Auto Service World
Feature   May 1, 2006   by Andrew Ross

A New Game Arrives in Ride Control

After what has seemed to be a very long wait, the North American automotive aftermarket finally has a commercially available technical tool designed to put science into ride control replacement.

With no fanfare whatsoever, perhaps the first suspension tester to be sold in North America was purchased by an Abbotsford, B.C. business during the recent Vancouver Lordco show.

You may have seen suspension testers that jounce and vibrate the front or rear wheels of a car or light truck being demonstrated at various events. One such suspension tester was even installed by Tenneco in a Canadian Tire operation in the west end of Toronto as a pilot program.

But the commercial release of units produced by CVA but branded Monroe marks a significant move in the marketplace, from test lab to business tool.

“What we were doing is using these testers and comparing them, to make sure that the data we were getting, as far as Tenneco was concerned, was valid,” says Bill Dennie, ride control channel manager for Tenneco. “We would test vehicles with like miles and see if we got the same readings. Then we would put on new ride control and see if we were getting different readings.

“We were waiting to see that, across a wide range, we could document that the readings were valid. Then as soon as you put on an aftermarket product you would see virtually the same specs as on a new product.”

Dennie says that the project took several years, and was conducted in conjunction with CVA. “We needed to ensure that the data were consistent. And the other thing we were working at was [ensuring] that the printout that came out was simple enough that a technician would be able to explain it to the customer.”

The technology has actually been around for more than a decade, mostly in Europe, where regular safety inspections are mandatory in much the same way as we have emissions tests.

In North America, the inspection technique enters a market that continues to be plagued by the decades-old stigma that technicians who recommend shock and strut service are simply looking for their main chance at gouging an unsuspecting customer.

Consumer suspicions have been fed by everything from newsmagazine exposs 30 years or more ago, to the more recent Sears cases in the U.S., where some service bay staffers were proven to be selling shocks and struts to pad their own commission statements, regardless of the condition of the parts in question. For the living memory of most technicians in the market, the business of selling ride control has been dogged by mistrust.

At the Lordco show, Constantino Abella from CVA, who developed the equipment, spoke in emotional terms, in keeping with his Argentinean culture. He spoke through a translator, but you didn’t need one to see how emotional he gets on the topic of trust. Their heart breaks, he says of technicians faced with mistrusting clients. They want to be respected, but cannot gain that respect when customers think they are being dishonest. It tears their guts out.

This was the inspiration that led him to develop the suspension tester, but his was not the first reaction.

To help combat the mistrust factor, virtually every ride control company has instituted a communications matrix, in hopes that it will convince technicians to talk about ride control, and to provide a model for a controlled conversation designed to quell the concerns of the consumer about the necessity of the work.

Tenneco has a communications program; ArvinMeritor still has a pretty nifty online training program for its Gabriel line.

And yet the ride control market has consistently remained a bastion of unperformed maintenance.

“Eighty-five percent of all cars going to the wreckers have the original shocks and struts,” says Ray Proulx, Canadian sales manager, KYB American LLC. His company recently rolled out a training program designed to focus on the service provider’s business realities. Proulx says that it has already met with considerable success. “What we’re seeing is that undercar specialists who are doing a very good job, or thought they were in the ride control business but really weren’t, were doing about 30 jobs a month and are now doing 60.”

Proulx says that the KYB program focuses on more than talking to customers about ride control. “What we’re trying to address is business solutions for the service provider to give them what they need to grow their business.” He says that the target is to make them better business people.

“They have to compete against the OEM dealership. The experience of the consumer [compared to the independent] is sometimes night and day. Dealers are taking 35% of our market and we need to provide solutions to enable independents to survive in the business world of today.”

“Most installers were just looking for something, a piece of data that the shocks were bad, and not just their say-so. That’s what was missing,” says Dennie. “In front end we could always talk about play. We never had that with ride control. Now we do.”

The unit focuses on comparing side-to-side performance, looking for variations, as well as front-to-rear variance, rather than making absolute measurement the main driver for a replacement recommendation. Three basic ranges keep the performance envelope appropriate for different vehicles: sports cars are kept within an narrow band of oscillation; luxury sedans a wider range; and light trucks, due to their inherently large suspension travel, have the widest acceptable range.

“It’s not a gimmick. It creates the same results time after time after time. The engineers wanted to make sure that the test is repeatable and is doing the same thing time after time after time,” says Dennie.

“When I was going through the process, I was [thinking] in terms of before and after results. What we were getting was that the percentage that were failing the test was over 30%.”

He says that test sites varied in which vehicles they tested: some were testing all, while others were more selective.

“At Canadian Tire, they were seeing 600 cars a month, and putting every car on the test. Other shops were only putting cars on with 50,000 km. At that point they were getting a lot higher failure rates. And they were closing on about half of the sales, which is a lot higher than before.”

Even so, Dennie says it’s no magic bullet.

“Just because you get it doesn’t mean you are going to sell more. You still have to communicate. You still have to explain what the graph is showing. But it brings a lot more confidence to the installer.”

Even Kenny Ross, suspension product manager of the Sach-Boge unit of ZF Industries, is intrigued and excited by the prospect. “We looked at it several years ago. There are a lot of variables with the data.” In the end, he says, it was judged too much of a project for them to tackle. In fact, it was seen to be a technology that was not ready for North America, and also that North America was not ready for the technology.

“In Europe, they’re a lot more trusting,” he says, adding that the Sachs name has a higher profile in that market, one that could be capitalized on there, but not on this side of the pond. That said, he still believes in the inherent viability of the concept, regardless of whose name is on the machine. He thumbs a two-inch stack of brochures on suspension testers that still sits on his desk.

“It’s fantastic if you can get the data to do what you want it to do.”

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