At the 2003 AAPEX (Automotive Aftermarket Products Exposition) show in Las Vegas, I saw Delphi's vision of the future for servicing vehicles. Their DS800 "Smart System" uses an LCD touch-screen tablet or mini-notebook PC to handle everything from checking in vehicles and entering customer information to creating work orders, ordering parts, writing estimates and vehicle troubleshooting. The key to this system is the electronic interface that can talk to a shop's management software system as well as Delphi's technical database and other service information resources.
When a vehicle enters a shop, the vehicle's VIN number is scanned into the system using a handheld optical scanner. If there's a recall on the vehicle or it is overdue for maintenance, the system prompts the service writer to discuss these items with the customer. It also prompts the service writer with a checklist of items that should be inspected for safety or additional sales.
The DS800 also performs an initial Service Bay Quality Control (SBQC) scan for any fault codes or vehicle data that is out of specifications. This is not a final diagnosis but an evaluation of possible repairs that may be needed so customer preauthorization can be obtained before the vehicle goes on to the technician. The DS800 can also be used to look up parts and labor rates and to give the customer a repair estimate.
One of the cornerstones of this system is Delphi's online database of known good test values for sensors and electronic circuits. The DS800 helps walk the technician through the diagnostic process to pinpoint faulty components or circuits using amperage-based testing. If additional help is needed, the technician can also use the system to access a Delphi tech expert online to share live vehicle data and other service information.
Essential Scan Tools
Another interesting event I attended was a seminar by PWR Training covering what they considered to be essential tools for servicing vehicles today. The "A" list includes both aftermarket and OEM scan tools, an exhaust analyzer, an ignition scope (lab scope), digital multi meter, cooling system pressure tester, fuel flow gauge, battery charger, battery and charging system analyzer, a "smoke machine" for finding air and vacuum leaks, an up-to-date PC with broadband internet access for searching and downloading OEM service information, technical service bulletins and PCM reflash data, and sharing diagnostic tips and problems with other technicians on groups such as the International Automotive Technicians Network.
Many technicians ask which scan tool they should buy. The answer, says PWR Training, is all of them. They recommend having a good aftermarket scan tool for accessing codes and sensor data on a broad range of vehicles, and a selection of factory OEM scan tools for the major makes you service. If possible the OEM scan tool should be the same one the dealership technicians use because some OEMS "decontent" the aftermarket versions of their scan tools.
Buying more than one scan tool is expensive, but even the best multi-platform aftermarket scan tools can't do all of the things that are possible with individual OEM scan tools. Capabilities that may not be available in some aftermarket scan tools include bi-directional controls, access to theft deterrent systems, initialization routines (required on some Chryslers when replacing the PCM), PCM flash reprogramming, access to HVAC, ABS and air bag codes, and the ability to read computer area network (CAN) data on certain late model vehicles.
Shops should have $15,000 to $20,000 invested in OEM and aftermarket scan tools, says PWR Training, and spend another $5,000 a year on upgrades to stay current. Technicians should also receive at least 40 hours of training every year to upgrade their diagnostic skills so they can use their scan tools more effectively.
One of the most under utilized pieces of equipment is a smoke machine. Shops will often buy a smoke machine to pinpoint hard-to-find leaks in EVAP emissions systems, but seldom use it to find air leaks in air filter housings, intake plumbing and manifolds. Yet it works great for these purposes, too. Consequently, the smoke machine should be used to inspect every vehicle with a driveability issue.
One thing to watch out for when buying shop equipment, warned PWR Training, is a "fantasy" Return On Investment (ROI) worksheet that may be presented by the equipment salesman. Fantasy ROI's paint an unrealistic picture of the equipment's potential return and payback because they often fail to include the cost of labor, shop overhead and other expenses. So be sure these items are factored in when deciding whether or not to buy a new piece of equipment.
The guys at PWR Training also said shops should charge customers if they have to download service information from an OEM website (one-time access fees to OEM service websites typically range from $15 to $25, with longer subscriptions available at much higher prices). Why should the shop eat this expense? The shop needs access to the technical service information so they can fix their customers cars. So the cost should be billed to the customer. The same goes for PCM reflash downloads or any other a shop has to buy from a vehicle manufacturer to repair a car.