It is no secret that technological challenges have been a part of the remanufacturing industry since the day when the first enterprising technician decided, instead of replacing that first part, to try and rebuild it instead. Still, even as late as the 1960s, when the alternator began to supplant the generator, the industry has been plagued with tales of doom about “unrebuildable” or “throwaway” parts.
It is hard to believe that this type of scepticism continues to have legs, but it is increasingly clear that dealing with the technological challenges that original equipment engineers throw at them is the stock and trade of the remanufacturer.
“In terms of sophistication, I would probably say that variable assist steering and magnetic assist steering are among the biggest challenges, and not just in terms of remanufacturing,” says Joel Fenwick, vice-president purchasing, Fenwick Automotive Products Ltd., one of the leading remanufacturers in North America. “It’s also a challenge [to learn] how to correct the original equipment flaws, so that the part doesn’t come back for the same reason.”
He draws as an example the remanufacturing of the Magnasteer steering rack, which suffers from the same grooving problem as many older racks did. “It’s very complicated and requires a unique thin wall sleeve. I believe we’re the first to sleeve them,” he adds.
Fenwick says that much of the innovation for his company comes in terms of manufacturing, or remanufacturing, technology. Such is the specialized nature of the business that they find they must design and build much of their own equipment to process and test the components.
“You can’t find commercial assembly and testing equipment for the reman business,” he says. “So, for brake master cylinders for example, we have built several combination computerized test and assembly machines. A Magnasteer tester is not available either, so we have built the equipment ourselves. Our philosophy is if you can’t test it, don’t build it.”
In some cases, original equipment parts that seem simple have such complex internal geometry that they require the most sophisticated approaches available.
“Honda CVs are the scourge of the industry,” says Fenwick. “They are the most prone to noise if you don’t grind them correctly. Grinding them on conventional equipment results in a high rate of noise and that means warranty.” The only solution they found was to invest a quarter of a million dollars in a multi-axis CNC machine that can accurately follow the variable radius bearing race that characterizes the Honda CV, and which causes all the issues later.
“You just can’t replicate the original geometry with a hand grinder,” says Fenwick.
Nor, it would seem, can you simply take the electronics of an ECM returned to a remanufacturer and simply remove the burned out parts and plug in a few new components.
“There have been a few challenges in remanufacturing ECMs,” says Fabian De Nobrega, general manager, Blue Streak Electronics. “The introduction of the VIN-specific calibration is one of the key challenges we have encountered.” According to De Nobrega, the reverse engineering and remanufacturing required to get these components back into the hands of the technician is one thing, getting the units programmed properly is another. Each of GM, Ford, and, to a lesser extent, Chrysler have taken this approach, which leaves the final step of programming to either the technician’s shop or their jobber.
“The programming is basically to have the ability to program the module for a specific car. The old days of just replacing a PROM are gone. When you buy the module, you have to program the calibration.”
De Nobrega says that the difficulty that this places on the trade is financial, as well as operational. Some dealer-type programming equipment is more costly than many shops can handle, though De Nobrega says that his company has produced some more cost-effective solutions for jobbers, who can at least gain the benefit of the volume from their entire customer base. In contrast, any single shop might not see enough late-model volume to justify the purchase of reprogramming, or “flash,” tools.
There are other challenges too, ones that are best left to the devices of electronic technologists like De Nobrega. One of these, the immobilizer computer code–code designed to prevent a vehicle from being stolen–has inspired Blue Streak’s R&D engineers to come up with some innovative solutions. The immobilizer technology–mandatory on cars in Europe and included on Ford and Chrysler’s since the late 1990s, prevents cars from being started without the appropriate signal from the ignition key. Without cooperation from the OEMs, who are too concerned with security issues to share the information, the Blue Streak engineers managed to successfully deal with the problem.
Still, De Nobrega sees challenges ahead that won’t be easily solved without some degree of cooperation with those who built the components.
“The biggest challenge is access to information. We have actually taken an active part in that. We are very active in California, participating in workshops, and speak to some of these issues.”
Pushing for bills and laws is one thing, but he would prefer to see OEMs take a more willing approach to sharing of information. “They want every car to go back to the dealer, but they don’t have the capacity to handle the volume if they did. The OEMs are coming around to that.”
Some OEM suppliers are also coming around to the fact that their design expertise can be paired successfully with remanufacturing expertise for the aftermarket.
This was the motivation behind November’s announcement by Delphi Product and Service Solutions that they would form an alliance with Cardone Industries, one of the largest remanufacturers in North America.
As a first step, Delphi will market an all-makes program of Cardone-remanufactured engine control computers (ECC) and mass air flow (MAF) sensors to the traditional independent aftermarket, complementing Delphi’s line of vehicle electronics. Over the next few months, other remanufactured Electronic Control Units will be added to the portfolio of products covered by the alliance, including anti-lock brake (ABS) controls, body controls, cruise controls, power steering controls, suspension controls, and transmission controls.
“Cardone, because of its heritage, has a great reputation. That credibility can really accelerate Delphi’s positioning in the independent aftermarket,” says David Barbeau, general director Global Sales & Marketing, Delphi Product and Service Solutions.
“Delphi would like to continually expand its product offering [in the aftermarket], and we want to go into the vehicle electronics category. The number of control units in a vehicle is expanding and it is a growth market. The replacements for many of these engine control units will be remanufactured. So, you take this market trend and direction, that Delphi is well aware of as a result of our presence as an OE manufacturer, and as these replacements occur they will need remanufacturing.
“You look at the competencies of a company like Cardone and see it is a good match. That’s really what drove this alliance.”
The alliance allows each company to focus on their own respective core competencies–Delphi on engineering and design and Cardone on efficient remanufacturing processes. “The input from Delphi is that since we are the original equipment manufacturer, for many of the products that Cardone is looking to reverse-engineer, we have originally engineered. We can speed products to market quicker by transferring that technology to them. That’s important to them. We can also provide them with some components to help the remanufacturing speed to market. That is a big advantage.”
Barbeau says that information flow both ways between the companies.
“Of course, if they can point to areas of additional strength on the OE part, we would obviously want to take advantage of that. I think that will be a good by-product of this business alliance.”
Visteon, which is launching a line of starters
and alternators, is also in the game, and is pushing its OE connection.
“It gives us a great opportunity,” says Greg Gyllstrom, Visteon’s president, Aftermarket North American & Asia. He believes that it is important to deal with the service provider’s perceptions. “The aftermarket could go just to the lowest priced product from China. We think there is an alternative to just that. There is going to be a position on the OE guys, and the position from the guys importing from you know where. It will be OE versus price.”
When he speaks to the starter and alternator market, for example, he calls the market “fun,” with some 250-plus competitors in the market.
“What’s fun about it is that when you look at the number of competitors out there, it is a highly competitive, fragmented market. So there is a real opportunity for the OE crowd to establish their position. From a reman perspective, we do it to a specification that is at the highest end of the reman side of it.” He says that this can differentiate them from much of the competition.
“Clearly when you look at the intellectual property assets applied to the market, the climate control side and the whole rotating electrics side, the advanced technology that eventually finds its way to the OE and then to the aftermarket is really our competitive advantage.”
Of course, the dedicated remanufacturers aren’t without resources. And much of the leading-edge electronics are yet to find their way into the aftermarket, or even the OE for that matter.
“Electronics is always the buzzword,” says Joel Fenwick, “but it will still take some time before you see widespread use in things such as steering. It really won’t happen until the OEMs move to the 48-volt system so they can convert from hydraulic componentry to electric.”
But even today, the components can challenge the reman process.
“We buy a brand new library sample of a new part and reverse-engineer it. We can learn quite early what has really changed,” he continues. “We employ 25 degreed engineers to help with that process, but we’re not going to stop there.”
“Companies such as ourselves put the R&D resources in,” says De Nobrega. “These are the ones that are going to survive. The day is ending for the smaller guy quite quickly. We have a huge staff in R&D, and we always have. We need to stay ahead.”