Finding Information is as Useful as Knowing How to Use It
By Norm Brandes
I want to talk about the most precious asset in the shop. It is the glue behind the bricks and mortar that will make your business the one your customers choose to solve problems. It will allow you to have a return on your investment of people and equipment.
What we are talking about is information – the knowledge you will need to do a job and give yourself the confidence that on the completion of the work you will achieve customer satisfaction and financial reward. But finding this information has sometimes been equated to panning for gold. Knowing that not every stream will net you rewards, let’s break information down into categories.
The first is the autopsy for the engine you will be working on. With Quincy-like ability you will need to examine and diagnose the cause of death. This information is achieved by years of experience; articles and pictures from magazines, manufacturer-supplied information from their catalogs and wall charts, and shared experiences from colleagues. But in addition to the autopsy, we may need to contact the customer and find the conditions that lead to the demise of their engine. With this information, we can have a closed-loop diagnostic of failure.
Specification information is the source that makes the first category work. Without specifications, our tear down autopsy would not be able to give us our wear limits. Once we have these limits established, specifications then help us to identify our equipment needs to be able to complete the machining operations. These specification sources have traditionally been the parts manufacturer, trade association, industry service manuals and experience.
The third category of information is manufacturers of our equipment. They should give us the knowledge of our equipment’s limitations for the task at hand. Equipped with the understanding of the failure and the specifications of the machine limits that we have to achieve will then cause us to select the machine and set-up to achieve our goal. The specs and repeatability of engines prior to OBD allowed us to have habits that could allow the engine to remain operational. However, with the advent of OBD, this operation may not be enough to satisfy its powertrain diagnostic system and cause check engine lights. These lights may be corrected by using different procedures, which will cause us to change our set-ups, tooling or even the equipment.
Having discussed techniques that yielded us success in the past, we now must understand the size and the scope of the system that will be testing us. If we are to be graded on a pass/fail of a check engine light or an emission inspection, then we will need to understand the system’s operation. In getting to know OBD, we must understand the system’s strategy and how it gathers its information from its sensing network and makes its logical conclusion of the powertrain’s status.
We need to "talk the talk before we can walk the walk."
For us to be able to even have an understanding of OBD, you first need to learn the language. This will give us the ability to talk to automotive services technicians and techline information providers on what it is that could be causing the failures we might be experiencing. Information sources for OBD include supplemental manuals within an OEM’s training classes, state run emission technician information, and aftermarket trainers and information providers. These manuals are set up to give you a general overview.
Now that you are no longer "buzzword-challenged," you need to figure out what to do with them. Find a local service shop with a proven record. You can unleash your newly found training on their automotive technicians, asking them questions so you can gain insight from their experience. This will help you understand that OBD identifies problems without any of your aid and assistance.
Developing this dialogue will be one of your first lines of defense if you experience problems during your learning curve and you will have an ally that will be able to walk you through problems that you might incur. However, if you build a specification-challenged engine, you will develop a new level of troubleshooting, which has not been seen by those technicians.
If you cannot find a technician in the area to assist you, another solution is to turn to technical assisted hotlines. This will generally occur when you have a problem, so you can gear yourself and the hotline. It would benefit you to tell them what you believe the source of your problem is so they can evaluate your level of understanding.
What I have described above is how I went about gaining my OBD credentials. However, I didn’t have service technicians to deal with, I was fortunate enough to talk to factory trainers.
Like most of our readers, much of my knowledge comes from first-hand personal experience. But sometimes I run into things that I can’t answer or don’t fully understand. In situations like these, I try to talk to somebody who knows more about the issue or problem than I do and can shed some light on the subject – or at least get me headed in the right direction.
For example, I needed to get an intake manifold when I did the 302 Camaro project last year. We needed a 2001 intake manifold but couldn’t get our hands on one. I wanted to understand what the differences were between the new and old designs.
Since my shop is a Bosch service center, I called a Bosch engineer I had met at an SAE meeting. He directed me to an injector engineer at GM who put me in contact with the intake manifold engineer. It took five or six phone calls to get to the right person, but once I got him, he was able to provide me with the information I needed and send me the correct manifold.
One thing to keep in mind is that these people are very busy people and don’t want to be bothered with needless questions. So I don’t call them unless I really need their input.
It’s also important to keep the communications two-way by being willing to share information with them, too. When I do call somebody with a question or a problem on my mind, I try to share with them what I think is happening or what my understanding of the matter is. Then I’ll ask them what they think and ask more questions to get a two-way conversation going that hopefully sheds some light on the subject.
Another place to start when you have a question is to contact your association, be it the Engine Rebuilders Association (AERA) or the Production Engine Remanufacturers Association (PERA). These organizations can often provide the answers you need, and if they can’t, they can often give you some leads that might be able to help you.
Another source for help is technical hot lines. Parts supplier hot lines are generally a good source for "off-the-shelf" information that somebody can grab out of a book or pull out of a database. But if the answer isn’t on the shelf or in the computer, they can sometimes direct you to the next level and put you into contact with a product manager or engineer. The hardest part is often deciding when you should pull the trigger and call a tech line, or skip the hot line and go on up the ladder.
Even if the tech line can give you a quick answer, don’t be afraid to ask additional questions. Make sure you fully understand what they’re telling you. I often ask them what source they use for their answers, and ask if I can get access to it, too.
Something else that helps speed up the process of finding an answer is to have as much pertinent information as possible, like the year, make, model, casting number, VIN number and so on. When it comes to digging up service specifications, I’m not shy about calling the various service information providers like All-Data, Mitchell and others.
Another excellent source of information, which has technicians on staff with real experience, is Bill Saurer’s Autoline. This Internet site (www.identifix.com; 800-288-6270) usually has all the OEM manuals, so if it’s something that has been published, they can usually find it. Technical service bulletins (TSBs) can also provide a lot of insight into vehicle specific problems, but many TSBs are not published for general consumption. They are kept internal for customer satisfaction purposes only.
Something else, which may be necessary from time-to-time, is to interrogate your information sources. You have to make certain they’re not giving you a pat answer or a bunch of B.S. that’s riddled with flaws. If somebody gives you an answer, ask what it is based on or why he or she says what they do. You may discover he can’t answer the "why" question – which gets everybody scratching their heads in an attempt to uncover the truth.
As you can see, there is no one solution on being OBD proficient. Your success or failure is entirely in your own hands. The good news is that you are not in a vacuum and the chances of being a leader in your area are excellent.
Norm Brandes owns and operates Westech Automotive, Inc., a machine shp and vehicle repair service business located in Silver Lake, WI.