Auto Service World
Feature   January 1, 2002   by Jim Anderton


For 2002, the trend toward personal handheld diagnostic equipment continues

“Time is money”. That piece of old-fashioned wisdom is more than true, it’s a mantra for successful automotive service businesses, and in diagnosis, where rates are higher and customer satisfaction more sensitive, the axiom runs headlong into the real world. The problem with diagnostics at the bay level is that trouble simply won’t conform to the manual. When you don’t know what’s wrong, there’s no way to determine whether that diagnosis is time-efficient or not. One way to establish a baseline for diagnostic productivity is to go in armed with equipment that removes guesswork and helps the technician use his or her mind in an ordered, efficient and profitable way.

For 2002, the trend toward technicians owning their own diagnostic scan tools continues, driven by the need for higher productivity as competition tightens in a recessionary market. For many technicians, the motivation can be simpler: they just don’t want to wait their turn to use the shop’s equipment when there’s a vehicle in the bay.

According to Ollie Stephan, technical trainer and president of Ollie Stephan Training,

“It’s part of their inventory; they need it to do the job properly. The shop will have a broad-based general scan tool, but I notice that many of the diagnostic specialists have their own hand-held scanner just like they have their own wrench set or impact gun.”

Stephan notes that, unfortunately, there is no such thing as a completely universal tool: “Not one aftermarket scanner will do all functions of all diagnostics. For example, one company will be very strong with ABS on import; another may be strong with GM, and so on. They all do the emissions the same, that’s the law, but some handheld scanners are better than others for specific tasks.” That variation in coverage often drives the tool choice for the technician, both because of demographics and local preferences. British Columbia, for example, has a traditionally large import market, favouring tools with that strength, but in any shop, the tendency for technicians to divide up diagnostics by experience or interest (“Sam’s the Toyota guy”) is another reason for a technician to buy, even where the shop had good existing equipment.

And how much tool should a technician buy? “It’s like driving a car”, relates Auto Xray president Bill Miller. “There are different cars for different applications, but the majority of the time you just want to get from ‘point A to point B’. The more you add, the more the expenditure, but you’re still going from point A to point B. The shop generally buys the three to four thousand dollar tool; he has a lot of set-up time, many cables and configuration processes.” Miller notes that many high productivity technicians use simpler, cheaper personal tools as a supplement to high-end shop scanners, reducing the time needed on the main unit.

Cost is still a limiting factor in the move toward a scan tool in every box, and the majority of that cost has nothing to do with the “black box” itself. According to Jeff Elder of Blue Streak Electronics, “the software is the lion’s share. Electronics are built on an assembly line, and there are economies of scale. The software, however, has to be developed over time. Some model years are easier than others, but every time there’s a platform change from a manufacturer, there’s a lot more work for the tool’s software designers. By far the majority of the cost is in the software. It’s a constant battle.”

A major component of the cost of developing the software is the need to “reverse engineer” or extract information from OE systems without help from the team that designed the ECU in the first place. “Some manufacturers are more cooperative than others”, says Elder. “Some are very helpful, but they don’t hand it to you on a silver platter. At that stage, it’s still raw data.”

Keeping up with the technology is difficult for both the tool manufacturers and users. Kirk MacKenzie, product specialist for Snap-on Diagnostics says it directly: “Obsolescence is a big issue for anybody working in this industry. Obsolescence is probably the biggest factor in the drive towards modular test equipment. Big boxes obsoleted themselves almost as fast as you bought them.” MacKenzie suggests choosing equipment with modular design that allows fast software updates. Current handheld technology uses cartridges or cards, but look for future designs to be upgradable over the Internet. And as mobile Internet connectivity develops with handheld PC’s, automotive diagnostics may converge with PC technology.

“With PCs and consumer electronics (Palms, Pocket PC) infiltrating every aspect of life, they’ll undoubtedly move into shops”, says EASE Diagnostics president Stephen Golenski, who adds, “In the future, PCs and PDAs will be everywhere. The volume of data in diagnostic equipment increases every year so more memory is needed. PCs also have a larger screen, providing more space to view the data. With PCs, technicians can also share data and connect to the Internet. Having a generic platform allows the user to install a wide variety of software to meet their custom needs.” Golenski also notes that there is a cost associated with the increasing data load demanded by newer vehicles: “The price will undoubtedly go up because there will be more data and more systems to manage such as technical service information, shop management systems, labor and parts systems and reprogramming. A few years ago there was only one computer system in a vehicle, the ECM. Then ABS and air bags were added and now there are a dozen or more computer systems in a vehicle. Every time there’s a new system to support, there’s more data involved, and the cost to include the new data increases the cost of the diagnostic tool.”

Upgradeability is important, but if you can’t easily access the information, it matters little how accurate it is. “The user interface is extremely important, says Blue Streak’s Elder. “Plain English, linear and menu-driven are all very important attributes. Software has to be easy to use because some technicians may use the tool only once a week or once a month, and they don’t want to have to re-learn it every time they pick it up. In priority it’s probably the third most important factor after coverage and accuracy.”

A current hot trend in scan tools is graphing capability. Advantages to graphing are many, according to Richard Fawcett, product specialist, Snap-on/Sun Equipment Division: “Not only can you see a digital number about what’s happening in the systems, you can also graph a pattern. It makes it easier to find a transient problem. For example, when you create a “movie”, it’s stored in the scanner. You may have to look back at as much as 100 pages of information. And on some vehicles there may be sixty or seventy pieces of information to review. If you have to look at seventy parameters a hundred times, it can be easy to miss something. A glitch on a graph, however, is much easier to see.” Fawcett also notes another advantage of graphing: “When you can bring a customer to the car and say ‘look what we’ve found’, if it says ‘TPS’ with a number, it can appear meaningless. If you can show him or her a graph or a chart, although they still don’t know what they mean, they can still see if a graph goes off-scale. It gives the shop owner the ability to market the scanner.”

Regardless of the sophistication of a scan tool, its usefulness and profitability is still dependent on the capability of the technician using it. “The average technician probably doesn’t get all they should from their scanner”, says Snap-on’s MacKenzie. “They’re in a general repair environment and probably don’t know all of the options and capabilities of their scan tool. They look at it as a code reader and a code clearing tool, but there’s a lot more information in the scanner than most technicians use.”

Getting the most from their investment means training, according to MacKenzie: “Training allows a technician to step back from the reality of fixing cars. You don’t do much learning when you’re fixing vehicles, because you can’t sit back and think about h
ow things really happen. That’s where training comes in. When I’m in my shop, I don’t care about what the scan tool can teach me. I just want to fix the car, and get on with the next job. Training opens up dimensions that you don’t get in the shop. It allows your scanner to do more.”

Good equipment is a natural complement to intelligence and intuition, and technicians with experience and good instinct will thrive with any reputable brand of diagnostic equipment. They may be “hand held” but in the end, it’s how they fit between the ears that defines sensible scan tool equipment.

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