Scan Tools in the Alignment Bay
In the past two years, we have seen more vehicles on the market with stability management and adaptive cruise control. If a vehicle with one of these systems comes into your shop for alignment, be aware that any changes in the steering position sensor’s "zero" position may have drastic consequences for the safety of the vehicle. If the data from a steering position sensor is off after an alignment adjustment, the car could think it is in a turn and try to perform a correction.
Electronic stability control (ESC) systems are being added to more and more new vehicles. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, for the 2008 model year, ESC was standard on 63% of new passenger vehicle models and optional on 15%. ESC was standard on 64% of cars, 95% of SUVs and 12% of pickups. Stability control requires monitoring the steering angle and driver’s steering inputs via a steering angle sensor on the steering column. It also requires monitoring the motions of the vehicle itself with a lateral acceleration sensor and yaw sensor (which are combined into a single sensor on many applications).
Resetting the steering position sensor requires the use of a scan tool on most vehicles, and the scan tool must have the appropriate software that can access the stability control/ABS system. If you find a steering position sensor code, you’ll have to follow the diagnostic charts to isolate the fault as the problem may be in the wiring or the sensor itself.
Depending on the vehicle application and scanner software, it may be possible to read the steering angle through the scan tool. This would allow you to rotate the steering wheel and look for a corresponding change in the indicated steering angle.
Pricing is the first barrier to overcome in order to perform more alignments. Unlike tradition retail economics, the trend is to raise your prices. Don’t worry about meeting the competition’s prices. If they are offering a lower priced alignment, chances are they hardly ever sell the service. Also, the customers the low price attracts are often more trouble than they are worth. If you can make the case why an alignment is needed to the customer, chances are they will not haggle on the price.
How much should you raise your prices? A simple calculation is to take what you think is fair and add 25 to 35 percent. Take the chance and raise your prices, you deserve it. It is not price gouging — on average, alignments are chronically underpriced. Also, by raising your prices, it gives technicians more incentive to recommend more alignment services.
Sometimes it is the equipment and the “alignment ergonomics” could be holding your shop back. Most technicians know that it can be difficult to beat, or even match, the billable hours when using older alignment equipment. This can kill any enthusiasm for recommending and performing alignments.
It is a misconception that the number of bays determines success. Instead, it is the number of vehicles a bay can service in a day and the profitability of the repair order that often determines success.
Adding extra bays to your shop is one way to add capacity, but it does not address the issue of productivity and per-job profitability. You may think that more bays means more revenue, but any extra profits from this revenue might be diminished by current productivity levels. In some cases, the better solution is to improve productivity of existing bays and leave the extra room for outdoor parking.
The alignment bay is one area of the shop that can benefit from increased productivity. If you feel that you have reached the limits of your current alignment bay and are thinking of adding another, there are equipment solutions to make your existing alignment bay more productive and profitable. Often, these technology solutions are cheaper than bricks, mortar and building permits.
Turn and slip plates can be productivity killers. Each turn or slip plate has two pins that must be pulled once the vehicle is positioned on the lift and replaced before the car is driven off. This can be time consuming and with some bay configurations can force the technician to do two laps around the vehicle during an alignment. New turn and slip plates can be released at the flick of a switch from a single location. This can reduce the time required to take the initial alignment readings.
In any business, being able to rapidly access information is a vital productivity and profit tool. Let’s say you get a vehicle on the lift and the caster is out of spec by 2º. Trying to correct the problem, the technician might find out that the vehicle has only + or – 1º of correction built into the vehicle. Now he has to go to the computer or parts catalog to find out if there is a special parts kit or if a suspension part needs replacement. If the tech had a warning that the caster was beyond correction on the alignment screen, he would have not wasted time trying to perform the futile first adjustment.
There is the argument that even the oldest “green monochrome” alignment systems can do just as good of a job when it comes to aligning a vehicle. It’s true that an older system can measure most alignment angles just as accurately as current systems, but the extra time dancing around the lift to see the green screen can negate any cost savings arguments. Even the most basic new alignment systems have better displays that can be seen from further away and the information can be customized to the task at hand.
The last productivity point to consider is the rack. This is where the line between productivity and capacity becomes blurred. Trying to get a lowered vehicle or a vehicle with a low front spoiler onto a drive-on lift can be a productivity killer.
One option is to lower the lift. With some new above-ground drive-on lifts, the manufacturers are designing them to be mounted in a shallow pit that is as deep as the height of the lowered deck. This makes for a flat approach that eliminates long ramps. Another advantage of this type of installation is that a longer lift can be fitted in your alignment bay.
Once you have addressed pricing and your equipment, the next step is to institute the alignment check service. The alignment check is nothing more than an inspection and a check of the basic alignment angles. It can be viewed as preventive maintenance or a diagnostic service. It can be reasonably priced or even given away. Also, an alignment check can be an additional item you can add into a mileage interval service package.
The most important investment you can make is training. Training can increase productivity and reduce comebacks at the same time. Even the best alignment systems cannot help a technician spot certain conditions like shifted engine cradles and worn bushings.