The growth in the electronics content of vehicles has been a key driver of automotive technology over the past decade, but its impact on the automotive aftermarket is only now beginning to be felt, in terms of opportunity and challenge.
The variety of systems that have moved from electrical to electronic, and from electrohydraulic to electromechanical, has forced technicians to rely on more than just their feel for a problem and a good ear, but in many ways the solutions to a malfunctioning component are to be found in the same place.
Way back when the alternator first appeared on the automotive scene, doomsayers predicted that they would never wear out, and even if they did, they could not be rebuilt.
To anyone who has visited a service bay on a cold winter’s day, or seen the continuing influx of offshore alternators and starters into the market, this is a prediction that has not come to be.
But electronics provide their own challenges to the remanufacturer as well as effecting changes on the jobber and the service provider.
“The major challenge that we and any other remanufacturer is facing is the integrated immobilizer system,” says Fabian De Nobrega, general manager, Blue Streak Electronics. Being able to disable this security system to test the units has become a thorn in the side of remanufacturers, a situation that is not helped by the unwillingness of original equipment manufacturers to provide information.
“They are just making it more complicated and more difficult to do. The OEMs do not want to provide this to aftermarket companies, which is understandable, but it makes it difficult.”
Further adding to the mix is ever-changing programming. The OEMs don’t just introduce a component and leave it be. As problems occur, or changes to other systems are made, they adjust the programming and make tweaks to components.
This is nothing new.
Acura, for example, had a problem which caused some 1986 and 1987 Integra models to fail emissions tests. This was revealed to be due to excessively high underhood temperatures that could sometimes cause an interruption of the emission control feedback system at idle. While the condition could be caused by other component failures, the automaker also recommended an updated ECU.
Greg Gyllstrom, Visteon vice-president and general manager, Aftermarket, says that electronics can be one of the hardest areas for the aftermarket to keep up with. Design changes to the internal components may not be as easily noticed as physical changes to some other commonly remanufactured components, but they are at least as critical to their functioning. “When you look at the part number, there might be a series of letters from the OE. That tells you what version”–AA is earlier than EE–“so when a supplier says they are OE-compatible, which version are they talking about?”
Naturally, a company such as Visteon has a leg up on the competition with Ford applications, but the situation that Gyllstrom notes is a reality throughout the industry.
The consequences of that reality mean that remanufacturers are faced with taking a reverse engineering approach, something that they are well accustomed to. It often leads to new processes that advance the state of the industry.
Cardone, for example, found that remanufacturing ECMs for the GM 3.8 was resulting in a higher-than-acceptable comeback rate. As a result, the company developed a system that uses laser technology in place of hot air in the resoldering and reworking process.
Since the connection points are under the chips and cannot be seen with the naked eye, Cardone employs x-ray and endoscope inspection techniques to verify solder joints and parts placement.
This kind of clean-room technology may not be what comes immediately to mind when a jobber thinks about remanufacturing, but it is the rule rather than the exception where electronics are concerned.
Still, there is that sticky point about information. While the battle rages on about access to information that will aid the remanufacturer, they worry about the access of information for the technician, too.
“We have been working with a number of associations on the Right to Repair Act,” says Bill Gager, president of the Automotive Parts Rebuilders Association. “As the remanufacturer remans the units, he wants to make sure that the customer has the codes.”
De Nobrega says that the two issues go hand in hand, and points to the most significant change for the jobber in this market.
“It has to do with putting into the field the technology required for the technician to use a new ECM. For example, a GM ECM must be programmed prior to installation. I have heard of technicians towing the car to the dealer to get it programmed. By putting that technology into the hands of the technician, it will increase sales.”
De Nobrega says that Blue Streak’s programming tool has been proven to do this and he has seen this used at the garage as well as at the warehouse and jobber levels.
“The technician provides the VIN number and the counterperson will pull an ECM from the shelf and program it. In the past, you used to have to order it, give the VIN number, and you wouldn’t get it till next day.” What the change means for jobbers is that they are able to provide a valuable service to the garage customer, one that not only keeps their purchases inside the aftermarket, but also reduces the cost to them in many cases. On certain import models, an ECM from a dealer (which may be remanufactured) can cost in the range of $2,000, whereas a remanufactured aftermarket unit can be a few hundred dollars.
“The programming tool also provides the ability to update calibration, correcting a driveability problem,” he says. “The perception of the technician right now is that they have to take it to the dealer. They don’t.”