Gadgets & Gear
Fun and functional high–tech tools that you might not think to buy – but should.
Sitting in bed the other night, while it was 14 degrees Fahrenheit out, I wanted to turn the heater up a few degrees. Ten years ago, this would have meant getting out of bed, trudging down the steps and adjusting the thermostat. But in 2016, I just reach over to my smartphone, click on an app and adjust the settings from the comfort and warmth of my bed. Seconds later the heater jumped to life.
We live in the most interesting time for technological advancements. Ever. Nowadays, there are gadgets and apps for just about anything we need. No longer are special electronic tools a luxury or something you’d see in a James Bond movie. They are how we get things done in this era.
Most auto repair shops boast a large amount of technology. Nowadays, a shop with a single scan tool probably is also a shop that advocates for 3,000-mile oil changes and prefers to use a fax machine instead of email.
Aside from fancy diagnostic scan tools; oscilloscopes; noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) measuring tools; and emissions testing equipment, shops are starting to buy into the endless offerings of electronic gadgets. My shop is no different, and I thought it would be fun to share some of the nontraditional gadgets we have integrated into our shop’s operating philosophy.
Lightweights for heavy-duty jobs
At Pete’s Garage, we issue every employee an 11.6-inch screen Chromebook and a Google-based email address that’s tied to the shop. Currently, we’re using an Acer CB3-111-C670 that we picked up on Amazon for about $140 each. It comes Wi-Fi enabled and is equipped with a Google function that can open and read any Microsoft Word document. And it packs a six- to eight-hour battery life.
We use these little laptops for accessing service information, researching, storing files and sending internal shop emails. Employees are permitted to take their Chromebook home and use it for personal emails, research or for a rainy day at their house.
Lightweight, great battery life and powerful enough to do any non-Windows function we need, the Chromebooks make our team faster without putting our Windows-based laptops, which we use for scan tools and scopes, in harm’s way. Similar results could be gleaned from a tablet, but we’ve found that greasy hands can’t type on a tablet very well. The full, yet compact, keyboards allow us to perform online searches while our hands are soiled.
Keep in mind that these are not full-blown computers. Don’t expect to run your shop’s accounting work on one. Scan tools, scopes and other testing equipment also will likely experience conflicts. Keep your expensive, Windows-based laptops for the test equipment. Remember, you’ll need a sturdy Wi-Fi signal or a 4g/3g account to run your Chromebook.
At $140 each, it’s easy to equip the whole shop. We even keep one in our customer lounge so that folks who are waiting for us to complete their service work can surf the Web, watch YouTube videos or whatever else they want to do.
Keep your communication flowing
Probably even more important for us are our shop-issued cellular smartphones. These work hand-in-hand with the Chromebook, using the same Google email address, and help keep communication between the back of the shop and the front flowing smoothly. After trying multiple smartphones over the years, our current device-of-choice is a Verizon-based Droid Maxx. With a 3,500Ma battery, it has the power to make it through the day. The dual-core 1.7GHz processor, while not the fastest, is plenty fast for any shop task we perform.
The phone’s more practical functions include texting questions to the front office, snapping photos during a repair, calling the shop if a road test results in a breakdown and creating a hotspot to run the Chromebook when necessary. In addition, we can use them for our Web-based inspection program: AutoVitals. Although AutoVitals does not recommend using a smartphone for this purpose, we’ve found the Droid Maxx relatively trouble free compared to six or seven other phones we’ve tried. Most electronic inspection providers prefer the use of a tablet, due to screen size, processor speed and operating system versions. But we’ve found the tablet platforms clunky and difficult to carry with you when you’re working, resulting in less documentation being recorded.
The Droid Maxx’s five-inch screen is sufficient, to get through the inspection app, and the smaller size means the phone stays in a technician’s pocket for ready use when the need arises. In time, I suspect that someone will pioneer an inspection app that’s phone-based.
We also use our smartphones to run various applications. For example, a GPS app allows us to verify speedometer readings, and a conversion app allows us to calculate from metric to standard units of measurement. We even have multiple add-on devices that hook up to our smartphones via Bluetooth, including an onboard diagnostics 2 (OBD2) scan tool, single channel scope, stand-alone meter and an infrared camera.
What’s listed here just skims the surface of what smartphones will do for us as technology progresses.
Seek and you shall find
Developments in infrared (IR) devices represent a neat technology that isn’t new but recently has become more affordable. We have a $300 SEEK brand IR camera that plugs into our smartphones and displays photos on the screen. We can take snapshots or even record a movie, if we want. FLIR Company also offers smartphone-based models, as well as handheld units that use a secure digital (SD) card to store photos and movies.
You’ll find the handheld units are about two to three times the price for the entry-level cameras, and you could easily spend $7,000 for an ultra high-end model. So far, we’ve had great results using our camera in cooling system diagnostics, diesel-misfire testing and amp-draw testing.
How to go like a pro
More than just a rugged camera to strap to a helmet while skydiving or skiing, the GoPro allows you to go where you can’t go. For example, when I was about 21 years old, I worked on a lifted pickup truck that had an odd noise/vibration during acceleration from 15 to 25 mph. The speed was too fast for someone to stand outside the truck and determine what was going on. To find out, I strapped myself to the bottom of the truck, while a colleague drove to duplicate the problematic conditions. Looking back, I can’t say this was one of my more intelligent moments, but we were able to diagnose the issue. Today, I can strap my trusty GoPro in place instead of myself and let it be my eyes.
Thanks to snowboarders and adrenalin junkies all over the world, there are many different adapters that allow you to secure the camera just about anywhere. Our GoPro Hero 3 is waterproof, records in 2.7K30 definition (close to movie theater grade), has tons of battery life and can be viewed remotely via Bluetooth on – what else? – our smartphone. I’ve found this camera valuable for nailing down noises and suspension shifting that we’re unable to duplicate on the rack.
See small things bigger
Although it’s not cutting edge or even that high-tech, one of our favorite gadgets in the shop is our 20x glasses. Aside from getting to look like Doc Brown from Back to the Future, these glasses have allowed us to find bad solder joints on numerous circuit boards. For the measly $10 they cost on Amazon, these should be in every toolbox of every drivability tech in the country.
I’m sure there are a ton of other gadgets I’m leaving out. Feel free to email me with some of the neat and unconventional gadgets you use in your shop, and maybe I’ll write an updated article. I hope this one has inspired you to start thinking out of the box for tools and gadgets that aren’t as traditional as many of the tools we used 20 years ago.
Remember that investing in new technologies for your shop is a great way to keep it from falling behind. Take advantage of the world we live in and start putting gadgets to work so that you can get things done more efficiently.