NACAT Website Article (National American Council of Automotive Teachers)
Flash or Pass?
February 16, 2018 Student Spotlight Comments:
STUDENT SPOTLIGHT …
Contributed by Scott “Gonzo” Weaver
Flash or Pass?
Students … Here’s what you need to know
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 rose 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 microcircuits all wired into a microchip made up circuits that allowed the impossible to become the possible. Some tasks became obsolete, like the telephone switchboard 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 to such close tolerances 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 a software update 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.
As aspiring technicians today, students have to ask themselves: “Do I flash, or do I pass?” Passing on the flash may mean you might not get this type of work in the shop you’re hired at after graduation.
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 be re-flashed because a component has been changed or upgraded. In a way re-flashing, 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 remanufactured 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 re-flashing that’s an even bigger part of regular maintenance than ever before.
So, which type of technician will you be? Will you be the technician who will do the mechanical work, but leave electronic issues to someone else? Or will you be the technician who embraces, engages and invests in training, grows competencies and adapts to change? It’s something every technician, as well as employers, need to think about.
Fortunately, there is a way for some to do the mechanical stuff and be a proficient technician, without breaking the bank, and still service shop customers’ electrical and software needs. For instance, the answer for some is using an expert mobile diagnostic technician. Seriously, I never dreamed there would come a day I would be saying this, but an expert mobile diagnostician can be a viable source of revenue and a vital source of technical skills that shops or technicians lacking those skills for certain vehicles can utilize.
Now, I’m not talking about those fly by night boys with a box of tools. Rather, I’m referring to the diagnostic scanner mobile expert, who is properly tooled, current with automaker-specific information and training, and experienced in dealing with all the service information websites, service procedures and programming issues, such as re-flashing, key programming, and uploading new software.
More recently, remote diagnostic services have emerged. In contrast to an individual mobile diagnostician, remote services feature a team of brand-specific, tooled and factory trained diagnostic experts. Of note, remote services are becoming an effective and economical alternative.
Don’t Get Stuck in the Past
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.
When electronic ignition systems took hold, 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 toolbox, and when a “no-start” came into a shop, 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. In addition, now swapping components can lead to an even bigger problem than what the car originally came in for.
Be aware 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, without charging 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 on parts should be commended. The aftermath of installing a processor without knowing the eventual outcome can also be a brutal blow to a shop’s 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 rebuilds and gears that need changing, but there clearly is a lot more to mechanical service and repair that involves electronics.
To be one of today’s top mechanical repair shops 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 everyday business now.
While programming isn’t for everyone, technicians and shops cannot avoid dealing with it. Developing this expertise matters, but recognize some vehicles may be outside your wheelhouse and utilize the expertise that is available to you. You can learn how to flash by attending a few classes and find an expert to service vehicle models you’re not yet familiar with. Just don’t pass on the flash.
[Editor’s note: In the Summer of 2018, Scott (Gonzo) Weaver sold his shop and began instructing at Oklahoma Technical College. He is also an author and automotive journalist.]