Auto Service World
Feature   August 1, 2001   by Francis Paige

Closing the efficiency gap

More powerful search capabilities and frequent, real-time data updates are driving the switch to Web-based integrated database solutions

The repair manual is the auto service technician’s bible. For decades, the row of service manuals has formed the backbone of the craft. Shiny CD-ROMS and DVD discs containing sophisticated computer-based diagnostic, repair and estimating systems are now replacing the familiar dog-eared volumes of books, revolutionizing the way shops diagnose and repair all automobile systems.

What advantages do digital formats offer over traditional paper diagnostic and repair manuals? The ability to access comprehensive, accurate information readily available with minimal time expenditure, says Robert Gardner, senior product manager for Mitchell Repair Information Company. Gardner outlines two key features of a good database product: “A good database consists of two items: First, having the correct information to fix the vehicle that a technician is working on is critical. So the database has to be complete, including repair information, parts data, and labour times. Secondly, the shop must be able to access that data in a fast, consistent, and reliable manner. This means that the software tools used to access the data must provide simple and intuitive methods for finding what the technician is looking for.”

When considering switching to digital format, look for companies that offer toll-free customer support lines to get information not included in the database. Better companies monitor these calls in order to fill in the gaps, and include this information in regular technical service updates. This points to another key advantage of computer-based solutions: the ability to access the most up-to-date information available. As Mimi deVille, product manager for ALLDATA Online, points out: “One reason we’re so popular in so many markets is that it’s costly to replace manuals. In the repair facility, you have grease on your hands, the text is smudged, at times you’re sharing thick volumes between several bays, and the information needs to be replaced quarterly, if not monthly, in order to be current. The advantage with putting it on disk is that you have instant access to the information, you don’t have to grease up the print pages and you don’t go through the replacement costs. We ship new upadate disks quarterly. The benefit with the online system is that we have the capability to update the information much more frequently and there are no disks to swap.”

Making the switch

Change is inevitably met with some resistance, and the paradigm shift from paper to digital service manuals has been no exception. deVille notes: “The independent repair market has traditionally been slow to adopt new technology. So if you look back 10 years ago, the percentage of those that had a computer in their shop was significantly lower. Of those that had a computer, the number of those using some form of automated diagnostic and repair solution was small. Over the next two years, the ramp-up is significant. Looking to 2005, the outlook is excellent. But there is still a significant percentage of market to attack. It’s not anywhere near saturated.”

Change also comes at a cost. One of the biggest obstacles to shops making the switch to digital formats is the high entry cost. However, Gardner argues that the price of inefficiency must also be taken into account: “Cost is an important consideration, but only in relative terms of the value of the database. For example, if a shop is able to find what they need faster, they can perform more jobs in less time. This efficiency offsets the cost of the database and actually fits into the old adage ‘pays for itself’. We see many shops that didn’t think they could afford an electronic database now wonder how they ever did without it.”

With a significant proportion of smaller shops still operating without a computer, making the switch from paper to digital formats simply isn’t a viable option. Future ventures to entice them to computer-based formats will likely include promotions in which the repair and diagnostic software is bundled together with the computer or with an Internet service provider. Says deVille: “Once smaller shops get a computer and realize that ‘it’s not going to replace me as a person’, they’re 100 percent full steam ahead”.

What are the minimum system requirements for running a digital repair and diagnostic database? Most shops equipped with computers likely already meet them. Typically, the databases call for 32 megs of RAM, a 100 megahertz Pentium equivalent, Windows 95 or higher, 30 megs of available disk space, and a 56 K modem, although a faster, DSL connection is recommended.

Looking ahead: the road online

The switch from paper to diskette, CD or DVD databases, however, is merely a technological pit stop on the road to full Internet compliance. As Gardner explains: “Web-based products will certainly overtake CD or DVD versions as the primary delivery medium for repair databases. The question is when.”

“E-manuals” are being integrated with shop management tools and online parts ordering, so that all aspects of diagnosing and completing a repair are simply a mouse-click away. “More powerful search capabilities and more frequent, even real-time, data updates will be incentive enough for many customers to make the switch,” says Gardner. Technicians will have the ability to access labour times to build accurate estimates, use both OEM and aftermarket catalogues to search for parts, add a scheduled service complete with labour times to the repair order, or even check service bulletins to sleuth any “quick fixes” available for a given symptom.

Further driving the trend toward Internet-based solutions is the staggering volume of information continually being added to the databases. At the current rate, even digital copies of the manuals are becoming cumbersome. DeVille notes: “As we expand the amount of data, the number of disks increases. Each new quarter you get 61 disks. We add about 200,000 pages of content per quarter, which takes up a lot of disks, which is why we’ve moved people from CD to DVD. We started out with five DVD’s, now we’ve got seven. With Online you just click and it’s all-in-one.”

However, the real driver for web-based products, Gardner believes, is bandwidth: “Over the next two to five years, as high-speed access like DSL becomes available in more regions of the continent and competition drives down the price of always-on Internet access, Web-based products will become even more appealing. You’ll also see Web-based applications become more commonly accepted as Microsoft implements its .NET (dot-net) strategy, a two- to five-year plan whose core assumption is that future business and consumer users will access their applications and data over the Internet in hosted environments”.

Spiralling costs of diskettes, CD’s and DVD’s are also inducing shops to turn toward online manual and diagnostic solutions. Says deVille: “We want to eventually migrate all our customers from disk to online because it’s a better solution for the customer and for us. It’s much easier to update and produce it, and we’re able to offer more features and benefits, some of which cannot be duplicated on disk versions. As a return on investment, it’s definetely better to be online.”

Are paper shop manuals destined to become obsolete? More than likely. The trend towards integrated software solutions is revolutionizing the way shops do business, empowering the small business owner to access the same breadth of information available to the large operators. Independents are uniquely poised both now and in the future to enjoy the best of both worlds: the one-on-one relationship building natural to the owner-operated shop environment, and information technology previously reserved for only mass market installers. It’s not a question of if, but when. SSGM

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