Second of a two-part series
BETHESDA, Md.-Next to standing around complaining how lousy the coffee is, perhaps the biggest enemy to productivity in an automotive service shop is what's infamously known as the ``walk of death.''
An owner or manager need only put a pencil to it by tallying up the time a technician spends walking from one end of the shop to another in pursuit of things like technical bulletins, work orders and job specifications-all from different sources or computers. At that point, the idle minutes spent chatting at the shop coffee machine or complaining about the quality of that cup of ``joe'' may prove to be a minor nuisance.
With the worst-kept secret in the industry being the critical shortage of quality automotive technicians, every minute counts-either as a debit or positive in the productivity column.
``If we can get techs turning wrenches even 10 to 12 minutes more an hour, that's a 50-percent improvement,'' believes Scott Luckett, senior director of information technology for the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association (AAIA) in Bethesda, Md. That may not seem like much, he added, but he sees it as ``a significant improvement.''
Keeping that goal in mind, the AAIA set out more than a year ago to alleviate or outright eliminate the ``walk of death'' techs face every day on the job. It enlisted the cooperation of some of the biggest software developers and equipment manufacturers in the industry to help develop what the association is calling ``iSHOP.''
It is a set of computer standards-a protocol known as ``process mapping''-which makers of shop equipment, information servers and shop management software will engineer into their products, enabling connectivity and network computing in the vehicle service industry.
The iSHOP initiative is meant to increase repair shop productivity by enabling discrete pieces of PC-based equipment to communicate between the front and back shop.
What's the alternative to all that electronic ``talk'' among computers?
Take for instance an alignment job: The tech has to find the work order; find the keys; locate the car; put it on the rack; input the alignment codes; possibly check out any specs unique to the vehicle.
``When you start adding it all up, these are things that can be automated'' without the need for data to constantly be re-keyed into each shop computer, Mr. Luckett told Tire Business.
Technical representatives-called the Shop Integration Task Force-from a number companies began meeting regularly since September 1999 to draft a technical specification that equipment manufacturers and software developers could engineer into their products to ensure ``plug-and-play'' connectivity with other compliant equipment and systems.
Participants have included NAPA, Alldata Corp., Hunter Engineering Co., Mitchell 1, Snap-on Diagnostics, Beissbarth, Midtronics, Delphi Automotive Systems and Canadian Tire Corp.
Following numerous development sessions, the AAIA is ready to introduce the iSHOP Version 1.0 standards in working software and equipment at the upcoming Automotive Aftermarket Industry Week trade shows in Las Vegas, Oct. 30-Nov. 2. It will conduct demonstrations at Booth 3067 during the AAPEX show in the Sands Expo Center.
That debut comes on the heels of an in-depth test the AAIA conducted on iSHOP in a ``service shop'' that will never see a single customer.
Passing the test
As it made preparations to go ``live'' with iSHOP, the association 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. The sprawling warehouse distribution center outside of Toronto features on its third floor a 55,000-sq.-ft. prototype Canadian Tire store used to study layout, merchandising concepts and material flow. Into it the retailer built for the AAIA a three-bay service garage, complete with service manager's counter, office, iSHOP-compatible equipment and, Mr. Luckett said, ``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.''
Using the integrated system, several work orders were created at the ``front desk''; a Hunter alignment machine in the ``back shop'' called up a work order and pulled up alignment specs for a particular vehicle; then the tech began the alignment process.
``It's important to note that the year, make, model and engine information did not have to be re-keyed,'' thus eliminating what typically is a lengthy procedure, Mr. Luckett said. Needing a service bulletin, the tech in the demonstration called up all the relevant data with one mouse click.
``If the millions of pages that companies such as Mitchell 1 publish can be integrated with other shop equipment with a single mouse click, you're more likely to use it,'' he added.
Additionally, iSHOP will allow any information from parts catalogs, labor guides and repair information servers to be available from any workstation on the shop network.
``This keeps the tech focused on servicing the vehicle,'' rather than wasting time seeking information, Mr. Luckett said.
Conducting the Canadian Tire testing was Ben Johnson, the AAIA's iSHOP project technical manager and an ASE-certified technician formerly with equipment maker SPX Corp. According to Mr. Luckett, after the tests, Mr. Johnson estimated that using an iSHOP-compatible system could save at least 10 to 15 minutes off a typical alignment.
``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. The problem is further compounded by the critical shortage of quality technicians. He cited statistics that five techs retire 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 performed by shops operated by original equipment manufacturers' dealerships, he said. In Europe, those ratios are reversed.
``By ignoring the productivity issue,'' Mr. Luckett said, ``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 any distinguishing advantage the aftermarket enjoys-such as relative ease of immediate scheduling-could go away, he added, leading a customer to say: ``I might as well just take my car back to `Mr. Goodwrench' for service.''
For the AAIA, which serves all segments of the aftermarket-from manufacturers down to retail service shop operations-the near-term goal is to get a growing number of companies involved in building iSHOP capabilities into more of their products, Mr. Luckett said.
In early October, the association plans to kick off development of iSHOP Version 2.0. Among other things, it will address how a service shop network communicates with parts suppliers.
The next version also will integrate other information sources available via the Internet since companies like NAPA and Mitchell, for example, have Web-based versions of their product catalogs and technical information 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, he explained, as well as extracting information for businesses operating multiple locations.
Over the next few years, the AAIA hopes to have annual releases of iSHOP and is shooting for the debut of 2.0 by the fall of 2002. ``This is only the beginning,'' Mr. Luckett promised.
In light of all the legwork and friendly arm twisting the AAIA has indulged in since setting out to develop iSHOP, what's really in it for the association, which has some 2,300 member companies in its rolls?
``We get out of this the satisfaction of knowing these efforts benefit our entire industry,'' Mr. Luckett noted. ``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 competitor. We act as a neutral, impartial arbitrator.''
Left to their own devices, the chances are probably slim that companies would 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.''
For more information about iSHOP, visit www.ishopstandards.org.