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Article: Flash or Pass --- Modern mechanics have more tasks to do than previous generations of mechanics ever had to do.

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Flash or Pass

         A few decades ago cars were just . . . well, cars.  They had an engine, transmission, a starter, a heater, maybe an air conditioner, and all the usual accouterments that made them a car. Mechanics toiled away at replacing engines, rebuilding master cylinders, and fixing transmissions. Almost every component on the car was reworked to a like new condition and some parts may even have been rebuilt several times, before they were too worn out to go around the horn one more time.  Labor rates raised and fell with the economy, while parts suppliers kept up the demand for rebuild kits as a normal over-the-counter parts inventory. Then somewhere along the way something changed. 

            The era of the microchip followed right along with the era of plastics. Things were built not to “rebuild”, but to toss.  Thin plastic housings with hundreds and hundreds of micro circuits all wired into a microchip made up circuits that allowed the impossible to become the possible.  Some tasks became obsolete, like the telephone switch board operator, even bank tellers nearly went extinct when the ATM machine was developed. The world would never be the same with the microchip in every facet of modern life.

          Machining tools could now process and manufacturer automotive parts at such close tolerance that less material was needed per component. The prices for some of these components fell to less than or equivalent to the rebuild kits. Rebuilding an automotive component was soon a thing of past generations. The skills of the mechanic were now overshadowed by the microchip’s ability to manufacture a part better and cheaper than he could repair the old one.

        Soon, all this “toss-when-worn-out” reached the microchip itself.  Computer software started finding itself in the very same throwaway society.  Maybe not in the sense that we actually threw it away, but a new set of instructions or an updated program may be needed and flashed into a replacement processor.  This brings up a whole new problem for the mechanic.  Now those skills he developed in rebuilding a master cylinder have next to nothing to do with reprogramming an anti-lock brake module, and if he wants to stay in the business of repairing today’s cars he’s going to need to know how to program, or at least understand the need for and/or the process, rather than knowing the old school way of rebuilding a master cylinder. So as a mechanic, you have to ask yourself, “Do I flash, or do I pass?” Passing on the flash may mean you might not have the type of work in the shop that you can handle anymore. Luckily, there is a way around that problem.

         These days nearly every car on the road has more than one type of computer device in the car, and there’s a very good chance that at some point something will need a software update or reflashed because a component has been changed or upgraded. In a way reflashing, programming, coding, or the other various software issues there are in the modern car are somewhat of today’s version of rebuilding that master cylinder to a like new condition.

         Cars these days are lasting longer, running longer, and have different types of break downs than models from those early days.  That’s doesn’t mean changing brake pads or installing a reman transmission isn’t done on a daily basis, they most certainly are.  It’s the other side of the repair business, the computer updating and reflashing that’s an even bigger part of regular maintenance than ever before.

          So, which type of repair shop are you?  Are you the shop that will do the mechanical work, but leave those electronic issues to someone else?  It’s something every shop owner, as well as technicians need to think about.  Of course, the amount of investment and the continual training involved can be overwhelming. Fortunately, there is a way to do the mechanical stuff and be a proficient repair shop without breaking the bank, and still service your customers’ electrical and software needs. The mobile diagnostic technician is the answer.

        Seriously, I never dreamed there would come a day I would be saying this, but the mobile tech is a viable source of revenue and a vital source of technical skills that a shop without those skills should utilize.  Now, I’m not talking about those fly by night boys with a box of tools, I’m referring to the diagnostic scanner mobile tech who has the experience in dealing with all the websites, programming issues, and has the up to date information on how to perform such things as reflashing, key programming, and reloading of new software.  

         What’s happening in the automotive electronic world reminds me of how things were when manufacturers switched from points and condensers to electronic ignition systems. A lot of guys refused to learn the new systems and soon found themselves only working on older models, which eventually faded away.

            Somewhere along the way of the electronic ignition systems, parts swapping became the norm.  Instead of testing or diagnosing a problem it was a lot easier to keep the various types of ignition modules in your tool box, and when a “no-start” came in it only took a few minutes to swap the ignition module with your test piece. It did save diagnostic time, and it did get results, but the microchip and new technology has struck back again.  The old school ways of parts swapping vs. in depth diagnostic with scopes and scanners has just about run its course.  Now, swapping components can lead to an even bigger problem than what the car originally came in for.

          However, the general public is having a hard time comprehending the reason for these diagnostic costs.  It used to be that they would bring the car to the shop, the mechanic would do some fiddle greasy job that involved rebuilding some part or swapping the old ignition module, and he didn’t charge a diagnostic fee. If a part was suspected as bad, it could usually be swapped out without any worries. That’s just not car repair anymore. Now swapping components with integrated modules can lead a disaster.

          On the other hand, those techs who pick up the pieces after one of these parts changers finish slapping parts should be commended. The aftermath of installing a processor without knowing the eventual outcome can be a brutal blow to the pocketbook. 

         Radar systems, infrared and optical systems, cameras and proximity sensors aren’t the kind of components easily rebuilt, if at all.  But, there’s a good chance you can reprogram most of it. Yes, we still have engines that need built and gears that need changed, but there seems to be a lot more in the mechanic field that involves electronics.  To be today’s top mechanics and a repair shop that can get the job done, a lot more emphasis has to be put on that little microchip than on a rebuild kit.  Flashing modules and loading computer software updates are just a part of the business now. 

          Programming ain't for everyone, and some shops and techs can get by without ever dealing with it.  But, when needed, utilize the expertise that is available to you.  Learn how to flash by attending a couple of classes or find someone that can do it for you.  Help your customer help you increase your bottom line.  Don't pass on the flash.

 


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      Flash or Pass?
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This 2013 Ford Escape was almost ready to go home, however the air bag light wouldn't go off.  That's when I was called to plate.    “We can sell this job today if you can get this taken care of.  We’ve struck out so far,” the owner of the body shop told me.     “I’ll see what I can do,” I told him.    The first thing I did was check out what codes were in the system.  There was only one code.  B0095-11 (Right front impact sensor fault – sub code “shorted to ground”).  Since it was in a front collision I took my first swing up to bat by checking to see if the wires were smashed or cut.  Strike one... the wires are fine, wrong colors though, need to check that a little further.  OK, let's try something else... is the connector damaged or the sensor itself in anyway a problem.  Strike two... now this is getting serious.  Did the module fail?  Is there more to this story?  Where's the next pitch coming from?   A little more snooping around and a bit more in-depth studying of the wiring diagram I think I've got the answer.  Very close to the impact sensor is another sensor with the exact same type of connector.  The real tell-tale was the wire colors.  It looks like when they put the car back together they inadvertently switched the two connectors.  (Pretty dumb to have the same type of connectors so close together under the hood... but it ain't the first time I've seen a curve ball like this.) I switched the leads and then went back into the system to clear the code.  (With most of these newer systems you not only have to clear the code but you also have to “reboot” the computer by turning the key off before attempting the next “at-bat”.)   Well, this batter is ready, the catcher has thrown down the sign, the computers and connections on the playing field are ready to go.  All that's left is the pitch.  I turned the key and the pitch is on its way. The warning lights come on, the air bag light stayed on for its required amount of time and then.... went off.  No codes present and the rest of the systems checked out fine.  Yep, I took my swing, and it’s a long, long high flyer… it looks like…yes… yes it is… it’s a “HOME RUN!”     Here's a perfect example of the diagnostics taking longer than the actual repair.  The way I see it, diagnostic is the mechanics swing at bat, and it's just as important as the actual repair.  After spending the time to research a problem only to find out that it was a simple connector doesn’t diminish the time already spent to find out it was just a connector.    Mechanics get paid to fix a car, that’s what we do, diagnosing a problem is part of it, and good diagnostic work will keep ya battin’ a thousand. 
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      By Gonzo, in AutoShopOwner Articles

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