens, antibacterial chemicals for bio-diesel that prevent fuel system clogging or additives that neutralise the effect of the increasing amounts of ethanol found in pump petrol.
On the industrial service side, Millers Oils engineers now take advanced lab testing equipment onto client sites to evaluate the hydraulic oil used in moulding machinery.
These produce a cleanliness code and report the size and shape of any particles found. If out of spec, they have a solution on hand.
“We have built plug-in filter rigs that can bring the oil down to the level of cleanliness required,” says Mann. “Again, that’s unique as far as I know.”
To qualify for development, new products must make an immediate £5,000 annual net profit contribution though, according to Mann, “there are exceptions for strategic markets that we feel we should compete in.”
Millers Oils new metal-forming lubricant intended for offshore oil components is a case in point. A local customer had been struggling to cold-form right-angle bends in stainless steel hose connectors.
Though they had annealed the material after machining and were using lubricant between the mandrel and connector, the stainless steel was still cracking and snapping.
The new high water content oil solves that problem. Because the water evaporates as the heat generated by the forming process increases, the work piece remains cool and the oil film strength is progressively boosted.
Handily, it also removes the need to anneal. “We’re now marketing that to customers in the offshore oil sector,” says Mann. “We’ve also produced a lower performance version for exhaust pipe bending. The high water content lets the manufacturer weld without removing the lubricant.”
Though it supplies the dealer networks of famous brands from BMW to Halfords, Millers’ small size sometimes disqualifies it from very large contracts, such as international factory fills in the motor industry.
Recent changes to the board have seen more emphasis placed on growth and individual enterprise, with a bonus of 10% of profit split equally between all staff.
The goal is a £5m operating profit within the next four years, with all investment coming from income rather than loans. Currently manufacturing on a single shift, the factory has plenty of spare capacity to cope.
“We’re well on course,” says Mann. “The trick is to grow sustainably year after year. We might still be Yorkshire’s best kept secret, but we’re looking to change that.”