Nomad: A person who roams about; wanderer; traveler.
Forget about all that ``virtual reality'' stuff.
The reality of tomorrow's high-tech automotive service shop isn't some Matrix-like movie pipe dream away. A software maker is betting it's here today-in the guise of a new technology with applications as far afield as for soldiers in combat.
The Nomad Expert Technician System is designed to help auto service technicians and repair shops improve efficiency and customer satisfaction while increasing profitability, its designer, Microvision Inc., claims.
Earlier this year the company, which specializes in light scanning technologies, launched Nomad. It's being called the world's first wearable, wireless computer to feature a head-worn, see-through display that allows technicians to view relevant information needed to repair a vehicle while still focusing on their workspace or, for that matter, frees up service writers to work with a customer without being strapped, computer-wise, to the service desk.
Through the unit a tech wears, the system can superimpose test and repair data into the technician's field of vision. And it can, for instance, allow a service advisor to greet customers at their vehicles, access vehicle history and fill out work orders while maintaining face-to-face contact with the customer. That alleviates having to walk back and forth between the vehicle and service counter to get information, Microvision said.
The Bothell-based company develops high-resolution displays and imaging systems based on its proprietary silicon micro-mirror technology.
Microvision calls Nomad a ``multi-tasking productivity tool'' that offers hands-free convenience in the service bay and wireless mobility throughout a shop environment, at approximately the cost of a laptop computer.
The Nomad system, weighing 4.5 ounces, has two headgear options: It can be mounted under the brim of a baseball cap or integrated into a headband. The company said it features a full integrated wireless, Windows CE.Net-based computer so it can be connected to an existing computer terminal or a remote service to access auto makers' Web-based service content via the Internet Explorer browser that's included with the unit.
The unit's ``thin client'' architecture allows Nomad to operate without a shop having to buy or update software, Microvision said.
The user controls input and navigation through a touch pad and keypad on the belt-mounted Nomad Control Module.
In separate field trials the company conducted at American Honda Motor Co. and Volvo Trucks North America, Microvision claimed technicians using the system reduced the time it took to perform a range of repair and maintenance tasks by up to 40 percent.
In August the firm announced the sale and installation of nine Nomad systems to the Stearns Automotive Group in North Carolina. The business-which owns two Ford dealerships as well a Chevrolet and a Chrysler Jeep dealership-installed the system in its 75 service bays for use by the firm's 35-40 technicians.
The car dealership's founder and owner, Carroll Stearns, said in a statement issued by Microvision that his company is ``focused on attracting and retaining high quality service technicians and they are hard to find.... We want to get the most up-to-date tools and technology in the hands of our technicians to provide our customers with the best service possible while allowing technicians to be more productive. We believe the Nomad system will enable us to do this.''
Matt Nichols, Microvision's director of communications, told Tire Business the company has been focusing heavily on initially rolling out the new product to the car dealer network by establishing 10 different ``reference accounts''-large target dealerships-around the country, where Nomad could be installed. ``We're 70 percent of the way through that,'' he said.
The second part of that approach is then actually setting up the Nomad system in dealerships. That, he said, will ``set the dominoes falling''-meaning Microvision is hopeful the unit's usage will eventually spread to other shops.
Dealers have been receptive to the product, Mr. Nichols said, noting the typical back shop operation has from 10 to 30 service bays. ``We're finding that those dealerships are taking from two to a half-dozen systems and giving them to their most innovative techs to use.''
As far as interest by independent repair shops goes, Mr. Nichols said Microvision is communicating with a number of them as part of its ``second wave'' of installations. However, ``we've found that the independents and a lot of smaller service centers don't have the needed infrastructure yet. They need a wireless network or wireless card,'' he explained.
``For those companies that are still on a CD-ROM- or DVD-based system, we could integrate Nomad with that, but it's not the greatest environment.''
Nonetheless, a number of independent shops are trying out Nomad units, including a small exclusively Saab repair shop in the Seattle area, he added.
Motor Magazine, in its September issue, named the Nomad system a Top 20 Tool in its annual roundup of the 20 best pieces of newly introduced, innovative shop equipment. The publication said Nomad was selected for its originality and for its ability to help technicians diagnose and repair vehicles quickly and correctly, the first time.
``Innovative products like the Nomad Expert Technician System are essential so that automotive technicians can more easily manage the complexity of today's technologically advanced vehicles,'' the magazine's editor, John Lypen, wrote on behalf of its editorial review committee.
Microvision said that as part of a recent study, it created a formula for return on investment (ROI) based on Nomad's use in a typical automotive dealership.
``At a conservative 18-20 percent time efficiency gain, a dealership would realize a net ROI of $2,292 per technician per month,'' the company predicted.
``Annualized for an average dealership repair shop consisting of eight technicians, the ROI could be as high as $113,000.''
Suggested retail price for Nomad is $3,995 for a complete system with integrated wireless computer.
Asked whether any potential customers are balking at that pricetag, Mr. Nichols said they have not, adding that eventually smaller shops will find as the units gain wider acceptance their cost will decrease. Nomad originally started out at around $15,000 each before the price was halved. Then feedback indicated customers would be even more receptive if the price were about that of a ``durable laptop computer,'' he said.
Mr. Nichols described system users, at this point, as ``folks who are innovative and are already using online, Web-based repair data or DVD-based systems. Someone who's still in the Chilton manual mode is probably five years off of the curve... But it also depends on the applications.''
He also noted that a lot of car dealership service advisors are starting to wear the Nomads instead of using a stationary computer system.
And customer reaction to a guy or gal coming at them wearing a strange gizmo attached to their head?
After a strange look or quick double-take, ``they usually say, `Wow, cool!''' Mr. Nichols said.
For more information contact Microvision Inc. at (425) 415-6847 or visit its Web site: www.microvision.com. The company also will have a booth at the upcoming Specialty Equipment Market Association trade show, Nov. 2-5 in Las Vegas.