Auto Service World
Feature   March 1, 2012   by Tom Venetis, Editor

Scan Tool Mix

Simple or complex, shops should have a mix on hand to improve diagnostics and shop productivity

At last year’s AAPEX/SEMA show in Las Vegas, the range of scan tools was something to behold, from entry-level to the most sophisticated and comprehensive models. Shop owners face a challenge of deciding which kind of scan tool is best for their service operation: does a simple tool suffice and should every technician have one or should one invest in a more comprehensive but expensive tool; should one invest in a mix of tools or should one find scan tools focusing on specific makes and models of vehicles?

It is a difficult decision to make as scan tools are a significant and critical component of a shop’s operations.

“Prior to making a purchase decision, shop owners and technicians should perform a review of current scan tool(s) and the current mix of vehicles being repaired,” said Bob Pattengale, senior account manager, Workshop Tool and Equipment, Bosch Diagnostics Business Unit. He outlines two critical steps for this. The first is the shop owner and technicians should review the vehicle repair mix for 1996 and newer vehicles over the past three years. What percentage of 1996 and newer GMs were worked on three years ago and is it the same today? “What will the shop owner learn from this exercise? They will be able to determine if the vehicle mix is changing and if they need to consider adding scan tool coverage for these vehicles.”

Shop owners and technicians should also have a “wish list” notebook listing the features and capabilities they are looking for in a scan tool. This list can help in the final decision of what scan tool or mix of tools will be appropriate. “No purchase decision should be made without this information,” added Pattengale.

One important aspect of vehicle technology to keep in mind when deciding on scan tools is how the onboard computer systems are evolving. Many of today’s onboard systems do more than simply monitor vehicle health and throw codes when something is starting to go wrong or fails. In many cases, the onboard systems are critical in maintaining vehicle operations and have to be updated, reset and reflahsed for even the simplest of maintenance work.

“We are going through a profound change in this industry, where a few years ago we used scan tool to fix vehicles,” said Ed Lispscom, OTC senior product manager with SPX Corp. “The computer sophistication now has gotten so advanced that the computer has moved to the maintenance and service area.”

To understand that shift, take a look at a simple maintenance procedure such as replacing or charging a battery in one of today’s new BMWs. It is hardly straight-forward anymore.

“You can’t charge a battery in a BMW 2001 or newer without doing a battery reset,” said Lipscom. “The reason for that is that the charging systems on these vehicles are so sophisticated that they charge a two-year-old battery differently from a new battery. If you don’t do a battery reset when installing a new battery, you can overcharge and damage that new battery. This kind of sophistication in the vehicle electronics is now seen in even such maintenance routines as oil changes, brake bleeds and wheel alignments. You cannot do any of them without resetting the sensors.”

Re-flashing is another part of vehicle work which has made the same move from only being done for a repair to regular maintenance. Bosch’s Pattengale makes the point that where once drivability issues were caused by problems or failures of such parts as sparks plugs and wire sets, or timing and fuel delivery problems, “today, they can stem from the ECM/PCM. It is understood that new vehicles may have drivability issues when new due to ECM and PCM calibration deficiencies, J2534 re-flashing is a must have for today’s shops.”

This increasing vehicle sophistication then begs the question, what kind of scan tool is best? It might seem that the answer is the most sophisticated one you can buy. That, in reality, is not the case. While every service operation should have one or two comprehensive and sophisticated scan tools to do the kinds of maintenance work needed on today’s advanced vehicles, there is a strong case to be made for having an array to scan tools to cover different tasks and improve shop efficiencies.

The OTC 3111 is made to help technicians quickly diagnose and repair vehicle problems by providing them with a library of repair solutions, wiring diagrams and updated TSB and factory recall information. The OTC 3111 comes with Code Connect that Jennifer Grabowski, OTC product manager with SPX Corp. said pulls and defines all codes and can display all live engine data and connecting with over three million verified fixes.

“That additional information allows technicians to quickly understand the problem happening in the vehicle and with CodeConnect you now have a way to find the most likely fix for that problem.”

The best way to think of such a tool is to think of hospital triage, where a patient’s problems are quickly diagnosed and staff works to tackle the most immediate problems before moving the patient to other doctors to handle the more complex issues. Tools like the OTC 3111, or its sister tools the OTC 3108 and OTC 3109, can be used by the technicians or even the service writer to provide the customer with an accurate idea of what is troubling their vehicle and to produce an estimate of the needed repairs without having to borrow the more advanced diagnostic tools.

“These tools are very fast operating and will give you a lot of very useful and important data, and a shop should have them available for their technicians,” added Lipscom. “Consider the price point. At an average of three-hundred dollars, you can buy a lot of these kinds of tools and by doing so increase your productivity per man, per bay if every technician has one at the ready.”

Another thing to keep in mind when deciding upon a scan tool is wireless connectivity. With the near ubiquity of wireless handheld devices, from smart phones to tablets, many younger technicians expect the same from their scan tools.

“Being tethered to a wire is a big issue when a technician has to work underneath a vehicle and you have to have a door open and a wire trailing out,” said Bruce Ruhf, director of operations and marketing with Ross-Tech. “It certainly makes doing some diagnostic procedures difficult.”

Later this year, Ross-Tech will be announcing a new version of its VCDS can tool technology, VCDS-Mobile that will make diagnostics for VW/Audi accessible by most mobiles devices such as smart phones and tablets. A preview of the new platform can be found at and running on a Samsung Galaxy tablet.

“The idea is for this to be platform independent, working on phones, pads, PC – both Windows and Macs,” added Ruhf. “We want the product to run on as many platforms as possible to eliminate the need to buy a Windows-based PC and any devices having a browser and a WiFi connection should be compatible.”

With wireless connectivity comes the need for fast access to diagnostic information. Ross-Tech is putting more information about specific vehicle fixes online through its Wiki page and more resources into its technical support.

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