BETHESDA, Md. (Sept. 21, 2001)-—“iSHOP.”
Although it may sound like it, the word has nothing to do with a “shop-'til-you-drop” philosophy.
The long-awaited automotive industry-wide computer standards—-dubbed iSHOP-—that allow seamless communication among PC-based equipment in auto service shops has been tested, twisted and tweaked for more than a year. Now, after successful trial runs, it's set to debut at the upcoming Automotive Aftermarket Industry Week (AAIW) trade shows, scheduled to be held Oct. 30-Nov. 2 in Las Vegas.
And it's a safe bet that shops choosing to not adopt the standard will, in the long run, not reap the benefits of increased productivity that those jumping on the iSHOP bandwagon are hoping to enjoy. At least that's what the system's proponents are promising, and they happen to be some of the industry's biggest equipment and software heavyweights.
'Passport' to the future?
“We've had an exciting past year” said Scott Luckett, senior director of information technology for the Bethesda-based Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association (AAIA), which grabbed the proverbial bull by the horns when faced with a dilemma.
“Our mission is to serve, protect and expand our members' needs,” Mr. Luckett said of the association's membership, which includes manufacturers, distributors and sellers of motor vehicle parts, accessories, tools, equipment, materials and supplies for the automotive aftermarket, as well as service shop operators.
But up until the AAIA stepped in as a sort of referee, a number of its member companies were going at cross purposes by developing several sets of standards that accomplished the goal of computer connectivity yet were overshadowed by compatibility problems.
For instance, one group of companies, calling itself the Enterprise Alliance—some of the industry's biggest automotive equipment names—devised so-called “Passport Standards” to allow every piece of equipment in a shop to talk with each other. Snap-on Corp. headed another group that developed a different set of standards.
So the AAIA pulled both groups together under its tent and got them to agree to work together toward a single standard. Consequently, iSHOP Version 1.0 was published July 30. It is, in essence, the protocol allowing communication among different Microsoft Windows-based shop computer systems, software and equipment manufactured by different firms.
The process was completed after about 16 months of technical meetings involving representatives from a number of companies—including Snap-on's family of firms such as Mitchell Repair (now called Mitchell 1), Sun, John Bean and Snap-on Diagnostics.
They “shared their expertise to arrive at a solution for the betterment of everyone,” Mr. Luckett said.
Today's well-equipped service shop, he said, may have several computer systems: one to manage the business; an electronic catalog and labor estimating system; a service and repair information system; and one or more PC-based repair and diagnostic machines in the back shop. Until iSHOP came along, the chances were not good that all those machines would be able to communicate with each other.
This first version of iSHOP addresses that connectivity problem. “We wanted the back shop equipment that have PCs to be able to talk to all the other computers in a shop, so when you put two together under one roof and run a cable between them, you've got an iSHOP network,” Mr. Luckett explained.
That network can be as simple as an alignment machine in a service bay talking to an estimating work order system in the front shop, he added, or a fully-enabled Local Area Network (LAN) with any number of devices on it. There is no limit to the number of PC work stations that can be interconnected through iSHOP.
“The whole point is, we're trying to increase and impact technician productivity,” Mr. Luckett said. The goal: Eliminate the so-called “walk of death,” where a tech must leave the service bay to access information on one or more computers in other parts of the shop.
Technicians spend approximately 25 minutes of each hour actually “turning wrenches,” Mr. Luckett said, citing a study of Volkswagen A.G.'s European dealership service centers conducted for the company by Robert Bosch GmbH.
“We want to spin the bays faster by putting the information captured in one or more of these machines at the tech's fingertips,” he said, “regardless of where he's standing at the time.” That means data from a work order or alignment or tune-up specifications are all easily accessible from one work station.
Since the July release, the association's charter iSHOP participants—about a dozen or so—have been actively engaged in building the standard's capability into several new products. They plan to demonstrate working versions at the upcoming AAIW shows in Las Vegas. At Booth 3067 during the AAPEX show in the Sands Expo Center, commercially available products— some new software as well as retrofits to existing products—will be demonstrated from companies including Snap-on, Sun, Hunter Engineering, SPX Corp., Alldata Corp.,, Vetronix Corp. and Mitchell.
“To say there haven't been challenges wouldn't be true,” Mr. Luckett said. “But everyone entered the process understanding what was at stake.”
And the technical arena these days is full of examples of collaboration between competitors. He referred to Covisint, a project—headed by Ford Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp., General Motors Corp. and DaimlerChrysler A.G.—to devise standards so that a common technology can be used for suppliers to communicate with car makers. According to a report in Automotive News, Covisint has emerged as the in-dustry's dominant online trade ex-change for the OE market.
As it worked on iSHOP, the AAIA “installed the necessary agreements to allow the process to go forward” among its 2,300 member companies, Mr. Luckett said, since “there's a lot of intellectual property flying around during these meetings. From the beginning, everyone recognized and agreed that they were contributing that intellectual property to iSHOP standards for the benefit of the entire industry.”
After participating companies evaluated the costs of using two or several different competing standards, in essence they decided it was economically more sound to wage peace.
Passing the test
As it made preparations to go “live” with iSHOP, the AAIA knew it needed to conduct real-world testing, rather than just plug a couple computers together in some meeting room in Bethesda. So it enlisted the help of Canada's largest hardgoods retailer, Canadian Tire Corp., which Mr. Luckett said “has recognized the value of iSHOP from beginning.”
The company contributed use of its “Retail City” facility—a huge warehouse distribution center outside of Toronto—which features on its third floor a 55,000-sq.-ft. prototype Canadian Tire store that is used to study layout, merchandising concepts and material flow. The retailer built for the AAIA a three-bay service garage, Mr. Luckett said, complete with service manager's counter, office, iSHOP-compatible equipment—“and even a soda machine in the corner.
“We hauled our stuff up there in April, started to exercise it…and demonstrated that iSHOP really works.”
The system created several work orders; a Hunter alignment machine called up a work order and pulled up alignment specs for a particular vehicle; then it began the alignment process. “It's important to note that the year, make, model and engine information did not have to be re-keyed,” eliminating a lengthy procedure, he said. Needing a service bulletin, the tech in the demonstration called up all the relevant bulletins with one mouse click.
“If the millions of pages that companies such as Mitchell publish can be integrated with other shop equipment with a single mouse click, you're more likely to use it,” he contended.
“This keeps the tech focused on servicing the vehicle.”
Based on the Canadian Tire field test, Mr. Luckett estimated iSHOP could save at least 15 to 20 minutes off a typical alignment.
Manpower solution needed
“If we can get techs turning wrenches 10 or 12 minutes more an hour, that's a 50-percent improvement…,” a number he called “significant.”
“We have a growing, aging vehicle population, with more of them being driven more miles than ever,” Mr. Luckett said. Yet the number of service bays continues to decrease each year and there also is a critical shortage of quality technicians—with five techs retiring for every one joining the industry.
Currently, 70 percent of vehicle service work in the U.S. is done by the aftermarket, with the remainder by the OEMs. In Europe, those ratios are reversed, he said. “By ignoring the productivity issue, we could cause customers to go back to the OEMs…if we find the aftermarket saying, 'Sorry, my bays are full. You'll have to come back next week.'
Then that distinguishing advantage the aftermarket enjoys—that relative ease of immediate scheduling, for example—could go away, he added, leading a customer to say: “I might as well just take my car back to 'Mr. Goodwrench' for service.”
The AAIA's near-term goal is to get a growing number of companies involved in building iSHOP capabilities into more of their products, Mr. Luckett said. The association plans to kick off, in early October, development of iSHOP Version 2.0, which will, among other things, address how a service shop network communicates with parts suppliers.
It also will integrate other information sources available via the Internet since NAPA and Mitchell, for example, have Web-based versions of their products online.
“We also want consumers to be able to check the status of their work orders online and make appointments,” he said. “The 2.0 version will leverage the integrated shop to get that shop to communicate with the rest of the world” through such avenues as scheduling, appointments, parts inquiries and orders, as well as extracting information for businesses with multiple locations.
The AAIA hopes to have annual releases of iSHOP over the next few years, and is shooting for the debut of 2.0 by the fall of 2002. “This is only the beginning,” Mr. Luckett promised.
What's in it for the association? “We get out of this the satisfaction of knowing these effots benefit our entire industry. It's logical that this occur within the AAIA's community because you can usually wait 'til hell freezes over for one company to sit down with a compeititor. We act as a neutral, impartial arbitrator.”
Left to their own, chances are the participating companies wouldn't likely collaborate on such projects. But “to their credit,” he said, “I didn't dream this thing up and drag these people to the table. These companies approached us, because they realized it was time.”