Spinning Wheels, Turning Profits

When it comes to wheel service repairs, shops and their customers need to ask: Is the tech knowledgeable about the service? Is he up-to-date on the techniques? And what are equipment manufacturers doing to help? Large and small repair shops need to know how to perform the service, but also how to turn a profit.

A CHALLENGE-SOLUTION APPROACH

Equipment manufacturers know that any challenges associated with tire and wheel repair must be countered with appropriate and effective solutions.

“Today, even something as simple as changing a tire opens up the possibility of introducing vibration problems that were not as prevalent a few years ago,” said David Scribner, product manager for Hunter Engineering.

“The simple act of removing the tire wheel from a vehicle can lead to mounting errors; the chassis today and the tire spring rate both lend themselves to much more potential for vibration in service repairs.”

Years ago, Scribner said, many techs “probably could’ve gotten away with just doing a simple repair. Now [you can risk] centering or eccentricity errors on the vehicle.”

CUSTOM WHEELS REQUIRE CUSTOM WORK

The expanding range in wheel applications also means a more involved procedure.

“It’s a big challenge techs face,” said Kevin Keefe, vice president of marketing at Hennessy Industries. He said that this can especially have a big impact when techs are mounting tires.

“I’m hoping that we’re hitting the upper end of size and weight on passenger cars and light truck tires and wheels.

“The size is no longer the big challenge from an equipment perspective; there are enough machines out there [you can use for] big, high-performance, low-profile custom wheel applications.”

Scribner agrees that low-profile wheel applications are complicated.

“Style has added to the complexity of service. With the road-feel of the passenger car now, [drivers] can feel more things on the road—it’s a European-type of feel — and it’s a combination of things creating challenges that balancing alone does not solve,” said Scribner.

Keefe said the challenge is training techs to fix these issues accurately.

“We’ve seen an evolution as run-flats and low-profile and the custom-wheel market started growing. It started out that the manufacturers of tire changers were adapting their existing equipment to handle them.

“Custom wheels and high/ultra-high performance applications have gotten so common that you’ll see a lot more changes that are specialized toward handling that segment. The problem is, many times the procedures required to service these applications on high-end equipment is far different than what they are for your run-of-the-mill, 16-inch passenger car wheel. So it creates training challenges,” said Keefe.

Some machines let techs perform the same process for 14” Honda Civic wheels as they do 30” Hummer wheels. The process is streamlined, but operators can use “helper devices” and assists to a varying extent.
With this equipment, designers also found that “having the controls at the point-of-use rather than having the device remotely controlled gets a lot more success; the technician is more focused on proper tire service procedures rather than trying to figure out how to operate the design,” said Keefe.

This not only eliminates wasted motion, but it maintains productivity and bay clearance.

FINDING THE RIGHT BALANCE

On the balancer side, the challenge isn’t so much the balancer itself, it’s being able to mount the tire and wheel assembly, and center it on the balancer shaft in the same manner in which it’s going to be centered on the vehicle.

“This process varies depending on if you’ve got a hub-centric OE wheel, or a lug-centric aftermarket wheel. Each drives the need for the kind of different mounting procedures,” said Keefe.

Apart from subtle design changes, balancers now have things like auto data entry to help reduce potential error. In addition, “some machines will issue a warning if there’s a loose hub nut or excess residual imbalance,” said Keefe.

Features that assist in training, such as a user interface, are huge; “especially with today’s technician turnover,” said Keefe. He said user interfaces and onboard animated training features communicate with the tech, prompt him to perform the process steps and walk him through the proper balancing process.

Onboard animated training programs provide techs with easy-to-follow instructional videos on an LCD screen. This not only teaches, but reinforces the steps towards a successful repair.

BATMAN AND ROBIN

Minimizing learning curves has led manufacturers to rethink how they offer tire service. High-end balancing equipment, for example, can cost more, but can also do more.

“Once you have a balancer that can identify eccentricity in the tire and the rim, then you need a tire changer that can actually turn the tire on the rim easily,” said Scribner. “Distributors now are selling and marketing high-end tire changers with balancers in packages. A high-end balancer can do more than balance.”

Scribner said the overall package that most shops need today has increased five-fold in cost over the past few years. When distributors market packagers, or ‘match-mounts,’ such as a tire changer with a balancer, it is so two high-end machines can work together.

“This started as the ‘dynamic duo,’ Batman and Robin,” said Scribner. “You need both in order to do a different type of job in the shop.

“They’re some of the most popular machines we offer,” said Scribner. “It’s not just because they need them to service fancy wheels; it’s because they need it to solve vibration problems and fix situations by turning the tire on the rim … it’s because techs had challenges that were not being addressed, and the cars were not being fixed properly.”

NO LONGER ONE-SIZE-FITS ALL

In terms of ROI, the expense pays off if shops market their services differently.

“The days of ‘free’ or ‘fixed price’ for every type of wheel balance, are quickly disappearing—unless the shop is willing to raise prices to do it right,” said Scribner. “You can’t spend $30,000 for a balancer and a tire changer and make money that way. And the shops that don’t realize that can’t afford to buy the equipment to do the job properly anymore.”

It starts with educating the customer.

“Customers should know today’s cars are different; that they require equipment, training and a whole different level of service. Even if you just want to have your tires rotated,” said Scribner.

“If you’re a distributor going into a garage and you don’t educate the shop owner that he has to change the way he markets his service to the consumer, he’s going to be out of business,” Scribner said.

“It has to be looked at as an opportunity, not a problem.”

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