AKRON—Apart from shouting across a service bay, in some shops the only way to exchange information might be to pass a note from tech to tech. Carrier pigeons, anyone? Want some info from the service desk? That's going to involve a little shoe leather, with an accompanying disruption of work flow.
Most tire and auto service shops have integrated computers into their operations: everything from a data-entry station where work orders are produced, to the PC in an alignment bay, to the engine analyzer in the service bay. But seamlessly exchange information among them? Nope. Not likely.
A coalition of service equipment suppliers now has a better idea.
For more than two years, the ``Enterprise Alliance'' has taken steps to see that, whatever you call it—shop integration, networking, connectivity, integrated vision—becomes a reality, as the industry prepares to enter the brave new world of the 21st century automotive service operation.
Not so much a ``shop of the future,'' the alliance is fostering an environment that may avert the so-called ``Walk of Death.'' It's that time of least productivity when a technician goes off hunting parts information, alignment specs, service bulletins, etc., for the job at hand.
One size fits all
The Enterprise Alliance has developed ``PASSPORT Standards''—a set of hardware, database and communications criteria that can be built into an automotive service facility's computer-based products and services. They make it possible for every piece of equipment in a shop to seamlessly—the key word here—share information.
The result is an enhancement in quality of services a shop delivers, the alliance believes, while controlling and lowering operational costs for ``greater profit, happier customers and a more attractive quality of professional life.''
But the really attractive part? There's nothing to buy, claims the alliance, and PASSPORT doesn't add to the cost of the products.
The alliance formed in 1997, its six charter members pledging to deliver products meeting those standards. Already, they've begun to do just that.
Founding companies are ALLDATA Corp., which provides vehicle diagnostic and repair information databases; Reynolds & Reynolds, a marketer of integrated information management systems; Anderson BDG Corp., developer of the VAST point-of-sale (POS) software for tire and auto service dealers; wheel alignment, brake, wheel and safety equipment supplier Hunter Engineering Co.; SPX Corp., a global provider of industrial and vehicle solutions, network technologies, as well as components to vehicle manufacturers; and Vetronix Corp., which develops and markets hardware and software for use by vehicle manufacturers.
They have since been joined by Automotive Training Institute (ATI), an automotive consulting firm; collision repair specialist Chief Automotive Systems; Data National Corp., a customer relationship marketer; ExecuSys Inc., which specializes in computer-based data warehousing, decision support systems and POS; Keokee Creative Group, a Web site and graphics design firm focused on the auto service industry; MPSI, a diagnostic hardware and software supplier; and Quality Design Systems Inc., marketer of TireMaster POS accounting software used by dealerships including Big O Tires Inc.
An alliance spokesman told Tire Business the group is actively recruiting new member companies, and has expanded into the collision repair industry.
A changing industry
The alliance points out that as the industry evolves, auto repair chains and shops will not all be the same, but will employ the same core set of shop technologies.
It's what Ken Brookings of K2 Consulting Group, an Enterprise Alliance spokesman, refers to as the shifting tire and service industry ``paradigms''—the models or patterns that embody the boundaries and operating procedures for working within a specific process.
``Paradigms determine the way we see the world and our future in it,'' he said. As a tool to forecast the future, they can change the way a company does business and even provide a competitive advantage.
Last year, Mr. Brookings told a dealer gathering of the Tire Alliance Groupe—which numbers some of the nation's largest independent tire dealerships—that the tire industry is one of the few businesses not fully integrated with computers.
PASSPORT, he said, will make it easier for a dealership to add what's commonly called ``plug and play'' equipment offering communication and data transfer among all computer-based components in a shop.
A planning model
In its overview of PASSPORT, the alliance states that by having a ``near-future model'' for planning, a business can make decisions on equipment and software purchases, personnel or business expansion.
The planning roadmap that the alliance has produced, called the ``Intelligent Automotive Enterprise,'' comprises three major groupings:
1. In-shop integration. Via PASSPORT Standards, POS, inventory, electronic parts catalog, service and repair information, wheel aligners, console and hand-held diagnostic equipment and emissions analyzers can now operate as one compatible, integrated system.
2. Integrated, linked services. Using inexpensive Internet-based communications, new services are available that provide valuable information and functionality to a service shop by interacting with shop-based products, services, equipment and programs from remote locations.
These can include electronic comparison shopping, ordering of parts and equipment, powerful decision support and management reporting and automated database-marketing services. They save a shop owner cost, complexity and service costs.
3. Web-enabled resources. The World Wide Web provides access to a growing number of support sites and services for running businesses, servicing vehicles and accessing parts and equipment.
Conversely, more people are turning to the Internet to research auto service, tire purchases and other automotive-related functions.
Since its inception, the Enterprise Alliance has been busy. Accomplishments thus far include:
The completion and release of PASSPORT Standards;
Participating firms' products are now PASSPORT compatible;
Presentation of ongoing educational workshops for companies;
Development of an informational/educational Web site; and
Pro-bono and free consulting services for businesses underwritten by alliance members.
In a 1997 speech to the industry, Mr. Brookings maintained auto service enterprises ``are building time-bombs by filling shops with incompatible, long-life cycle products.''
And last fall in Las Vegas at an Automotive Aftermarket Industry Week (AAIW) press conference on PASSPORT, he acknowledged that service shops are shifting from stand-alone products to integrated systems. Most ``will become integrated in a time frame that is shorter than the useful shop life of most computer-based products.
``Therefore, unlike equipment selection in the past, customers must now consider each purchase within the context'' of the computing solution that the product will operate within during its lifetime.
To demonstrate the flow of data through various work stations, the alliance's booth at AAIW '98 featured a mockup illustrating how a fully integrated shop computer system would operate.
The future is here
Snap-on Inc.—and firms under its umbrella such as Balco, Sun Electric, Edge, John Bean, Mitchell and Wheeltronic—have made computer integration a company-wide goal. Branko Beronja, senior vice president for Kenosha, Wis.-based Snap-on, offered a view of how an integrated shop might enhance a consumer's ``repair experience.''
As the customer drops off the car for new tires, alignment and wheel balancing, the service writer types the job into the computer, instantly alerting techs in the bay to the service required, along with a complete vehicle repair history.
The customer leaves to go shopping, but after an hour is curious about how repairs are progressing. At a computer kiosk in the store, she types in her name, password and vehicle identification number and receives a printout explaining repair status and estimated completion time.
Meanwhile, from home her husband can access the information from his computer, with a complete report available on-line.
When the job is done, repair information is entered into the shop's database for use in upcoming mailings on service specials.
That may sound far-fetched, but Mr. Beronja said ``the technology to achieve all of it, plus a lot more, exists today.''
The time to act is now
Among companies subscribing to the concept of the ``systems environment'' of tomorrow is American Car Care Centers Inc., the tire dealer marketing/buying group.
In a statement issued in support of PASSPORT, Len Lewin, president/COO, said Memphis, Tenn.-based ACCC ``faces a problem today shared by all large scale automotive service providers: the ability to make computerization purchase decisions based upon a plan for both current needs and future growth.''
So last year the group signed an agreement with Hunter Engineering allowing dealers to purchase PASSPORT-compliant equipment from Hunter at competitive prices, and has sought similar pacts with other Enterprise Alliance members. He pledged that ``all agreements with future suppliers of equipment will have to meet'' PASSPORT Standards.
Mr. Brookings urged the industry to not ``underestimate the importance'' of PASSPORT.
In the past, he conceded, similar projects would begin, some meetings would be held, but nothing useful or lasting was ever delivered. However, with the Enterprise Alliance, ``never before in our industry has such a broad representation of suppliers worked together so effectively for the common good of our industry.''
The standards ``are now a real and permanent part of our industry,'' Mr. Brookings said.
And that means ``the landscape has changed and will never return to the old way of designing products or helping service providers prosper and better serve their customers. Ever.''
Tire Business photo by sigmund J. Mikolajczyk