DALLAS-Like a gladiator suiting up in preparation to enter battle, the auto service technician of the future will slip on his virtual reality goggles, adjust the unit's microphone, grab his wrenches and assume his battle station beneath the sagging suspension of some out-of-alignment behemoth. He'll remain there until the job is done-never having to exit in order to shuffle through charts, manuals, service bulletins, or plod about a finicky computer terminal.
It could happen.
At least that's what FMC Corp.'s Automotive Service Equipment Division (ASED) is predicting.
Although a company spokesman said some of the technology may be a good two to three years or more down the road, at the recent National Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association's trade show in Dallas, the equipment manufacturer unveiled its vision of the ``service bay of the future.''
Merlin the Magician's got nothing on this magic, some of it made possible through the endeavors of another FMC division that has created equipment for military applications.
If anything, the bay of the future demonstrated just how heavily reliant on computer wizardry service shops may eventually have to become to maintain pace with sophisticated vehicle electronics.
Take, for instance, the virtual reality concept the Conway, Ark.-based company has dubbed its ``Virtual Vision Aligner,'' which drew big crowds at its trade show booth.
A technician wearing the goggles can stay under a vehicle until an alignment is completed, all the while seeing the results of his adjustments projected as a computer screen image onto the goggles. With the aid of voice recognition software, he can use the attached microphone to tell the computer when to move to the next data acquisition step without ever having to return to his computer keyboard.
The technology could offer not only cordless operation, but would free the tech's hands to work on the vehicle, resulting in a more efficient, quicker, more profitable repair, FMC said. John Miller, executive vice president, marketing for the ASED, said that while virtual vision is ``just a concept today, it could be the aligner of tomorrow.''
FMC said its ``future bay'' was spawned, over the past 18 months, through interviews with thousands of customers for input on ways the company can help them increase revenue, save time and cut cost.
Some of the gadgetry may sound concep-tually pie-in-the-sky, but other technology is off the drawing board and ready to be rolled into service bays.
According to James R. Collins, division president, ASED, the company envisions one networked computer system that would link customer and technical service information, service equipment, shop management software, parts control, live hot-line assistance, and electronic (fax and modem) communication with customers, suppliers and the ASED's factory service.
New FMC computer software and systems introduced at the NTDRA show can enable techs to contact an FMC hot line for immediate help-even allowing a copy of a technician's computer screen to be faxed to the hot line in order to aid in diagnosis.
Another FMC computer unit, demonstrated by an FMC technician, enables the company to track its hundreds of mobile field service vans across the country for quick deployment to a customer for assistance.
Field service staff, armed with a laptop computer network, can keep in touch with the needs of their equipment customers, FMC said. The network provides real-time information about the status of any customer request for equipment service.
The company said its bay of the future uses one integrated system, featuring computerized local area networks (LANs) to connect each service-related function into a shared communications system.
Mr. Miller emphasized that the result is profit-generating products and services that all work together, sharing data electronically to carry out tasks with minimal operator input.
FMC's technician work station, for example, connects with the front office, parts suppliers and shop management software. In addition to wheel alignment service data, it also provides vehicle service manual information and original-equipment-manufacturer factory-service bulletins on compact disk.
Through use of the DOS-based ``Windows for Workgroups'' software, a technician can shrink, enlarge or move any screen element to access the information wanted, FMC said, and can effortlessly switch from one part of the system to another.
FMC noted that training help is built into its alignment software, which features ``animated adjustment graphics'' to show on the screen not only what a part looks like and where it is located on the vehicle, but also exactly how it should be adjusted. An animated graphic shows a tool being applied to the part, and the part moving to the desired position.
Animated graphics and other help are on-line and immediately available at the push of a button from anywhere in the program, the company added.
This, FMC explained, allows an inexperienced technician to learn by watching the screen and imitating the graphic.