Auto Service World
Feature   January 1, 2010   by David Halpert

What You Need To Know

The Changing Chassis Market:

Keeping inventories up to date is an ongoing challenge for jobbers with new parts numbers continuously flooding the market.

For years aftermarket manufacturers have benefited from OEMs’ shortcomings, often improving on quality and design that is specific to certain parts and components.

“OEMs seem not to be focusing on quality. We’re finding as they go to front-wheel drive, the ball joints are getting lighter and lighter and smaller and smaller, and in some cases they’ve gone too far,” says John Thody, president of XRF Chassis Inc. “The Ford Taurus is a pretty good example, where the [first-generation] Tauruses had some bushing problems while the middle series of Tauruses had beautiful front ends on them. Now, with the current version, the way they’ve done the geometry on the front end, these ball joints fail every 40,000 to 50,000 miles.” As Ron Strain, program manager at Affinia Canada for the Raybestos Chassis line, says, “There are certainly some engineering advantages employed by the aftermarket that can positively add to the service life of some parts. Low-friction bearings, superior anti-rust coatings, and better sealing boots [are] some examples. The aftermarket also offers ‘single-call’ application and technical support, marketing programs, and an experienced and trained sales management team in the field to work directly with the jobber to help grow his business.”

Also pushing up sales in the chassis market is the fact that consumers are holding onto their vehicles longer and driving them harder. In many cases, the failure of chassis parts has less to do with quality than it does with driving habits.

For example, extra weight placed on or inside the vehicle over long periods of time puts undue stress on the chassis system, and creates the potential for certain parts and components to fail prematurely.

“All of these vehicles [coming out of OE] are designed as a car, but are used as a truck as soon as you put a load on it,” continues Thody. “It changes the ride height, the geometry of the front end, and causes some failures because the manufacturer hadn’t anticipated that that vehicle would be used to actually do work.”

It is these “road warrior”-type vehicles that make good candidates for replacement chassis parts, and often these are the parts numbers that aftermarket manufacturers first bring to market: service industry vehicles used for delivery, hauling, construction, storing, or cars that spend a lot of time on the roads, such as taxis and police cars. Vehicles in these categories will likely require annual replacement of chassis parts and components.

Most jobbers have a good cross-section of inventory on hand. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to stocking chassis parts, there are certain givens that aren’t likely to change in the near future. A lot of stores will likely have invested more in ball joints because that’s where the significant volume is. Many stores in the western and Prairie provinces also tend to focus on parts for heavy-end working trucks.

One item that’s seen a resurgence over the last decade is sway bars. As Thody explains, “[With the number of new vehicles] being designed now the market for sway bar links has become enormous. In the old days, when there was just a bolt and four bushings, they lasted a long time. Now they’re asked to do too much and they’re too little to do the job. They’re all very expensive and have a reasonably high failure rate. Sway bars have become very big business in the last 10 years.”

Another noticeable market trend in the last five years has been the aftermarket’s move to unitized assemblies that combine a ball joint and control arm in an effort to compete with OE.

“You see a trend of people moving into control arm assemblies and a lot of the new control arms are unitized. For a lot of smaller vehicles the ball joint is part of the arm, so when the ball joint fails you’re replacing the whole unit. This is where we’ve seen the market changing,” says Robert Rego, chassis product manager for Mevotech Inc.

This trend has its downside for jobbers in terms of inventory investment. While ball joints are able to fit on both sides of the vehicle, control arm assemblies are built specifically for the right or left side of the vehicle. Jobbers have to balance the needs of their business with the wants of the service provider for a simple solution.

“Getting the right mix of inventory can be very difficult due to parts proliferation. For example, OEMs’ increased use of integral components is driving the need to carry a range of assemblies,” says Kim Plante, chassis product manager for Federal-Mogul. “However, one common mistake is to carry too many serviceable control arm assemblies, which represent an additional inventory investment since the ball joint is already stocked.

“Control arms are generally different for the right and left sides of the vehicle, whereas the ball joint fits both sides. Thus, twice as many control arms would be needed, which takes up a lot of shelf space.”

Rego goes on to explain that there’s also a disconnect in the chassis product market between jobbers that stock chassis items because it fits well in their inventory mix, and jobbers that stock units because it’s what the technician truly needs and wants.

“An example is the control arm assembly, and this is where we see a difference. For [technicians] to make money, they work on a flat-rate basis. The more vehicles [they] work on, the more revenue [they] receive,” continues Rego. “Control arms are easier to change than the ball joint in terms of removal and installation time. The jobber doesn’t see a difference, but the technician sees this and [they] get turnaround and repair more vehicles in a day.

“A bushing and ball joint might take up less space in the inventory of the jobber, but what’s the technician looking for? The technician is looking for something that’s going to make him money.”

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