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  Mechanical Feature

Consider the Technical Side to Reprogramming ROI

Posted 9/10/2009
By Donny Seyfer, AAM

How can you make reprogramming a smart solution for your shop?

Do you find yourself looking for a new profit center with a manageable startup cost? Wouldn't it be great if you bought a tool that could pay for itself in weeks or months rather than years? And what if this tool made it possible to diagnose cars quicker and solve problems that would otherwise be impossible? Sound too good to be true? Many shop owners look at me with skepticism in their eyes when I tell them that they need to bring reprogramming into their shop as a new profit center.

You have to decide between the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-pioneered J2534 approach - which will limit your ability to do much more than power control module (PCM) replacement/reprogramming - or the original equipment (OE) scan/reflashing tool method before you can make the decision on equipment. There are a number of factors that will help you to make this decision. Probably the most important concern is return on investment (ROI).

Since it would be difficult to cover every possible scenario, let me give you an example that we can use to illustrate our purposes. Let's imagine a shop that does a mix of American- and Asian-brand vehicles. Most American manufacturers are fairly prolific with software revisions to update operational parameters, emission calibrations or in service part changes and replacements. On the other hand, for many years most of the Asian manufacturers had a culture that implied if software updates were needed, they had not built the vehicle properly.

Pressure from the EPA and the reality of producing more vehicles has led to a different point of view. The reality is American brands are going to have more reprogramming opportunities with a quicker ROI and a faster learning curve as side benefits. As we pull this together, our next step in deciding which equipment to choose should be based on our actual vehicle mix. Use your shop management system to determine how many of each manufacturer's vehicles you work on and ask your techs which brands they feel need better diagnostic tools in their bays. This is rather subjective but useful. Equipment that gathers dust has no ROI.

To continue with our illustration, let's say our shop has determined that 25 percent of its vehicle database is Toyota/Lexus, 25 percent is Ford/Mazda products, about 15 percent are GM and the rest are of various other makes. It would seem that we might want to consider the OE tool for the three we work on the most and a J2534 option or subletting our reprogramming needs for the others. The reprogramming cost of these examples ranges from about $1,800 to $8,500. Because making money from this investment is the most common concern in the reprogramming classes I do, I felt we needed to have it covered here.

Now that we have decided which types of tools are best, the next challenge is embracing the technology and locating the information to choose and set up the equipment. Let's have a look at the technologies involved and see where to find the information to put our investment to work.

Your starting point needs to be www.nastf.org. This is the Web site that many of your fellow ASA members have devoted considerable time and effort to create. On the left, choose the Tools Matrix and then the Reprogramming Tool Information Summary. From this you will be able to determine how to get your hands on both J2534 software and the OE software/scan tool. In this case, we see that the manufacturers we are targeting each have J2534 support and, of course, a "factory" tool.

You can also skip this step and just go to the Service Information Matrix for the specific manufacturer and read about that. To narrow our scope, I will focus on just one manufacturer example. To that end, I have provided the tool-specific information from Ford.

The Ford Integrated Diagnostic System has the fastest return on investment of any of the OE tools, mostly because it costs under $3,000 (if you bring your own laptop), includes a two-year reflashing and integrated diagnostic software (IDS) subscription and is a great scan tool to boot. This tool will quickly check any Ford or Mazda OBD-II vehicle and tell you if there are software updates available.

Just for argument's sake, though, let's say we decide to give up that great scan tool and use J2534 for Ford products. To work from this method, we need to perform a couple more steps. Follow this carefully and you will see how this decision does not make sound financial sense unless you require only minimal support for Ford products.

First, we need to see which J2534 devices are approved by Ford. No matter what manufacturer vehicle you are going to work on, you must check this out for each brand. The process will be similar for all. Some J2534 devices will not work with some manufacturers. You can waste a bunch of your time or damage an expensive module if you fail to do your homework.

Ford MotorcraftFor Ford, you will find J2534 device information on the lower left corner of the www.motorcraftservice.com home page under Reprogramming & Initialization.

You will also find the minimum computer specs necessary to perform reflashing/reprogramming. Keep in mind that, for the automotive industry, Windows XP Pro is still the most compatible platform as all of the drivers, firmware and software were developed for that platform. Windows Vista is not yet embraced by the manufacturers for these procedures.

Our next step will involve using the "Quick Guides" in the menu on the left and then choose "latest calibration information" to determine the latest software for the specific vehicle in your bay.

At this point, we have paid for nothing except our J2534 device. If you determine that there is an update, you can buy a reflashing subscription from the motorcraftservice.com Web site for (as this issue goes to print) $26.95 for a single day, $64.95 for a month or $649.95 for a year. As an aside, the annual subscription after the first two years for the integrated diagnostic software (IDS) tool is $500. If we are looking at ROI, it is pretty clear that this tool can pay for itself either way very quickly.

So, why all the Ford information? I wanted to illustrate the point that each option needs careful research by focusing on just one brand. You don't want to just do reflashing, you want it to make you money and, in most cases, put better scan tools in your techs' hands. Each brand has nuances like this that will provide you with the best return with a little research and planning. Don't look at it as, "I need to reflash Ford, Toyota and GM individually."

Look at the scan tool you currently have for them. Are your techs efficient and profitable with what you have? If they are, you may want to look at a J2534 solution that allows you to service more than one brand from that tool. On the other hand, if you think that you might be coming up short or spending too much time working around your current scan tool, this may be an optimal time to upgrade to a complete OE scan/flash tool. It is by far the most powerful option available to you and almost always has the highest ROI because of your ability to speed diagnostic work and reflashing.

Editor's Note: If you want the three-hour version of this information with all the IT requirements fleshed out, be sure to join Seyfer for his workshop at Automotive Service and Repair Week (ASRW) in Las Vegas in November.

Donny Seyfer Donny Seyfer, AAM, is a general director on the ASA board of directors. He is operations manager for Seyfer Automotive Inc., an ASA member-shop in Wheat Ridge, Colo. He may be contacted at donny@seyferauto.com.

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