As sophisticated electronics move from the engine to other parts of the truck, such as multiplexed dashboards, antilock brakes, stability and traction control and transmissions that talk to the engine, it becomes an ever more challenging task
for independent parts and service providers to help their customers.
The big problem is what's called access to information, or "right to repair" on the automotive side.
Independent service providers say original equipment manufacturers refuse to provide important information needed to repair customers' trucks, such as the ability to clear engine fault codes once a repair has been made.
Dealers contend that aftermarket providers don't have the same kind of technology investment and expertise and essentially can't be trusted with these types of repairs.
That's an erroneous assumption, says Dave Scheer, president and CEO of Kansas City-based parts and service provider Inland Truck Parts and Service and chairman of the Heavy Duty Distribution Association.
"We, too, spend tens of thousands of dollars on training our technicians every year," he says. "We have to use the same training material, diagnostic tools and repair software that the OEM dealer uses. In some case, we have to spend more than the dealer because the training materials are not as readily available to an independent service provider."
Here we share the insights of three independent parts and service providers on how the influx of electronics has affected their businesses - and what they're doing not only to deal with it, but also to take advantage of it.
John Wensel, President and CEO
Wensel's Service Centers Reading, Spring City and West Chester, Pa.
Wensel's experience as vice president of transportation for a major Pennsylvania-based food distributor has helped him not only understand fleet needs but also has given him valuable contacts to help get necessary information for repairs.
"Keeping current with the latest technologies, that's one of the things that really distinguishes us from a lot of shops," he said during a panel discussion at Heavy Duty Aftermarket Week earlier this year.
"We operate a little closer to an OE shop; we can do everything but warranty work. We can bring in a 2012 truck and plug it in and be able to diagnose it."
That drives many people to ask, "How are you able to do that?"
Some of it, Wensel says, is being involved in the American Trucking Associations' Technology & Maintenance Council. When he's stuck, he has the connections to call up a fleet that has a couple hundred of that model and get some help.
Although Wensel got his start developing those relationships while still a fleet member, the organization in recent years has been recruiting parts and service members to join as well. The company also is involved in the state trucking association, which makes for more good contacts and sources of information.
"My fleet experiences have allowed me to ... reach into the OEMs where a lot of people haven't been able to," he says.
If Right to Repair legislation were enacted, he said, "It would give us more information, a little bit more ease, but I guess I've been able to get around it."
Wensel says there are good systems out there, such as Mitchell1, that offer access to a lot of information. He says many OEMs also have good information on their technical websites, and there are support numbers you can call.
"Some things are still proprietary," he admits. "We ran into a hybrid truck that we knew how to repair, but we weren't allowed to have the technical information to do that."
When asked about OE and dealer contentions that aftermarket providers don't have the kind of investment and knowledge as dealers, Wensel said, "It's a good question. I'm not sure some people are willing to spend that kind of money to get into that higher level of electronic repair."
CEO, Jerry & Keith's, Bakersfield, Calif.
This 42-year-old, second-generation company always has been a heavy-duty undercarriage specialist, so engine electronics have not affected it too much. However, Mark Decker has found that diagnosing and repairing electronics is not limited to the engine.
Decker has watched the evolution of ABS electronics and is enthusiastic about how much safer today's trucks are with ABS and the stability control and traction control systems that have come out of that technology. Jerry & Keith's distributes and repairs all the major brands, including Meritor Wabco, Bendix and Haldex.
"As far as the effect on the aftermarket, if you're not on top of it, you're getting buried by it. We are on top of it."
Jerry & Keith's handles ABS installations, retrofits, troubleshooting, diagnostics, repair and service.
"You know a lot of distributors have been very reluctant to get into the computer age," Decker says. "This dragged you into it if you were going to service it, because you had to have a laptop or handheld if you were going to work with these."
To do this, however, requires training technicians and making investments in the tooling, such as scan tools from companies like OTC, he says, as well as making sure the business has the latest software upgrades from the component manufacturers.
"If you're a small distributor and you're not connected with the major manufacturers on this technology, it's going to be hard for you to service it," Decker says. Jerry & Keith's offers classes for fleets and smaller distributors. He notes that companies such as Bendix, Haldex and Meritor Wabco also offer toll-free help lines during business hours.
"Some of the smaller people just don't want to do it," he says. "One of the scary things I see at my counter is some of the roadside services that are messing with things they shouldn't be touching. Some of them don't know the difference between a front and rear hub, they don't understand ABS. Some of these things should only be dealt with by a trained professional that knows what they're doing."
Owner, Skinner Diesel Services, Columbus, Ohio
Skinner Diesel is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and Mike Skinner says electronics have not only made trucks better, but they've also increased business for his general truck repair operations.
"Everything electronic breaks," he says.
Skinner is not in the engine repair business, but there are plenty of electronics to deal with on other parts of the truck. Take antilock brakes, for example.
"Five, seven, 10 years ago, you did almost no ABS brake repair," he says. "Used to be no one worried about the ABS light. Now with CSA (the federal government's new enforcement system), they come in and say, 'I can't have that light on.'"
There are plenty of other fault codes Skinner can read and repair, such as replacing a malfunctioning low-water sensor.
It does mean training. Companies such as Meritor and Bendix come in to do clinics or evening schools for Skinner technicians, and the company has sent technicians off to Bendix brake school for a two- or three-day class.
"It's very aggravating work, I can tell you that," he says. "You'd better make sure you've got people who are really detail oriented - no 'That's close enough.'"
Then there's the investment in the equipment, whether it be handheld scan tools or laptops.
"It took a great investment in diagnostic tools, and it never stops; it will never end," Skinner says.
Typically, he says, the company has to buy unique software for each company. "There are some generic readers, but they don't really tell you a whole lot," he says. "There's even one that works on an iPad; it'll tell you you've got a water light code, and that's where it stops. We need more information than that, like what's the wiring voltage."
Skinner says it's an ongoing investment.
"If I'm going to be in the business, I've got to continue to buy whatever I need to buy."
Some repairs, especially for engine work, have to be sent to the dealer. Skinner says that's not always a bad thing.
Most customers, he says, don't have as good a repair experience at the dealer as they do at his repair shop. It takes longer, costs more and is less likely to be fixed right the first time. The experience helps him keep loyal customers, who get used to dropping off a truck and picking it up the next day with no hassles.
"You've got a customer who's been coming to us for 20 years, he's used to dropping his truck off, no problem. We tell people they have to take it to the dealer and they just about cry."