It might seem incongruous to have a growth market in an area of technology that is in decline, but for the ignition wire aftermarket, that is precisely what is occurring.
Spark plug wiresets, even though they have been on the phase-out list for carmakers for a decade now, have certainly become a topic of interest in the aftermarket. So, while an estimated one-third to one-half of new vehicles are equipped with coil-on-plug systems that do away with wiresets altogether, this is only one factor of many affecting the wire set aftermarket.
“I think that what is happening is that there is a flood of more competitive pricing. A lot of it is that there is a lot better quality wire available,” opines Albert Mammarella, Jr., owner of Albatross Automotive, Brampton, Ont. “The wire lines were traditionally very expensive.” He says too that the key to the aftermarket’s success in what could be termed a new wireset aftermarket is less about price than other factors.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the quality of it, and fit and form and function. Universal style wires just don’t work. You have to match the OE set. A lot of guys have been losing market share to the car dealers because the wires that are on them are direct fit.”
There is no doubt that the focus of many suppliers has been on fit, form, and function.
“A lot of customers want OE configured products. Our peers in the aftermarket, who have OE and aftermarket business, are leveraging their brands and taking their brands to market,” says John Zochert, vehicle electronics product manager, Delphi Product and Service Solutions. His company has just launched its OEM line for the aftermarket under the Delphi Packard name.
“For us, the opportunities are for the professional technician and the late model vehicles. Our configuration is OE lead length, wires, boots, and terminals. We get a lot of feedback that some of the aftermarket lines have been over-consolidated and they don’t fit the wiring looms right.”
Zochert says that technicians have become very sensitive as to which wiresets they will install, even saying that the fact that the Packard name had been on many of the wiresets installed on GM vehicles at the assembly plant could play a factor in the level of confidence the technicians will have in Delphi’s latest Packard-branded aftermarket offering.
Confidence, or a lack of it as pointed out by Mammarella, has been a significant barrier for the jobber selling into this market.
Those kinds of perceptions can be persistent. Bill Jarvis, Canadian national sales manager, Prenco Progress & Engineering Corp., says he’s noticed growing resistance to many aftermarket offerings while doing detail work in the field. “Over the past couple of years, installers have become leery of aftermarket sets. You have to reproduce the OE sets in every aspect. They are becoming very particular and have no problem going to the dealer and paying $100 for a set that may be worth $50 from the aftermarket.”
Focus groups with technicians conducted by DesRosiers Automotive Research on behalf of NGK Spark Plugs Canada Ltd., fully support this assertion. These findings showed that not only did over one-third of technicians say that they have increased their reliance on dealer-purchased wiresets; they were prepared to sacrifice profitability to do so.
“The number one need above all was that it had to fit. We noticed that price didn’t come up as so much of an issue, which we did find a bit surprising,” says Chris Harrison, product manager, NGK Spark Plugs Canada Ltd.
“From the installers’ perspective, the most interesting part was how often they were going to the dealers, even though their margins were so much lower, just because they didn’t want a problem and they knew it would fit every time.
“That speaks loudly to a need that was apparently not being filled in the market,” says Harrison.
Furthermore, according to information released by NGK, it’s not enough just to match the wire lengths to the centimetre; other issues affect the acceptance of wiresets. In a word: robustness. In some cases pointed out by focus group technicians, there were concerns that aftermarket sets would come apart at the boot when they tried to pull the wires off.
In fact, boot issues are probably as much at the root of wireset failures as failures of the wires, perhaps even more. Information from Robert Bosch Inc. zeros in on how operational failures can occur.
On distributor-type systems, improper connections between the wireset and cap can cause damage when the voltage actually arcs between the wireset and the cap. Eventually, this can burn through the wireset and rotor, destroying both. While this can obviously be a problem, Robert Bosch points out that another situation can also occur.
The combination of high heat and the potential for contamination by engine fluids can cause boot installation to break down. Newer designs that have the spark plug boot inserted through a “tunnel” in the valve cover can add to this problem as damage may not be visible, and an alternate pathway for the electrical charge, the valve cover, is only millimeters away. Insulation breaks down and carbon starts to build along the cracks where the insulation has been destroyed. This damage occurs when there is an improper connection between the wireset and the plug. The increased resistance causes the voltage to break down the insulation and jump to the cylinder head, instead of between the spark plug electrodes inside the combustion chamber.
Frost, damp, not to mention spray water with de-icing salt and the dirt on streets, can adversely affect ignition components, of course. This is true the world over, and German authorities estimate that as much as 50% of on-road breakdowns are the result of damage to ignition and electrical components.
Failure rates for ignition wires in particular can be expected to rise as vehicles equipped with them age. Currently, though, Delphi’s Zochert says that 6.5% of vehicles on the road will get their wires replaced this year. Obviously, younger vehicles will tend to have a lower percentage of failure, older vehicles a higher percentage, but no wireset will last forever.
“Ultimately they are a rubber-based product. They break down under heat and cold, but when they do it is a lot more noticeable because a misfiring cylinder will trip the check engine light. In the past it was no big deal. You might feel the hesitation or sputtering, but today when there is a failure it is a lot more noticeable.”
Ultimately, it is a market that is emerging at a stage in technological development that makes its eventual decline inevitable.
“It’s not going to last forever, but it’s not going to die overnight either,” says Zochert. Estimates put the market as being substantial for probably the next decade. “As the average car is on the road longer, there is still the opportunity for a sale.”
“There is definitely a good chunk of business to be had there,” says NGK’s Harrison. Even though unit sales are slightly declining, dollars are increasing. “The dollars in the aftermarket are increasing, due to boot designs and other factors. The sets are increasing in average price.
“For the aftermarket, the time is right. It will be a very healthy market for some time to come.”
Wireset Market Overview
According to Frost & Sullivan market research, there is an interplay of dollars and units affecting the overall market.
The OE and aftermarket manufacturers of ignition parts have focused more on better performance of these parts, and as a result, the replacement rate of these parts is on the decline. The replacement rate of spark plug wiresets has also decreased, leading to a decline in unit shipments. The better performance of aftermarket and OE ignition parts has improved the overall performance of the vehicle, but this has lowered their replacement rate, and because of this fact, the market could continue to face a steady decline in the years to come. This is the biggest challenge in front of this industry now.
The decline in unit shipments of spark plug wiresets due to reduced replacement rates will not effect price stability because of increased demand for premium wiresets.
The overall trend in the aftermarket is for premium replacement products that are of OE quality. Due to the increased demand for more expensive products, however, there will be more price stability.