Auto Service World
Feature   February 1, 2005   by Auto Service World

No Stopping Brake Market Developments

Friction technology and the rise of the semi-loaded caliper.

For a market that should have been relatively mature by now, the brake category has shown few signs of any slowdown in technology and market developments.

Since it is such an important part of every jobber’s product mix, these changes can have a critical effect on their bottom line.

On the technology front, the penetration of ABS technology in the new car market became virtually complete just in time for the introduction of traction control technologies and stability control.

The technology side also includes developments in friction materials, that have continued to home in on braking performance requirements while also providing low noise and less visible dust. The most recent development on this front has been the increasing use of ceramic friction materials.

Suppliers to the aftermarket have made note of the OE moves to ceramic friction and followed suit where it made sense. Depending on the supplier, there are in the range of 200 part numbers currently available in the aftermarket, most for applications that originally came with ceramic formulations; but, true to form for the aftermarket, part numbers have also been made available for applications that would benefit from the technology.

The continuous improvement of friction technology is often focused on the issue of noise, vibration and harshness (NVH), which is generally regarded as the number one warranty issue where brake work is concerned.

The issue of brake friction is also at the root of another development in the aftermarket: the rise of the semi-loaded caliper.

For most of the aftermarket’s history, when a vehicle had a brake caliper in need of maintenance, the technician would usually try to perform the maintenance on the workbench, or purchase a caliper and then add the hardware and mounting brackets. Sometimes, if the proper hardware was not readily available or was expensive, the technician would reuse the old hardware, which could cause other problems not too far down the road.

In both cases, caliper replacement was a time-consuming job. Technicians are learning that using semi-loaded calipers, so-called because they include everything except friction, changes that.

“It’s quick and easy,” says John Wedley, a technician at Maxwell Automotive in Mississauga, Ont. “It saves time in the shop. The cost is a little extra, but everything is there [on the caliper] so it doesn’t delay the customer.”

In effect, it increases the productivity of the bays where caliper service is required, and also eliminates the variables.

“With a seized caliper, you might spend time with the torch freeing up a slider, then burn a boot and have to sit around waiting for parts.”

With a semi-loaded caliper, the technician saves that time. It points to a realization that labour time is money; it is an exchange of hard cost for soft cost.

It is notable that reception for the loaded caliper, which includes friction, has not been so strong. The reason for this can be traced to technicians’ personal preferences for friction. While this approach was reasonably successful in the U.S., it has not really taken hold in Canada. The reasons for this are varied.

As one supplier put it, “Ultimately, the move to semi-loaded enables the mechanic to have the hardware, and everything, but still have his choice of friction. Friction is always a choice. If you only give them one choice, it may not be the choice they want.”

Beyond the choice factor, there were also pricing factors, which did not compel the technician to opt for the loaded approach over and above his brand preference for friction. The semi-loaded caliper is proving to be an approach that addresses both these issues.

It is a compelling case that has seen its main growth occurring in the last two years in Canada. While estimates of the total market are strictly empirical–with some suppliers reporting that the prior 70/30 split between bare and semi-loaded calipers has reversed and others reporting a more modest transition–it has nonetheless been a relatively rapid rise.

One of the important factors in this has been increasing competition in the marketplace, which has driven the price of semi-loaded calipers down. Estimates vary, and pricing varies depending on the application, but a pricing drop estimated at 10% seems to put the option in the ballpark for more distributors and wholesalers as well as service providers.

It has also gained some traction in the retail market. The manager of one retail chain reports that the switch is progressing strongly for the do-it-yourself customer. “It is much easier for them, and there are no comebacks. This is particularly important for the customer who may be performing the job on the weekend. And,” he added, “the cost is perhaps 20 points over the bare caliper.”

So, in that sense, it is a win-win situation: the customer has a more positive experience, while the retailer puts a few more pennies in his pocket.

None of this is to say that the market will go entirely to the semi-loaded caliper. Reports indicate that there are many customers who continue to opt for the bare caliper and this will probably continue to be the case.

Overall, the growth in semi-loaded caliper sales as a proportion of overall caliper sales is expected to continue. Currently, perhaps half the total SKUs in the market are available as semi-loaded calipers.

For jobbers, their own growth in the market will be based on their ability to market the advantages to the shop and the DIY customer of having confidence in the success and speed of the caliper service for a small premium in price over the bare caliper option.

According to research firm Frost & Sullivan, the outlook for all brake components is strong. “Modern vehicles demand brake systems that are smaller and lighter. This also makes them less durable, creating greater unit demand. Innovation also adds to revenues as prices for these customized parts increase.”

The key to capitalizing on these trends is knowing the end user. “Automakers are constantly improving their materials and end-users demand the same original equipment quality in aftermarket products.”