Auto Service World
Feature   April 1, 2012   by Andrew Brooks

Steadier State

Braking technology continues to develop in sophistication and effectiveness

Stopping is simple enough as a concept. But it’s the most important action there is when it comes to operating automobiles, and the braking system is easily the most crucial part of the vehicle. Over the years the research, investment and development work that components manufacturers have devoted to improving brake performance has, if anything, only increased. Today, the advanced technology that controls a car’s systems has given researchers more sophisticated ways to control and improve the braking process.

“Manufacturers have been researching better ways to isolate driver control by taking over brake and steering using new safety and regulatory devices,” says Ted Zahara, manager of Marketing Projects at Affinia. Ongoing research has led to developments such as brake-by-wire and servo systems that utilize a vehicle’s weight and motion to deliver ancillary pressure to stop a vehicle safely by complementing the driver’s ability to deliver a controlled stop, he says.

These days, the focus of a lot of research is on electronic stability control (ESC), which is also referred to as electronic stability program (ESP) or dynamic stability control (DSP). This is a computerized technology that improves stability by detecting and reducing loss of traction by automatically applying the brakes to wheels individually — for example to the outer front wheel to counter oversteer or to the inner rear wheel to counteract understeer.

“Some ESC systems also reduce engine power until control is regained,” Zahara says. “ESC doesn’t improve a vehicle’s cornering performance — instead it helps to minimize loss of control.” Zahara says that Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration figures show that a third of fatal accidents in the US could be prevented by widespread use of ESC technology.

Ceramic friction technology continues to develop, and the market is still evolving. While semi-metallic components maintain their hold on the heavy-duty application niche, ceramic pads have come into their own for passenger vehicles and light trucks. “There have been huge advances in ceramic technology over the years,” says Walt Keating, brake product manager at Federal Mogul. “The ability to handle heat has been hugely developed, and also there’s the development of newer and higher grades of ceramic particles. We’ve used these over the years on the OE side, and brought them into the aftermarket.” Keating says that today, ceramic technology is “light years” ahead of where it was when ceramics first started to enter the market, and that pace of development has been maintained.

“OE manufacturers are using a lot more ceramic formulations where they can,” says Keating. “We’re seeing lot more applications with ceramics. We look at that as a positive, and we’re constantly upgrading our formulations to meet these new uses.” Keating notes that Federal Mogul relies on the same R&D resources to design ceramic formulations for the OE segment and for the aftermarket. In terms of overall sales, the current ratio for Federal Mogul is around 55 per cent ceramic to 45 per cent semi-metallic, but within the OE market ceramic is ahead by around two to one.

Not everyone has the same take on ceramics, however. Ed Demirci, vice-president of Durotech Automotive Industries (Xtreme Stop Rotors), says that the market presence of ceramics has actually retreated somewhat in some niches simply because the market has figured out which segment of the market ceramics are better suited for. “Ceramics were initially introduced to solve the problem of noise and dust associated with semi-metallics,” he says. “But the first generation of ceramics had problems — they were highly abrasive on the rotors, and they had problems with cold stopping to the point that they were unsafe until they reached a certain temperature.”

The noise and dust problems originally associated with semi-metallics, Demirci says, had themselves been created when North American manufacturers moved manufacturing overseas and moved away from more lengthy manufacturing processes and higher-end raw materials to lower production values and high-volume manufacturing processes where quality control was less of a factor.

Those problems have been progressively reduced as industry players stepped up their semi-metallic game. Over the past two years the ceramic market share has been rapidly migrating over to a premium grade semi-metallic and/or carbon metallic formulation, Demirci says. At the current rate he forecasts that ceramic market share will decline to levels representative of the light vehicle market only. “This is a result of the market becoming aware that ceramics are not well suited to perform and properly serve the entire range of mid- and full-sized vehicles, crossovers, SUVs and the truck/bus markets,” he says. “This includes fleets and emergency fleets.”

Viewed in this light, the ‘debate’ between ceramics and semi-metallics isn’t so much a matter of pure materials technology, but a question of the quality of the process by which the components are manufactured. Also, Demirci has observed a surprisingly rapid evolution in the mindset of the industry and vehicle owners, from a low-price-beats-all attitude that rewards substandard manufacturing values because they yield the lowest cost, to a growing willingness to ‘invest’ in OE-equivalent braking systems.

“We thought this shift would take more time,” Demirci says. “Because an installer’s business largely comes from word-of-mouth referrals and repeat business, we thought the quality awareness piece would take a long time to spread, but we’ve hit the 40 per cent turnover mark in the move from low-end to high-end in a year instead of two or three. We underestimated how bad the problem had become.”

Quality shifts

Dean Weber, vice-president of Proforce Automotive, also sees the same kind of market movement as higher quality economy brake products become more popular. In his case, though, the quality improvement is being driven by those offshore manufacturers, who are improving the quality of the product they produce and at the same time maintaining the price advantage that drove a lot of business their way in the first place. “With the advancement in quality products seen overseas, consumers are recognizing and demanding an affordable product that they can depend on,” Weber says. The trend toward value-added friction includes the caliper clips with the ceramic pads. And premium coated rotors at economy prices are steadily becoming more of an option.

“Installers want to install a rotor that will resist rusting, warping and noise, while providing the consumer with a product that looks better in an open wheel,” Weber says. “European vehicles in particular are now coming OE with a coated rotor, and the aftermarket is realizing the need for this. If the pricing is reasonable the shop owners are pleasantly surprised to find that the customer will pay a little more for a premium coated rotor and they can make more gross profit on the parts.”

Ceramic pads are the fastest growing segment these days for most applications, Weber says. Semi-metallic maintains its heavy truck and commercial niche, but ceramic’s presence is reinforced by the steady erosion in the price differential between ceramic and semi-metallic components. And in terms of price/value segmentation, economy and mid-grade brakes are gaining momentum as consumers increasingly see little or no difference in quality between these segments and the premium category.

“The friction category definitely has one of the strongest brand preferences amongst installers,” Weber says. “The installer continues to make the decision for the end-user, and that decision is largely influenced by price, value-add and dependability. The installer doesn’t want to have comebacks as a result
of NVH [noise, vibration and/or harshness].”

For Ted Zahara, premium OE matched rotors and brake friction is the leading success factors for parts stores and service providers where success is a matter of increased profit margins and reduced service comebacks. In terms of technologies, aftermarket sales of ceramic brake pads and OE matched rotors are at the top of the growth curve in today’s market, he says. Depending on application, premium quality semi-metallic brake pads are also doing well, he says.

Selling the need

Rather than use a straight ‘upsell’ approach, service providers should focus on selling the need, Zahara says. This is largely a matter of conducting a complete brake inspection and letting the customer know what needs to be replaced to ensure problem-free braking after the servicing. Here, as always, conscientious service providers will have to tackle the age-old issue of customer education.

“Past experience indicates that the majority of the buying public doesn’t fully understand that a brake pad is just part of the overall brake system, working in unison with other components to safely stop a vehicle under myriad braking conditions,” Zahara says. “In some instances, the consumer is surprised when an invoice is presented for installation of parts in addition to what they saw as an advertised price for brake pads only.” Raybestos provides POS materials with diagrams that show customers how the brake system functions as a whole, Zahara says. “Taking the time to explain this information will go a long way toward ‘selling the need.’”

“Of course we recommend checking the entire braking system,” says Pete Murnen, global director, Undercar and Visibility at Federal Mogul. “When replacing pads, you should turn the rotor, and replace that if needed, replace the brake hardware with it, and flush out the system. Also, if the rotor has been turned, it should be cleaned with soap and water to wash away any particles.”

For Zahara, the “perfect brake job” includes testing the brake fluid for acidity levels and flushing the system if necessary. Caliper sliders should be inspected and lubricated, and if the inspection shows excessive rust then replacement is obviously the way to go.

“Replacing parts of like kind is a must in order to return a vehicle’s brake system to as-new condition,” he says. “Bottom line — it all boils down to ‘selling the need.’”