BETHESDA, Md.—Much like a sheriff called in to mediate a domestic dispute, the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association has stepped forward to develop an industry-wide standard that will allow seamless communication among computer-based equipment in auto repair shops. If that sounds familiar, a brief history lesson is in order.
A couple of years ago two groups set out to accomplish that very goal and, for the most part, did just that.
The Enterprise Alliance, a non-profit group consisting of some of the biggest names in automotive equipment, devised what it called "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 made it possible for every piece of shop equipment—from the service counter back to the bays—to talk with each other.
With much fanfare, Passport was heavily promoted at the annual Specialty Equipment Market Association trade show two years ago in Las Vegas by its member suppliers, which include ALLDATA Corp., SPX Corp., Hunter Engineering and Vetronix Corp.
Meanwhile, another effort, led by Snap-on Corp. and including other equipment stalwarts, achieved a similar objective.
The only problem? Both sets of standards weren't compatible, reaching the solution to the challenge via different avenues.
So in stepped the AAIA, a Bethesda-based group that includes manufacturers, distributors and sellers of motor vehicle parts, accessories, tools, equipment, materials and supplies for the automotive aftermarket.
The organization has formed a Shop Integration Task Force to develop a single worldwide industry standard for the interconnectivity of computer-based equipment in service shops. It will, for example, enable repair technicians to access vehicle, parts and service information more efficiently through computer equipment that shares data from multiple sources.
AAIA President Gene A. Gardner said the association will play a key role in "reconciling the technology" developed by Snap-On, the Enterprise Alliance, and yet another standard designed by ASA-NET, a group in Germany, as well as others around the globe.
Inevitably, the "end goal is the same," explained Scott Luckett, the AAIA's director of information technology and liaison to its tool and equipment segment. "What our effort represents is the consolidation between what Passport and Snap-on seek."
Mr. Luckett is in what some might consider the unenviable position of "referee" between the two sides, and jokes that he's the guy in the middle of the field "wearing the striped shirt."
Passport, for example, began testing the first beta version of its software standards last month, but it can't "talk" with Snap-on's, Mr. Luckett told Tire Business.
However, he's quick to point out that the AAIA became involved at the invitation of both groups.
And he's hopeful that when the project is completed, "we'll come out with a third independent and open standard"—administered by the AAIA—by the year's fourth quarter. Then the Passport and Snap-on guidelines "will go away," superceded by AAIA's. He expects new equipment embodying the technology will be introduced by the first quarter of 2001.
It's all good news for shop owners.
"They get all the advantages of fully-integrated shop compliance without having to worry about two separate standards," he said. "It's been a tremendous cooperative effort among all the companies involved."
Thus far, computer programmers have devoted hundreds of hours to accomplish AAIA's goal, not to mention daily phone contact to work out bugs and discuss progress.
In essence, what they've been developing is a "book of computer gibberish," Mr. Luckett said—a "cookbook" that's essential to companies designing new shop equipment.
The standards will be the best of both worlds, he said, because, to their credit, "everyone set their egos aside and saw the good things in each other's software applications." Although the Enterprise Alliance's and Snap-on's are competing platforms, finding a workable solution has not been nearly as hard as it could have been if both had not concluded it was time to work together, he added.
Mimicking what Passport and Snap-on had already adopted, AAIA's common standard will be based upon the Microsoft NT operating system, along with other Microsoft-designed tools.
Both groups also made the task easier by incorporating the AAIA's "vehicle configuration table" in their systems. It's a comprehensive list of some 34,800 distinct vehicle and light truck configurations denoted by a seven-character identification code that includes vehicle make, model, sub-model, etc.
Mr. Luckett wasn't able to say whether new equipment would be cheaper in the long run, but predicted any cost increase will be minimal. "For PC-based suppliers with the need to incorporate this technology into their computer management equipment, writing programs that will be able to conform to these specs won't add appreciably to the cost.
"And the real value to the customer is that it makes for a very efficient shop operation."
The AAIA's Mr. Gardner noted that "customers today expect freedom of choice when they purchase shop equipment and no longer accept the old business model of developing high-tech products around closed proprietary architecture.
"Suppliers that offer freedom of choice with open-standards-based equipment will have a competitive advantage and increased selling opportunities."
Dale Elliot, president of diagnostics and industrial for Snap-on, said the company is "pleased to work with AAIA on developing open technology standards for interconnectivity," adding that Snap-on has been employing this open architecture concept in products for some time.
Having one standard, he added, will enable customers "to concentrate on the truly differentiated features and benefits of software applications and the quality of the equipment, without having to worry about compatibility."
Speaking for the Enterprise Alliance, Nick Colarelli, executive vice president for Hunter Engineering, said the group fully supports the AAIA's efforts and considers them "a logical next step to expand the work done to create the Passport Standards...."
The working brand name for the new system is "iSHOP"—for integrated shop, though Mr. Luckett said that name's not yet in stone.
Considering what has already been accomplished, he's pretty happy with the results.
"Left on their own, these two groups would never have sat down at the same table—they would have just as soon shot each other," he said. "But the important part is they both came to us."