Computers in the auto repair industry have become as common as cellphones ringing during a movie. Laptops are a familiar sight at many tech stations now, and few cars are going in for repairs that don't have some computer-controlled functions.
Diagnostic tools and equipment are sometimes the only answer to the demands of highly-sophisticated vehicles, and the software behind this equipment is in a constant state of flux.
So many vehicle functions are now interconnected that only owning sockets, hammers and power tools isn't enough for current mechanics.
"We're seeing it every day where technicians are spending hours, sometimes days, on vehicles trying to diagnose or repair them with just normal equipment … a scan tool or scope … or whatever they have in the shop, only to find out that the only way to fix the vehicle is to actually update the calibration information with a computer," said Alan Brown, senior sales associate at Ease Diagnostics.
In fact, vehicle controllers are so interdependent on each other, it's now imperative for shops of all sizes to carry diagnostic equipment.
Reprogramming the fix
Scan tools, packed with options for enhanced coverage and wireless communication, continue to be a top-seller in the industry.
Close behind is the relatively new J2534 reprogramming and reflashing software.
"Basically J2534 is the new reprogramming standard," said Brown. "As long as you have hardware that complies with J2534 specifications, you can access calibration from the OEM that also meets these specifications, and everything works."
The ability to flash and reflash vehicle modules and update calibration information on an aftermarket level, means car owners no longer need to pay a visit to the dealership for this kind of repair. This reprogramming device "allows shop owners, technicians and repair facilities to be able to update vehicle control modules with the latest calibration information from the OEMs," Brown said.
"Maybe nothing's wrong with a car," said Brown. "It's just throwing a false diagnostic trouble code, and the only way to fix it is to reflash the internal computer in the car to tell it not to do it anymore.
"It's just another addition to your diagnostic arsenal to generate more revenue and business."
Jay Horak, principal engineer at AutoEnginuity, believes the real advantage to using computer-based solutions, like J2534 reprogramming, is that they allow end-users to unify what were once separate pieces of equipment into a single tool. And that's the point — allowing mechanics to do more with less.
"I think it's cheaper and better for people to bring together different technologies onto a single platform because it brings the cost down," said Horak. "The benefit of the PC solution is that you can bring in different vendors onto the same tool. So if you're not locked into a single vendor solution, or if somebody has a better idea — or even if it's a competing idea, they can commingle on the same piece of equipment and you don't have to re-buy the electrical overhead."
Another positive aspect of PC-based equipment is its ability to customize to a shop's specific needs.
"Because they're PC-based, they can basically be purchased how the end-user needs it," Brown said. "So if it's at a bare-bones level like the basic OBD-II tool package, we can provide them with that; if they're looking for OEM-specific info, to cover like engine, transmission, ABS, air bag and body, we can provide them with that. If they're looking for just one manufacturer in general, say they work at a GM dealership so the only vehicles they work on are GM, we can provide them with just a strict GM tool.
"Being PC-based, it gives you a little more leeway for how you can offer your packages."
The learning curve
Learning how to operate computer-based diagnostic tools can be a daunting task for some techs.
"Basically, with any tool that a tech or shop owner would go out and buy, the ROI depends on how well they understand the equipment," said Brown. "The better they understand the equipment, the more effectively they can use it.
"There is going to be a little learning curve, only because it's something they've never done before; it's always gone on the OEM level." said Brown.
Some of the more sophisticated equipment comes with help tools, such as software that guides users through the entire reprogramming process from start to finish. But most of this equipment does not come with training. The more expensive the item is, the more likely it is that training is provided by the manufacturer.
"It is important to know if training is provided onsite," said Steve White, president of Electronic Specialties. "It's always smart [for the distributor] to check into training options before talking to the customer about any test equipment."
Updates are also a constant occurrence with this equipment.
"Software is [usually] updated four to five times a year and the hardware updates as necessary," said Horak. "It follows the computer model; we have quicker time to market, and we also have faster and more rapid reaction to issues with the tool such as bug fixes, gaps in coverage and finally with the hardware being reflashable and updateable. This allows the customer to have very little down time."
Most often, however, it's up to the technician or shop owner to find out whether updates are available when they have a vehicle come in for repair.
"There's often no way that shop owners or anyone on the aftermarket get notified from the OEMs that there are particular updates available for the vehicle," said Brown. "Technicians and shop owners can find out that information by using reference sites that the OEMs have available."
Pushing the right buttons
When a mobile dealer really knows his clientele, he can better help each shop make sound buying decisions.
"'What do you work on?' That's the number one question from us when people ask us about the tools that any manufacturer provides. That's generic conversation," said Horak. "If you're going to buy something, you have to understand what your needs are first. Don't buy a European tool if you work on domestic cars."
White said that things like warranty and accessories are especially important to buyers. They also should know whether updates are available if software is involved.
"Many customers want to know about certain specifications, testing capabilities and testing ranges, for example," said White. "Sometimes they are right in the middle of a repair job and they need the answer immediately."
Though many technicians will shop and compare, White mentions that distributors should try to give their best possible advice because "if [a tool] does the job, some techs will go and buy the item that same day."
Besides matching shop needs to equipment functions, White had another suggestion to get conversation flowing … the weather.
"I think the best way to approach selling test equipment to the owner or shop manager is to look at it from seasonal standpoint," said White. "You know, battery testers in the fall/winter, A/C testers in the spring/summer, etc. If you approach it that way, then you have a good way of opening the discussion."
Test equipment prices range from under $100 up into thousands of dollars. "It's a good idea to be aware of what kind of accessories come with
the item," White said. "For example, with digital multimeters, an amp
probe adapter can be a great compliment. Amp probes are normally sold separately
and most of them will also work
with a handheld scope, too."
Brown explained that most aftermarket companies provide the hardware in order to do the reprogramming.
"Our hardware is running
right around $1,150. And then above and beyond that, you have to go purchase the
OEM data subscriptions to have access to the
calibration information. Those are provided on several different levels; DVD-based, CD-based and web-based formats," said Brown.
Ford and Chrysler, for example, both have web-based subscriptions set up where users can access the information on a daily, monthly or yearly basis. The cost ranges anywhere from $20 a day to $1,500 a year, depending on how they want to purchase it.
Do your research on both sides
The occasional facelift on equipment and packages should be expected, but apart from that, distributors need to do their own research on their customers' needs and what equipment they can offer. The information distributors share can help make their customers' jobs a little easier, while also increasing the distributor's on-the-road revenue.
"You will never know all the answers, nor will your competitor," said White. "So don't be afraid to talk about the latest tester … technicians want to know about new tools, especially new test equipment."
and software can sometimes seem as complicated as they are efficient.
Luckily, the answers are just a phone call away.