The tools are the diagnostic scanners, adapters and software that allow technicians to see fault codes from increasingly complex and proprietary control systems that are proliferating on light, medium and heavy trucks. The right tools can interpret the codes and convert them into repair procedures.
In the last few months, seven more representatives have signed on to the growing bandwagon that's supporting right-to-repair legislation dealing with limits to the diagnostic information independent repair shops can access. The Right to Repair Act offers protections for vehicle owners and their repair facilities by making it illegal for vehicle manufacturers to withhold information necessary to diagnose, service or repair motor vehicles. Although much of the debate on the bill has centered around the automotive industry, heavy-duty repairs would be included as well.
We'll have an in-depth report in the January/February 2010 edition of HDAJ.
But even in the interim, there's a lot of hardware and software that makes the independent aftermarket a viable repair business. In fact, says Pat Pierce, director of aftermarket products for SPX, more than half of the diagnostic tools out there are used by the independent channels to support their commercial vehicle customers.
The growth of diagnostics
Diagnostic tools have become essential in every shop since on-board diagnostics first appeared on passenger cars in the mid '80s. ODBII in 1996 hastened their adoption. On the heavy-duty side, it was the general adoption of the J1587 protocols and J1708 controller area network (CAN) bus of the mid '90s that made the plug-in diagnostics a part of the heavy-duty repair scene.
Now, with the more widespread use of the high-speed J1939 and the multiple CAN systems on more recent Freightliner products, the use of high-speed communication and standard protocols on trucks is making troubleshooting of all systems that report on the truck's databus the purview of the diagnostic tool.
And those tools have become very smart. According to price and features, they can speed the tech from the problem to the solution.
"These tools are all about productivity and broad coverage. Both the Genisys and the Pegisys give the technician at-the-fender diagnostics," says Pierce of the OTC-brand tools sold by SPX. "It is live to the Internet, so they read codes and get repair information right at the tool."
Noregon's alternative strategy is to provide a tool that interprets the messages from the chassis and ports it into a computing device. There, accompanying software is launched to enable the repair.
Lee Lackey, director of technical sales, introduced the new line of JPro DLA wireless adapters at this year's spring meeting of the Technology and Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Associations. These were developed with input from fleets that helped drive decisions as detailed as what color to make the cartridges. (The gray ones of the previous generation tended to get lost in a vehicle's interior. Now they're bright green.)
"The diagnostic tool is basically a triage type tool to find the problem and get the technician to the right manual," Lackey said in an interview. And those manuals are less and less likely to be bound paper books. "The adapter works in concert with a desktop, laptop, even one of the new netbook computers to display the information."
Netbooks are the new-generation, small-footprint, inexpensive portable computers designed for Internet access and more simple computing tasks. "The netbook is a new development, but our adapters demand minimal resources," he said.
Another new development is the Pro-Link iQ from Nexiq. Nexiq, a Snap-On brand, has a long history in diagnostic tools, but it says Pro-Link iQ is a revolutionary, hand-held scan tool for commercial-vehicle repair, maintenance and diagnostic applications. Introduced in early 2008, the Pro-Link iQ was developed to diagnose engine faults, create data lists, provide trip information, and perform special functions tests and reports.
Like many of the latest tools, it is highly sophisticated and innovative, but by presenting information in a highly intuitive fashion it is convenient to use and requires minimal training. In fact, the Pro-Link iQ was chosen by the editors of HDAJ as one of the top five new products for 2008 during this year's Heavy Duty Aftermarket Week for its versatility and the opportunities it offers for independent commercial-vehicle repair businesses.
In accepting that award, Tom Kotenko, director of sales and marketing at Snap-on's Rochester Hills office, said, "The Pro-Link iQ combines sophisticated software and instinctive operation with the industry's largest hand-held color screen and easy data downloads, making it a real game-changer."
In association with Menlo Innovations, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based software design and development firm, the Nexiq Technologies product-development team worked with heavy-duty truck technicians to understand what technicians needed, wanted and expected in the scan tools they use in their maintenance and repair work. What Nexiq learned was then applied to the iQ's functional design and software programming flow.
The result is iQ's unique graphic user interface (GUI), a clear, easy-to-use, functional touch screen that makes diagnostic scanning intuitive and simple.
"Our goal was to talk to as many of the people who actually use these tools as possible," said Richard Sheridan, president of Menlo Innovations. "They're the end users, the ones who have the real hands-on experience and knowledge of what's needed to make these devices effective in the service bays. Their valuable insights were critical in the development of the iQ interface."
"What we've all learned was remarkable and indispensable," said Nexiq's Kotenko at the launch of the iQ at the 2008 spring TMC meeting. "We took what we've learned and, working with our OEM partners, provided a software and hardware product that will simplify the technician's ability to obtain vehicle information for use in diagnostics or preventive maintenance."
At the fender
Technicians are becoming more sophisticated from their familiarity with personal computers and the Internet, so it's no coincidence that OTC's Pegisys has an interface not unlike an iPod music player. The name of the game is productivity "at the fender," to use the OTC term.
According to SPX' Pierce, one of the top features of the Pegisys is its untethered diagnostics using the Vehicle Communications Interface (VCI) link wirelessly. "It gives the tech freedom to read away from the driver's seat," he said. This allows the technician to inspect the vehicle's hard-to-reach computer-controlled components without being tethered to a conventional scan tool cable.
The touch-screen is a navigation method in this new world of diagnostic devices. It saves button clicks and provides an intuitive interface that needs minimal training.
"Pegisys PC Scan takes this a step further, communicating with a remote laptop running Windows Vista or XP," adds Pierce. The laptop - it could be a hardened Panasonic Toughbook or just about any other computer - can run the repair applications so the technician can switch between the scanning mode and the repair mode. It also has the versatility to do other computer tasks such as storing files on the PC.
While this is the latest and most fully featured product in the OTC line-up, it is one of four platforms for the commercial vehicle repair industry, says Pierce. Running the same software and offering similar pow