Advanced Repairs: Specialize or Generalize?

Advanced Repairs : Specialize or Generalize?
As vehicle complexity increases, specialization becomes na increasing possibility for many independent service centres. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Increasing vehicle complexity raises the question.

For Scott Waddle, the challenge with diagnostics has been coming for some time now.

“We knew we couldn’t be all things to everyone, so we started to weed out some of the models that were not well represented in our geographic location,” says the owner of Precision Auto Service in Langley, B.C. “And we did the same with other models that were simply not profitable.” Now, Waddle only services Domestic and Asian vehicles, and Mercedes-Benz

Now, Waddle only services Domestic and Asian vehicles, and Mercedes-Benz diesels. “The Europeans are the most challenging for diagnostics because you need to code and program modules that are as simple as a window switch or a turn signal,” he says.

Return on investment

As a result, his shop has been able to spend more time and money on training and purchasing diagnostic tools on the vehicles in which they specialize. “You can’t invest in something that won’t give you a return on investment,” he explains. “You need to put all your money into certain brands rather than trying to be an expert on everything.”

A strong diagnostic shop will not only have the tools and trained technicians, but also software and access to information. “Some of the tools will work forever, but others turn off at the end of the year unless you buy another year’s worth of software,” says Waddle.

It’s also stressful for staff to work on vehicles that may be out of their field of expertise. “When staff are stressed, they’re less productive,” Waddle points out.

Shops need to look at their database and their demographics to see what’s going to be profitable for them down the road. “If your local area will support it, then specialization is the way of the future,” he says. Diagnostics is an expensive undertaking. Waddle has OEM scan tools for General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota and Mercedes. “The OEM tools are much more accurate, fast and confident,” he says. “That confidence translates from the technician to the service advisor and ultimately, the customer.”

He believes there is much opportunity in approaching diagnostics the right way. “You need to get the tools, the training, the information, and have a support network, to make your shop a caliber above the rest.”

By brand

If a shop wants to position itself as having expertise in diagnostics,, there simply may come a point when the all-makes-and-models approach is not sustainable. “That shop may have to decide some vehicles are not worth doing,” says Mohan Sethi, Product Manager at MAHLE North America.

Typically, specialization is done by brands or certain regions like domestic, Asian or European. “You have to think of what there’s a demand for in your community,” says Sethi. “You have to decide, based on the investment of tools and training, what will be the most lucrative.” He notes that young people are interested in diagnostics because it’s seen as a high tech area. “Hopefully that will turn around the labour shortage and bring in some new recruits.”

It’s also important to note that dealers are aggressively pursuing the servicing of older vehicles, a business that has traditionally been the domain of the aftermarket. “When the dealer becomes involved, customer satisfaction is paramount,” says Sethi.

“If a customer comes in and their vehicle needs to be re-flashed because there was a software update for that brand, you need to get the OEM tool. That’s crucial if you want to compete with the dealer and do deep diagnostics. You have to grow your investment because you really want to serve the customer well.”

Right to Repair

However, the headway of Right to Repair could create an environment in which an all-models approach thrives. “OEMs are developing a solution that will allow access to vehicles with a standardized piece of software,” says James Fish, Chief Innovation Officer at Bosch North America. “By about 2018, shops will be able to access all makes and models with a single vehicle communication interface (VCI), a piece of hardware that can talk to a car.”

The systems creating vehicle complexity have been expanding by 30 to 35 percent every year. “Today, there are cars that have over 70 different controllers,” says Fish. “It’s almost like having 70 different people on their own private shared database, communicating to run and operate the vehicle.”

There are certain vehicles that require scan tools when charging the battery or even changing the oil. “Algorithms in the car track when your oil change is due,” explains Fish.

By 2022, automatic braking will be a standard feature in vehicles. “The advent of driver assistance features like smart cruise control, lane departure warning, backup aids, many of these will be increasingly adopted,” predicts Fish. “You can expect to see additional systems based on safety benefits.”

“You have to decide, based on the investment of tools and training, what will be the most lucrative.” Mohan Sethi, Product Manager, MAHLE North America

On par with dealerships

Insurance companies are beginning to require a diagnostic scan before a repair has begun, and then afterward as well. “Many cars can need a repair at the time that a collision occurs,” says Fish. “If you have a side hit, you could pull out of the diagnostics an indication that a problem had occurred two weeks earlier that wasn’t addressed. The customer would want a problem fixed that maybe wasn’t caused in the collision. Insurance companies want to collect this additional documentation both before and after the repair.”

Many independent shops have diagnostic capabilities that are on par with dealerships, according to Joe Bacarella, Manager, Product Training and Technical Resource Center (TRC) North America Aftermarket, Tenneco. “Scan tool suppliers have done an excellent job of developing highly sophisticated yet user-friendly devices that help technicians and efficiently troubleshoot most drivability problems,” he says.

If there is any diagnostic gap, it relates to over-reliance on scan tools. “Shops have abandoned the use of four and five-gas analyzers because they are viewed as old technology,” says Bacarella. “Those analyzers are the best way to determine what’s coming out of the tailpipe.”

Comprehensive training platforms like Tenneco Service Solutions help extend the reach of technical support to techs, service writers and parts professionals.

Most skilled technicians are fascinated by diagnostic challenges. “Some emissions control challenges can be very complex and require a thorough knowledge of multiple systems and processes like intake, combustion, cooling, fuel delivery and of course, the conversion of exhaust gases,” says Bacarella.

“It’s not enough to read and define a powertrain trouble code; you also have to resolve any of the dozens of potential operating issues that might have triggered that code.”

Thanks to advanced training in conjunction with the latest generation of tools and equipment, there’s no reason why a shop cannot continue to serve as the consumer’s primary automotive diagnostics provider.

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