As the move towards parts consolidation and lighter-weight components to meet impending CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) requirements continues to grow, the frequency of chassis component repair is increasing and is resulting in aftermarket parts distributors fielding requests from technicians for higher quality replacement parts. (CAFE is a U.S. initiative with increasing mileage benchmarks set for 2016 and 2025 that is nonetheless affecting Canada). “Stabilizer links, ball joints, and control arms are going through the most radical change. The move to lighter materials and smaller designs has put additional strain on today’s suspension systems, and these components have taken much of the greatest change,” explains Scott Stone, vice president, sales and marketing for Mevotech. “If the customer is a shop owner or technician, the primary concern is that the part be a brand they know and trust. Many technicians have used specific brands their entire careers because those parts have helped protect their reputations and customer relationships. Gaining customer loyalty is harder than ever, so professionals are very reluctant to change or cut corners by using lower-quality parts. They also understand the liability that can come with the failure of a safety-related part – which steering and suspension components certainly are,” explains Mark Boyle, director, steering and suspension products, Federal-Mogul. “It should first be noted that there is no official standard for quality, materials or performance for chassis parts, even though they are considered to be ‘critical parts.’ Many people within the distribution chain, all the way down to the consumer, think that all chassis parts are created equal and the only variable is the price. Not so,” says John Thody, president and CEO of XRF Inc. “In most cases, you don’t get what you don’t pay for. Everyone claims that their parts meet or exceed OEM specifications, but when asked what the specification is for a part, they haven’t a clue.” “Selling higher-quality parts requires knowledge into the characteristics that make those parts better. For example, a do-it-yourselfer might wonder why one tie rod end or ball joint for a given application is priced higher than a corresponding part that comes in a white box or is from a secondary brand. The differences between those parts can be significant – and they can affect the customer’s safety and long-term satisfaction,” adds Boyle. “Here are a few questions to ask. Is the ball joint in the control arm made by the same company whose name is on the box? Are the control arms forged or cast? What grade of steel or aluminum is used? Heat treatment? To what degree, where and what type of heat treatment? Gauge of steel used in stamping-type control arms? Are the sharp edges cleaned to prevent technicians from cutting their hands?” explains Thody. “At XRF, we have identified 116 feature points, but in real life, the consumer doesn’t care about that; he simply wants to know if the part is any good. We answer that with a Million Mile Warranty.” “We recently conducted side-by-side tests of dozens of Moog steering and suspension components and the corresponding parts from a competitor. In the competitor’s ball joint for a popular application, neither the ball nor stud had been induction-hardened, which reduces the part’s strength by 50%. On the Moog part, both the ball and stud were induction-hardened, making it significantly longer lasting,” says Boyle. “On a popular tie rod end, the competing part wore so quickly that the customer may experience noticeable socket looseness in less than one year of service, compared to more than five years of premium performance from the Moog part. The competitor uses an old socket technology that’s known for poor durability, while the Moog socket features our coated metal ‘gusher’ bearings and full-ball stud, which provide excellent durability and low socket torque. These are differences that aren’t apparent to the naked eye, so the customer relies on the counterperson for this information,” points out Boyle. “Remember, the lower-priced part becomes a whole lot more expensive when it fails and you’re facing an unhappy customer across the counter.” “These days, bushings, brackets, stabilizer links, and even unitized control arms require more maintenance and checking than ever before. The repair cycle for these components is more than the industry average, and the trend will continue for the next few years, as CAFE targets get even more challenging to hit,” adds Stone. “This definitely means that jobber inventories will need to expand to keep up with the increasing repair cycle of today’s suspension systems. Jobbers will continue to face the pressure of expanding SKU counts, as the OE manufacturers scramble to make each model year more fuel-efficient than the previous, and as they make parts more fragile to meet CAFE regulations.” According to a recent study by Frost & Sullivan on the North American linkage and steering parts aftermarket, the control arms segment is poised to offer the highest growth to 2017, growing at a compound annual rate of 8.9%. Jobber stocking strategies will have to be extremely aggressive in order to fully capitalize on this growing opportunity. The market has already seen a big proliferation of SKUs, and changes in the design elements are moving the business towards more unitized components, so two things are happening at the same time. Jobbers have to embrace the importance of aggressively stocking many numbers of control arms, which are bigger and bulkier than ball joints, so stocking space also becomes an issue. “In the mind of the consumer, he thinks that maybe the cheap part may not last as long as the good one, but he wants to save a little money. But when the part fails a short time down the road, he will have additional issues,” explains Thody. “The guy he bought the control arm from is no longer in business, and suddenly he has no warranty. Even if he is still around and he offers a free replacement control arm, the customer will still have to pay the labour. This cost will far exceed the price difference of buying a good one from the beginning.” Furthermore, he continues, “We often find when a part fails prematurely, it also causes ancillary damage. There can be damage to the rack and pinion, or the CV shaft, or even body damage. Cheap things are dear at any price.” “At XRF we benchmark-test many of our competitors’ parts. Particularly on the low-cost parts, we find many inconsistencies in materials and heat treatment. We see design features that are there purely to reduce cost, not to increase strength, durability or safety,” adds Thody. “Choosing a low-end product that comes from questionable sources can be very risky in many situations. What do you know about the quality of the steel that was used in the part? What durability tests, if any, were used to validate the part? We have encountered many components from other sources that experience physical failure or breakage during side-by-side testing with Moog parts. Imagine what could happen if a vehicle’s ball joint or tie rod end breaks during operation. These are safety parts, above all,” says Boyle. “The WD who buys a part in a box at a price, wants to know what the price is, what’s the warranty, what’s the order fill rate? I was told by one major WD that they don’t even look at a line unless the failure rate exceeds 5% of sales. That’s like five plane crashes every hour at an international airport.” That’s not good enough, says Thody. “I spend a great deal of time with the technicians and every time I ask them what they expect from a chassis part, the answer is alway s the same: ‘No grief, and I keep all my fingers.’” OEMs are very much trying to meet their CAFE requirements and lighter-weight components are a big part of those efforts, so by light-sizing their vehicles, they are light-sizing the designs for some of these control arms as well. However, using different types of materials, such as aluminum alloys, in order to get the weight out of the vehicle can cause the suspension system to become more susceptible to wear and tear. When a vehicle equipped with an aluminum unitized control arm hits a pothole, there is a strong chance that it is going to be damaged or get out of spec. “Control arm assemblies are not necessarily ‘high wearing’,” says Boyle. “Rather, they are becoming an increasingly popular repair solution for many applications, due to the complexity and extra time required with installing a replacement ball joint over a new bushing on an original control arm.” In many cases now, the best value for the consumer is to install a complete assembly rather than charge for the added labour needed to replace individual components. “Consumers are not looking for long-term reliability. They are wishing for long-term reliability, but they are looking for an affordable price. And herein lies the manufacturer’s conundrum. How do we deliver a durable, safe component that will not be destroyed on installation, at a price the consumer can afford to pay? History has proven over and over again that quality never goes out of style. At XRF, we have chosen the course of safety first, then find creative ways to reduce the cost of sales and distribution to arrive at a price the consumer can afford,” says Thody. “Demand is increasing, road conditions in the weather markets are deteriorating, and the opportunity for higher than average growth remains in the chassis category. This is one of the great product categories to be in from an aftermarket perspective,” adds Stone. The challenge for many jobbers will be successfully navigating between the demands of the growing car parc of aging vehicles and the increasing needs of the newer vehicle segment. Finding the sweet spot in both segments will guarantee continued channel growth.