Is the knowledge gap closing?

Can the aftermarket keep up with the pace of technology, as it speeds up ever faster, with more systems to deal with?

Published:  23 January, 2019

By Andrew Marsh, Engineering Director, Auto Industry Consulting Ltd

Readers of Aftermarket magazine will be very aware that all aspects of every type of vehicle are subject to a torrent of change, much of which can make the difference between profit or loss – or even attempting the repair work. The breadth of information is truly mind-blowing – how on earth can the aftermarket trade – franchise, non-franchise or specialist – ever keep up?

Some businesses have decided to go retro in the face of this onslaught of change. This means typically looking after vehicles which existed up to the point of last common understanding, which was just over a decade ago. While it is not true that all vehicles built from the late 1800s until the early 2000s share much common ground, the range of skills that existed up to the mid 1990s can cope with most routine repairs. In taking this route the businesses must consider that many others have recently decided to add themselves to the same commercial activity, and the targets (not owners, but the vehicles) are not only finite but generally receding in population. For those determined to carve out or maintain a presence in this sector, it is possible – but there is simply not enough room for all, long term.

The current state of vehicle tech – an umbrella term used to describe evolutionary or revolutionary change for everything from a sensor through to entire systems – is rather confused. There is simply no consensus across vehicle or component manufacturers. Consider the CMOS camera which may be fitted onto the windscreen:

First  generation – single camera module, ability to classify from over 1,200 shapes what the potential obstacle could be but no ability to tell how far away it is from the sensor. Requires static calibration.

Second  generation – twin single camera modules, mounted around 150mm apart. Now with image triangulation, the module can determine how far the obstacle is from the vehicle – although this is limited by the focal range of the camera. Requires dynamic calibration, and can be calibrated statically too.

Third generation – single camera module taking a video stream rather than single images. It can compare successive images, and determine movement – and distance – from small differences in each image. Requires dynamic calibration.

Fourth generation – single camera module with three lenses. This can use the third generation technology but with the advantage it has better image clarity over the sensor range, which is up to 500m.

The above is a guide only. The fact is manufacturers of this type of sensor alone compete for business by innovation, but make the ‘back catalogue’ of older technology available too. The surprise? Take the Nissan Micra K14, which has the first  generation cameras used for the optional 360º view system, and yet uses optional self-calibrating rear RADAR modules.

The vehicle manufacturer is no longer really a ‘maker’ of many parts but an integrator of parts bought from a huge number of suppliers. Some of those suppliers also sell directly into the aftermarket, but only on agreement with their customers – the vehicle manufacturers. Others reverse engineer parts.

At the front of this giant wave of change is the vehicle manufacturer. It is they, and they alone who are currently responsible for vehicle integrity as well as overall performance/durability. The old way was to have manufacturer parts sales, manufacturer training, manufacturer workshop manuals and manufacturer equipment such as the interface to the vehicle electronics/software.
However, that business model does not work too well. The pace of change is putting immense strain on the departments which produce the information which is at the core of all these services. It is a matter of time before the suppliers to vehicle manufacturers take over aspects of this work, as can be seen with the training and documentation supplied for transmissions, for example.

Is there light at the end of the tunnel? Yes. Make no mistake, this is not easy – and some of the aftermarket already does this.
We need people who ‘know how to’ rather than ‘know everything’. The latter really is unrealistic, since everyone from business owner to member of staff simply does not need to know everything. In the ‘know how to’ arena we need access to online information ranging from vehicle manufacturer workshop documents through to shared experiences. This will include the widespread use of information services such as AutoData for routing maintenance or Ezi-Methods for collision repair as well as steering/suspension/brakes – other suppliers are available.

The challenge is to know what we need to look for in these systems, and to demand information if it is missing. In addition, over the past few years a huge number of on-line tutorial systems have appeared – it is essential to sample these before purchase to find the best fit for your organisation.

In the end…
Glass fitting, like cosmetic repair, has been mostly by-passed in the rush to acquire knowledge about systems that first appeared nearly two decades ago but now are mainstream. The greater aftermarket trade needs to realise complexity is not a barrier but an opportunity, and regular use of reference systems along with relatively modest investment in continuous professional development (CPD) is essential. When was the last time we ever met anyone form the automotive aftermarket that did not consider themselves to be professional?

The aftermarket has to have the awareness and capability to handle all iterations of ‘technology’, since every single iteration is fitted to real vehicles which can remain active for more than a decade.

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