LAS VEGAS—There could be new life in a service shop's on-car brake lathe. That is, if it can be considered for a second career as a coat rack, or perhaps a nice piece of sculpture.
The folks at Brake Align Inc. believe a revolution is coming in the way brake jobs are done. With a new product launched in Las Vegas at the recent Automotive Aftermarket Industry Week (AAIW) trade shows, officials of the Richmond, Va.-based company began the charge to make that old on-car lathe obsolete.
Brake pedal pulsation and steering wheel shimmy are usually symptoms of "lateral runout," a condition effecting 90 percent of vehicles and the top cause of customer dissatisfaction and comebacks, the company claims. The current school of thought dictates using an on-car brake lathe to eliminate lateral runout on disc brake rotors.
That's where things can get dicey.
During an AAIW press conference, Brake Align officials pointed out that on-car brake lathes have garnered a "well-deserved reputation as being difficult and time-consuming to install, adjust and operate," thus becoming unprofitable for both an automotive technician and the dealership.
They then provided a synopsis of typical problems a tech faces while doing a brake job, and how the company's new micro-thin runout correction plates, or shims, can improve the chances of successfully completing the task.
Actually, Brake Align Inc. is itself somewhat of a testament to faith in the product.
Thomas N. "Tommy" Saunders III is president of Accu Industries Inc., which for the past 15 years has designed, manufactured and marketed brake lathes, tire changers and wheel balancers. After developing the Brake Align System, he formed the company to market the devices. His son, T. Nelson Saunders Jr., is chairman and CEO.
"We've been dying to get into the alignment business," Tommy Saunders said.
Following its start-up in early 1998, the company continued product development and this year began setting up its distribution network.
Manifestations such as steering wheel shimmy are most likely a result of irregular rotation between the brake rotor surface and brake pad, while rotor runout is the major cause of thickness variation, which increases pedal pulsation, Brake Align literature states.
Due to a number of variables, a routine brake job often turns into a frustrating, unprofitable operation that can take much longer than anticipated to complete, especially if an inexperienced tech is wrestling with the on-car lathe.
Although that type of lathe can help solve pedal pulsation and runout, Mr. Saunders said they tend to be more finicky, take more time to set up, can needlessly remove rotor material when attempting to correct runout, and are not as precise as a standard bench lathe.
On-car lathes are so unpopular in some shops, he added, that "you have to put a gun to a tech's head to get them to use them."
Brake Align's correction plates, on the other hand, install in minutes, saving 30 to 45 minutes over a disc brake job requiring the use of an on-car lathe, he claimed.
"What is truly amazing about the Brake Align System," he said, "is the fact that it not only corrects surface variation on the brake rotor, but it also takes into account the `stack up' of tolerances and error in the spindle, hub, wheel bearings and rotor, and completely eliminates the problem 100 percent of the time."
The company provided a step-by-step example of how its system works:
The rotor is removed from the vehicle and machined on a quality bench brake lathe.
The machined rotor is reinstalled onto the vehicle's hub.
The rotor is then checked for runout using a dial indicator, noting the rotor's high spot with a marking pen.
If runout exceeds original equipment specifications, the rotor is removed to allow installation of the appropriate Brake Align runout correction plate.
A V-notch in the plate indicates the proper location to offset the rotor's high and low spots.
The rotor is reinstalled and the brake job is complete.
Brake Align contends that use of its system can reduce cycle time for a complete brake service by as much as 50 percent and can save a similar percentage of the labor costs on most difficult brake jobs.
Mr. Saunders said the product—which was kept under wraps while being developed over the last three years—has been "tested in dealerships and on over 2,000 vehicles, and has worked perfectly 2,000 times."
The correction plates are held to an accuracy of one-10,000th of an inch, he said, comparing that to the 2,000th of an inch accuracy to which rotors are machined.
No additional equipment or capital expenditures are needed with the system. The company is offering a 250-piece starter kit for car dealerships and a variety kit for smaller repair shops.
Kits include an assortment of runout correction plates, two markers, a dial indicator with Vice Grip, an application chart, a hub cleaner, hub cleaner pads and anti-corrosive spray. Estimated cost per plate is about $8.
Mr. Saunders said all General Motors Corp. vehicle lines, and Ford Motor Co. vehicles, as well, can be handled with about five specific Brake Align correction plates. Some vehicles actually come out of the factory with brake rotor runout problems, he added.
Brake Align's product line will initially be targeted at OEMs, with independent repair shops to follow. It currently consists of a broad range of runout correction plates designed to fit most late model applications and also includes a growing line of service equipment accessories.
Accu Industries still sells on-car lathes. "I don't want to sound too harsh on them," Mr. Saunders continued, "but (Brake Align) is a solution to a real-world problem."
Asked what percentage of the company's sales consists of on-car lathes, he said it "varies" and can spike depending on sales to OEMs.
Will Brake Align hurt those sales, or make on-car lathes obsolete? He smiled and said: "I'm not that worried about it."