Auto Service World
Feature   July 1, 2005   by Dennis Mellersh

The Bottom Line On Premium Ignition and Emissions Parts

New product developments in the ignitions and emissions parts market are emerging faster than new generations of personal computers and software programs.

Distributors have virtually disappeared and distributorless ignition systems (DIS) now represent 70% of the fleet. Innovative technologies such as coil-on-plug are also on the rise. However, the dollar volume sales decline of one product category is often compensated for by the emergence of a new product class or an improved profitability category.

Emissions control technologies, such as O2 sensors and catalytic converters, have contributed to improved engine performance. And performance keeps improving. Jobbers, for example, must now become familiar with the equivalent of jet fighter afterburners, in the form of automotive EGR valves.

With increasingly lengthy change intervals for various parts (and also chemicals such as anti-freeze), the traditional annual, fall, or spring tune-up is an anachronism. Although certain parts still do have recommended replacement cycles, jobbers are now actually more heavily involved in continuous category management, involving a permanent maintenance approach for emissions control parts and ignition products.

Added to this equation is the current explosive growth in parts numbers proliferation.

All of these factors have resulted in new and challenging marketing paradigms for jobbers, which could have resulted in inventory management and marketing nightmares. However, leading aftermarket suppliers, with their comprehensive product category management systems, have developed programs, calibrated right down to individual neighbourhoods, which can help jobbers determine the best parts mix and marketing methods for their specific trading areas.

Oxygen Sensors Undergoing Change

Jobbers can look for good growth in the O2 sensor parts area. Automotive research organization Frost & Sullivan, for example, predicts that annual growth in this market will top 10%.

And it continues to be an evolving technology.

Robert Bosch Corporation notes, for example, that O2 sensor infinitely variable readings are now possible. “The heated wide-band sensor takes the planar sensor concept further, and adds a tiny ‘pumping cell’ to the planar strip to produce a dual sensing element that makes the variable emissions readings possible. The wide-band sensor produces a changing, variable signal directly proportional to the air/fuel ratio, rather than switching back and forth between rich and lean.”

Chris Harrison, product manager and assistant marketing manager, NGK Spark Plugs Canada Limited, and product manager, NTK Oxygen Sensors, says technology is changing.

“The most significant oxygen sensor product innovations from our company would be the enhanced characteristics of our fourth- and fifth-generation heated NRS-II VP oxygen sensors and the technical advances in wide-band oxygen sensors. The NRS-II VP oxygen sensors have many improved design features such as improved materials and structure for greater heat, shock and vibration resistance, and faster light-off time (time to reach operating temperature) of the internal ceramic heater to under seven seconds (from key-on), thus greatly reducing emissions from start-up.

“Unlike many other automotive aftermarket categories, there really aren’t varying performance grades to merchandise or such a thing as a ‘premium’ oxygen sensor. You either offer a part that is like the OEM part for fit, form and function, or you have an inferior product that is not suitable for use that will fail emissions testing.

“Many of the four-wire heated oxygen sensors, predominantly used on OBD-II vehicles, are now entering the aftermarket in a big way as the vehicle mix changes, displacing one-wire and two-wire unheated oxygen sensors on much older vehicles that previously would account for almost 25% of cumulative sales.”

Tom Thompson, global product manager for Delphi Product & Service Solutions, says that sensors should be included as part of the tune-up analysis. He suggests that because most vehicles now have three to five sensors, jobbers could offer a vehicle package which provides all the O2 sensors for one vehicle at a discounted rate. For example, if the installer buys the package, he gets one sensor at no charge, and the savings could be passed on to the consumer.

“O2 sensors follow the 80/20 rule in that 80% of the sales volume is captured in 20% of the part numbers. This facilitates having product breadth of line. Stocking this 20% should provide ample coverage. O2 sensors should provide four to six inventory turns, so the jobber should have good depth of line as well.”

He adds that replacement rates are sometimes dependent on the various blends of fuel available and the region the vehicle is in. In addition, “Fuels with higher levels of lead, silicon oxides and phosphorus can cause contamination and shorten the life of a sensor,” Thompson says.

Catalytic Converter Options

“Converters do not die; they are murdered.” This is a saying that Jim Fox, national account manager, ArvinMeritor Light Vehicle Aftermarket Canada, uses to describe the interdependent relationship of all the factors involved in good engine management practices.

“The caution here is to ensure you are addressing all of the possible causes first. A converter is typically a symptom, not the cause. It is usually a tuning issue such as unburned fuel, over heating oil or antifreeze coming downstream that ruins a converter. If the actual problem is not addressed, the new converter will quickly be destroyed.”

Here too, there are innovations.

“The use of metal versus ceramic substrate allows the walls to be much thinner, thereby creating more flow and less resistance,” says Fox of the company’s MetalCat units. “These converters can flow as much as 70% better than an average converter. The metal is also much more durable and heat resistant than ceramic, making it perfect for high output performance engines.”

On growth potential for the California (CARB) certified OBD II converters, Fox says, “It is believed the US EPA will eventually adopt California requirements for OBD II vehicles. Canadian provinces have used EPA certification as a requirement for aftermarket converters. And it is believed they will follow the EPA on California OBD II adoption. This will raise the cost of aftermarket converters for OBD II vehicles.”

Frank Murkowski, marketing manager, Walker Exhaust, Tenneco Automotive, stressed the role that such converters can play.

“From a diagnostic perspective, service technicians can spend hours trying to track down seemingly non-existent engine or fuel system issues that may have caused a vehicle to fail a tailpipe test. Often the most practical and cost-effective solution is to upgrade to a premium converter with increased capacity. This is valuable in regions in which vehicles are required to pass periodic tailpipe emissions tests and for OBD II applications offering limited engine and/or fuel system adjustability.”

He says that converters are a huge opportunity. “As the rest of the emission system becomes more sophisticated, there are fewer opportunities for the technician to adjust settings in order to achieve compliance at the tailpipe. That’s why premium converters are so important today.”

Precious Spark Plugs

Of course, no engine has to worry about emissions if there is no combustion.

Today’s premium spark plugs are one of the most advanced and complex engineered components in a vehicle. Add the use of precious materials such as platinum and iridium, and, well, these are not your grandfather’s spark plugs.

However, these design factors do comprise real value. As Robert Bosch Corporation observes, “Perhaps the greatest innovation in spark plug design over the years is pure platinum technology, combined with multiple electrodes. As early as the 1960s, engineers realized the value that platinum added to automotive plugs. It provides improved corrosion and erosion resistance and imparts a longer performance life than the standard copper core plug. The use of platinum not only broadens the heat range beyond that achieved with a copper core centre electrode design, but also provides extremely consistent performance, a reliable spark and a longer performance life.”

In addition, Bosch testing of surface air gap plugs with a pure platinum core and multiple ground electrodes compared with conventional plugs showed improved driveability and lower emissions, reduced gap erosion, fuel savings up to almost 5%, and up to 33% better cold start reliability.

One of the more recent additions to the marketplace has been the use of iridium.

Jeff Desveaux, product manger, NGK Spark Plugs of Canada, agrees that precious metal plugs offer real advantages. “The most significant [of our] spark plug product innovations over the past two years is the release of colder heat ratings of our Iridium IX Spark Plugs, with an 0.6mm iridium centre electrode. These plugs offer a better choice spark plug for heavy-duty users and vehicles with modifications.”

To cope with the additional loads that are above an engine’s original design parameters, spark plugs with a cooler rating are required.

Michael Kraft, brand manager, Federal-Mogul Corporation, notes that Champion has introduced its advanced iridium plug, Champion Iridium, for a wide range of popular domestic and import applications.

Champion Iridium plugs feature a proprietary fine-wire iridium centre electrode and platinum V-trimmed ground electrode.

These plugs also feature a special alloy that more quickly reaches and maintains stable operating temperatures under varying engine loads, Kraft says.

“Today’s higher-compression, leaner-running engines also require maximum spark energy; without adequate voltage, there’s increased risk of engine misfire, rough idles and reduced fuel efficiency,” Kraft says.

The development of so-called premium technologies in spark plugs and wires are about more than an upsell.

“Ignition products need to address the increasingly challenging underhood environment represented in today’s vehicles: smaller, hotter and more powerful engines that need greater spark energy and a more focused spark. These products also must operate in tighter, more abrasive and more thermally demanding conditions. Heat management is a huge consideration when selecting a spark plug, and heat resistance is an equally important consideration for wires.”

Getting that message across to your customers can keep the cars they work on, and your business, running smoothly.

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