Budget for New Technology:
Those Scan Tools You Need
By Peter V. Rudloff
When things are already tight, how do you find the money to invest in more technology? One shop owner found his solution.
When I first started out as a tech in the 1990s, a good portion of my income (like most techs) was spent with the local tool truck.
At first, it was to buy the basic tools I absolutely had to have: screwdrivers, wrenches, sockets, etc. Eventually, this gave way to purchases I thought would save me time: pullers, fancy wrenches, air tools, etc. I believed then, as I do now, that tools would help me generate more money through efficiency. In fact, I assumed that one day I would have one of everything on the tool truck.
Fast forward to today: I have had my own shop for 14 years and still regularly invest in tooling to make my shop more efficient. I probably spend the most on technology-related tools.
By technology-related tools, I am talking about computers and electronic testing tools such as scan tools. This includes everything from an inexpensive tool like a generic code reader all the way up to “intimidating” factory scan tools that run on a PC.
For most shop owners, this is a confusing and financially intimidating subject. For any shop that works on OBD-II and newer systems, the use of factory scan tools to communicate with non-powertrain modules should be considered an indispensable piece of the service-ready puzzle.
For almost 100 years, the internal combustion engine was run by a combination of two separate systems: a mechanical fuel delivery system and a separate electrical ignition system. These systems basically did what they were designed to do and performed inefficiently because they worked independently. With the advent of fuel injection and advancements in ignition systems, we saw the two separate systems integrated in a way that gave the internal combustion engine huge gains in both power and efficiency. Because of consumer demand, as well as government regulation, the automobile took a big leap forward in 1996 when OBD-II became the standard that all automobiles would use for engine controller communication. This was followed in the early 2000s by the controller area network (CAN), which has become an advanced communications system. These advancements have turned the modern internal combustion engine into an efficient and powerful device. With proper training and a good OBD-II scanner, modern engines are not too difficult to diagnose for most makes; in fact, I would argue they are considerably easier to diagnose than their predecessors.
As much as the powertrain has advanced, body and chassis systems have advanced even further. Again, consumer demand and government regulation have pushed the envelope of technology on body and chassis systems. We are seeing cars built with more than just power seats, door locks and windows. Now we must contend with 10 or more air bags, adjustable pedals, stability control, doors that unlock when you walk up to the car – just because you have a transponder in your pocket – and a whole host of gadgets and gizmos that Henry Ford never would have thought of in his wildest dreams! It is not uncommon to see 10, 15, 20 or more modules on a modern car, most communicating on advanced data BUS systems. Many require calibrating or programming when replaced, and almost all require bidirectional controls as part of basic testing procedures.
With all the advancements in technology, it only seems logical there would be related changes to how we approach fixing these body and chassis systems. Unfortunately, a shop’s initial investment in the tooling it needs is quite intimidating; often it is not feasible for a shop owner to buy “everything” at one shot. The solution is careful and creative budgeting. I recommend building a long-term plan to get you where you need to be down the road. Of course, the sooner you start budgeting for newer technology the better off you will be (and the less likely you will feel much of a pinch in the wallet as scan tools are replaced by the latest and greatest and you upgrade).
In 2005, I realized a generic scan tool was no longer going to cut it. I could see that not only would OE scan tools make my shop more efficient, but at some point they would be an absolute necessity. But I wondered: How can an independent shop even acquire these tools? I had a fleeting thought about breaking into a local dealership to steal them, but that wasn’t a good idea. Then I discovered that these tools were actually available to the independent repair sector to buy, but how could I possibly invest this much money into tooling? I looked to other shops and shop owners for guidance. It didn’t take long to realize that almost none of them had started out by buying “everything.”
I started by studying which makes and models I was spending the most time diagnosing and subletting for reprogramming. In my case, it was PCI protocol-based Chrysler products. My next decision was who to buy from; this needed to be weighed carefully. Advanced tooling without some sort of training support is going to frustrate most technicians and not bring a prompt return on investment for the shop owner. After careful consideration on who to buy from, I purchased a DRB3.
How To Start Budgeting
for New Technology
Following are a few starting points for doing research on which OE scan tools are right for you:
• Visit www.NASTF.org and search the reprogramming matrix; in the coming months there may be a factory scan tool matrix added as well.
• Visit www.iATN.net, search in the tool forum using the search words “scan tool matrix” as well as the manufacturer you have an interest in getting tooled up for. There are more than 100 posts by various iATN members who helped me on an OE scan tool research project three years ago, and all that information is still there and available to anyone who wants it.
Soon after, I was able to budget for a Star Scan; of course, that represents one of the mistakes I made acquiring tools. Anyone who knows anything about scan tools knows they are basically little self-contained computers. If you know anything about computers you know they become obsolete pretty quickly. Long story short, I sold the Star Scan shortly after buying it and picked up a Star Mobile instead. Of course, six or seven years later the Star Mobile has been replaced too, but that is the nature of technology: it constantly replaces itself.
Once we owned Chrysler scan tools, a whole new world opened up to us. There was no repair we would have to sublet to a Chrysler, Jeep or Dodge dealer … ever. Key replacement and programming with a SKIM key on a 2002 Town and Country minivan? No problem. Reprogram the transmission controller on a 2000 Grand Cherokee to enable 5th gear? No problem. Quick and comprehensive vehicle module scans to see if any module on the vehicle data BUS is present and has codes?
No problem. In short, we could compete with the local dealerships on a level playing field. A field leveled through a simple tool investment. As a result, diagnostics and programming became my shop’s greatest profit center.
In less than a year, we recouped our investment – and then some – on the Chrysler tools and we subsequently bought a Ford IDS, followed by Honda HDS, Toyota Techstream Lite and a GM Tech 2, in that order, because that was the priority of what my shop spent the most time on diagnostics. With some small exceptions on some ignition key programming issues for Honda and Toyota, we now compete with the local dealers in these brands as well. As the word got out we had the tools, other independent shops have been subletting to us instead of the dealers because we offer an easier, more accommodating way of doing business. I now boast close to 30 local repair shops as customers.
Because we became so efficient using OE tooling, I began to realize that when we worked on brands we were not tooled on at the OE level, we were not making a good profit – and we were actually doing our customers a disservice.
I made the decision to start discriminating what makes we would work on. We do not even do basic oil or tire services on cars for which we are not tooled to dealer level. Instead, we choose to work only on what we can do most efficiently. That means we actually turn away some customers and this brings me to my last point on tool budgeting.
We have been turning away a high number of KIA/Hyundai vehicles in the past six months; this has me contemplating adding a factory scan tool for these makes. Because I can easily measure demand through jobs we are turning away, it no longer is costing me money through inefficiency or mistaken diagnosis to figure out what scan tool I should buy next.
Once the tools that best complement your shop are acquired, they should quickly pay for themselves through both efficiency improvements and programming events.
Peter “Pete” Rudloff is a member of ASA’s Mechanical Division Operations Committee and owner of Pete’s Garage in Newark, Del. He can be reached at email@example.com.