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Rebuilt Market Reviews – Brakes Market: Rebuilders And Suppliers Chant The Same Mantra

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When it comes to current trends
in the brake rebuilding market, rebuilders and suppliers chant
the same mantra – "price" and "quality." Both
are the primary forces driving parts and equipment suppliers’
and rebuilders’ business.
Consumers demand the best performing
materials, but of course, at the lowest possible price. Unfortunately,
say many rebuilders and their suppliers, an uneducated public
seems to believe that most product is "good enough"
for their vehicle simply because it’s on a jobber’s shelf or in
an installer’s shop.
"The market appears to be driven by price
more than anything right now," observed Joe Rhodes, president
of Util Automotive, Inc., Conyers, GA. "Everyone is having
conversations regarding quality, but when the rubber hits the
road, I believe it goes toward price rather than quality.
"Everyone
in the industry is making every attempt to up-sell to a quality
piece of material," continued Rhodes. "But what it boils
down to is compromises (in quality) are made because of pricing
pressure."
Rhodes doesn’t believe most of the really important
issues in the brake market are being adequately dealt with. These
issues, from his perspective, include:

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  • Quality shim materials;
  • Use of quality steel;
  • The way the steel is blanked; and,
  • The type of friction material being used.

Rhodes
relates an all-too-familiar story about a jobber’s customer who
bickered with the counterman about spending more than $6.95 for
a set of disc pads. He didn’t want to spend the few extra dollars
for better quality. Yet, he didn’t mind spending $7.95 on a set
of fuzzy dice for the rear view mirror before he walked out of
the store.
"There’s something wrong there," said Rhodes.
"Our values are misplaced. The whole purchasing decision
in American society has boiled down to, ‘How cheap can I get it?’
We in the aftermarket haven’t been able to figure out how to give
people the best dollar value, and still address all the issues
that need to be addressed, e.g., noise, friction material quality,
vehicle specific lining and so on, not to mention an adequate
profit margin."
Kent Van Slambrook, sales manager for Performance
Friction of Clover, SC, echoes Rhodes’ concern for quality.
"One
thing we all have to look at," said Van Slambrook, is ‘what
type of quality products are rebuilders and the friction manufacturer
putting in the box?’ Do they actually meet any requirements that
exist? Every vehicle has an FMBSS105 test attached to it. It’s
a safe bet that the (replacement) friction material out there
right now does not meet those requirements.
"It’s cost prohibitive
to make that happen, because the only thing that is driving the
market right now is price," Van Slambrook added. "It’s
not quality. It’s not safety regulations. When customers walk
into their local jobber, installer or retailer, they expect that
whatever brake they put down on the counter will stop their vehicle.
And, they assume it is going to stop their vehicle in a certain
distance, as specified in the 105 test. That’s where
education and some type of (industry effort) needs to occur. We
need to understand that safety is involved." And so, too,
does the vehicle owner, said Van Slambrook.

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Is education the answer?

Education on the part of the
consumer and the installer is one area that Dick Markano, president
of Conklin Equipment Co., Fallbrook, CA, believes can help address
the quality concerns that many have. He believes a great deal
of information needs to be provided so rebuilders will have a
reference point when rebuilding a quality brake.
After all, when
a brake shoe core has been taken off a car and shipped across
the country in the back of a truck, it may become distorted. Or,
the shoe may already have been distorted through use on the vehicle.
The rebuilder has to make sure these are straightened.
According
to Markano, the arc of the shoe is becoming more critical, as
is the fit between the lining and the shoe. Rebuilders need to
be able to guarantee the shoe has the right contour and the right
radius, so that it matches the underside of the lining when it’s
bonded. And in order to provide that higher quality, rebuilders
are demanding more from their suppliers.
"They’re making
demands on us to provide equipment to do this," says Markano.
"But, when you grind a brake shoe, to what arc do you grind
it? Everybody knows from the Friction Materials Standards Institute
(FMSI) catalog that a 180 mm shoe goes into a 180 mm drum. But
does that mean you grind it to a specific undersize or do you
make it exactly the same?
"The OEM has set a specification
that is generally not available to the rebuilder – although I
see a trend developing where more of this dimensional information
is becoming available. The bottom line is that when the rebuilder
straightens the brake shoe prior to relining it, he should straighten
it to some standard. That standard, if adhered to, will improve
the quality of the brake."
Some feel that one way to ensure
that quality products are being installed might be to take some
of the decision out of the hands of consumers, for example, by
pushing the use of loaded calipers. These "pre-assembled"
units make installation easier and give installers more control
over the parts put on the disc brakes. And, loaded calipers don’t
appear to have quite the price pressure problems that individual
brake shoes and disc pads are under.

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If the pad fits

With pads increasingly outselling
shoes, as much as 20 to 1 by some reports, one way to address
quality is learning to select the right pad for the right vehicle.
Several major rebuilders are now beginning to offer application-specific
brakes.
"We’ve gone application specific, with many different
friction materials for many different platforms," explained
Steve Suber, operations manager for EIS’ Manila, AR, facilities,
and also incoming Automotive Parts Rebuilders Association (APRA)
chairman.
"Most people realize
there’s no single friction material that covers the full spectrum
of cars and light trucks out there today. You have to be application
specific because of rear wheel drives, front wheel drives and
the new generation glide vehicles (which are all front wheel drive,
very sleek and aerodynamic). A lot of things have changed from
the vehicles of years past."
Performance Friction’s Van Slambrook
agrees, noting that his company has always kept an eye on specific
applications. "We’ve held to that concept all along,"
he said. "We actually do on-vehicle testing before we let
a product go to market. We tweak compounds, etc., for a particular
chassis. Some manufacturers put the same material on a one-ton
chassis that they use on a light car. You can’t do that. Just
because the manufacturer says you can do it doesn’t mean you really
can."
Wagner Brake Products is an example of another company
involved with producing application specific brakes. Its new ThermoQuiet
LT™ disc brake pads have been specifically engineered for
the light truck, minivan and sport utility vehicle market. The
pad uses a patented, integrally molded insulator for improved
noise damping. The friction material is not only molded to the
face of the steel backing plate, but also extruded through the
plate to form the insulator on the back.
Abex Friction Products,
also under the Cooper Industries umbrella, developed the friction
formulation and pad design. Each of the present 85 to 90 available
part numbers has been designed specifically for the vehicle application
it is sold for.

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ABS: rebuild or not

Perhaps the most specific application
concerns are on ABS braking systems. When newer designs filter
into the rebuilder market, there is always a learning curve, as
well as a measure of reluctance to begin rebuilding them. Yet,
many rebuilders have prepared, and are continuing to prepare,
for what will inevitably be the future of brake rebuilding.
At
the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in Rochester, NY,
a year-long study of rebuilding ABS systems is drawing to an end.
"There is an opportunity in ABS for rebuilders," says
Dr. Nabil Nasr, associate professor of industrial and manufacturing
engineering for RIT. "But it is critical that rebuilders
develop proper testing of the system once they’re (ABS parts)
rebuilt. They also need to gain expertise in electronics.
"One
of the problems is on the reverse engineering side, actually knowing
and understanding what you need to test," said Nasr. "Rebuilders
need to understand how the whole ABS system works versus the standard
brake system they used to work with." As is true in most
other product lines, there can be variations of the same basic
model.
"In doing our research, we
visited some companies that actually rebuilt some (ABS) units,"
says Nasr. "Unfortunately the rebuilt units didn’t work.
They looked great. They cleaned them up right. They outsourced
many components that they had to replace. But functionally the
units didn’t work properly.
"It could be a combined problem,
but electronics is definitely one of the reasons they didn’t work."
Although Nasr says he is sure ABS systems can be rebuilt, he admits
that it’s far from being a known science at this point.
One rebuilder
who says he is having some success rebuilding ABS is John Stuart
Power Brake Co. Ltd., Stoney Creek, Ontario. According to Stuart
Power’s operations manager, Brent Walker, the company simply decided
to purchase some ABS systems and start disassembling them. Trial
and error has enhanced its knowledge base considerably.
"We
brought a couple of units in and disassembled them just to see
what exactly they contained, and what was part-and-parcel of the
whole thing," says Walker. "Basically from there we
learned it ourselves. It gave us a ground base to start from."
Stuart
Power got involved with ABS because the company saw it as the
braking system of the future, and as an immediate niche market
opportunity, though it only accounts for about 1% of the company’s
present sales. Echoing Nasr, Walker agrees that testing and a
good understanding of electronics is important to properly rebuilding
ABS.
"The testing procedure is something we tried to develop
right off the bat, because there’s no point in building something
you can’t test," said Walker. "We’ve had two or three
versions of testers and we’re actually working on another version
of a better tester. It’s not just better from an accuracy standpoint;
it’s something that’s physically easier to work with – as far
as holding the various units and the ease of reaching fittings
and making connections.
The test system sends power to the ABS
unit, simulating the way it would work on the vehicle. Then, fittings
are connected to the hose ports and the gauges are snapped on.
"We look for various pressures," he explains. "We
time the run-up on the pump to the accumulator. We pump it down
to check that the accumulator is holding at the proper amount
of pressure. We physically pump it down to zero pressure, and
read it with gauges.
"I find, even now, we’re still learning.
Every unit that comes in, even those we’ve seen before, can be
different than the previous one. It’s a constant learning process.
You can’t say, ‘I know ABS inside and out.’ You no sooner say
that, than someone comes in with a ’96 Blazer – and it’s different."
But
Stuart Power is unique. In most cases, the slow pace at which
most rebuilders are approaching ABS is symptomatic of how rebuilders
have always approached new products. "ABS is like any new
technology," says Dave Aument, president of Aument Brake
& Supply, Inc., Lancaster, PA. "When disc brakes first
came out, we had a bunch of guys that didn’t even want to do them.
And now it’s common place. We do ABS clinics probably every year.
And our hydraulics company has a really nice set of reference
manuals that we sell quite a few sets of."

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Friction materials

While ABS may be the braking
system of the future, many of tomorrow’s friction materials are
already on the market. When the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals
overturned the ban on asbestos in 1991, there was a collective
sigh of relief throughout the brake industry – both OEM and rebuilder.
However, this didn’t open the flood gates for asbestos products.
Instead, manufacturers and suppliers continued to develop new
friction formulations for today’s vehicle braking systems.
According
to Performance Friction’s Van Slambrook, carbon metallics were
originally introduced because of the possible asbestos ban. They
are now winning a growing audience of admirers. "The hot
ticket right now on the market is integrally molded carbon metallic,"
says Walker. "It dissipates heat better than a pure metallic
and it’s gentler on the rotor surface. I think one manufacturer
claims up to 20% less rotor wear with a carbon metallic, as opposed
to a regular metallic. And the big thing now is ‘no squeal, no
squeak,’ where the brakes also perform much better than asbestos."
While
asbestos and it’s related legislation may have helped spur manufacturers
towards newer friction formulations, the legal issues don’t seem
to be going away. "Legislative issues are some of the biggest
concerns for rebuilders," said EIS’ Suber. "For example,
there are people claiming copper in aftermarket pads is causing
estuary (water) contamination. There’s a lot of concern from government
regulators about what we have in our brake parts. Aftermarket
associations must be proactive, and we (APRA) are. We need to
address all the issues because, if we don’t, we may be put out
of business by misguided bureaucrats."
Says
Mike Conlon, Washington legal counsel for APRA, and a regular
columnist for Automotive Rebuilder, "When it comes to asbestos
in brakes, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has basically
decided to go with Occupational Safety and Health Administration
(OSHA) regulations. EPA has indicated that it is looking at brake
repair and service from a non-asbestos standpoint." Conlon
says EPA is looking to see if nonasbestos replacement materials
pose any dangers.
"The thing everyone should be aware of is
that some of these replacements for asbestos may have some additional
toxicity problems that EPA may look at in the future," said
Conlon. "For that reason, we have been trying to get the
lining and friction manufacturers to permanently mark their lining
in some way. That way we’ll know what the material is after it’s
used, not just if it’s asbestos or non-asbestos. So if, say five
years from now, EPA says you have to dispose of semi-metallics
in a certain way, then we would have the ability to do that without
having to dispose of all friction material that way."
Tagging
is being considered by many manufacturers. One such company is
VAAPO, Inc., in Millers Tavern, VA. "The technique we’re
currently looking at is to put the tag on brake pads in a protected
area, an area where it would not be worn off by the natural wear
of the pad," explains Richard Cross, VAAPO’s president. "The
marking would survive for the life of the pad, assuming you didn’t
wear 100% of the material away. And since it would not be in the
mix at all, there’s no environmental concern from that standpoint."
VAAPO
is trying to develop a way to leave a marker that would identify
the pad as asbestos or non-asbestos. The technique could also
be used to mark lead or other materials. "The tags we’re
looking at would glow under an ultraviolet lamp: green if it’s
non-asbestos, orange-red if it contained asbestos. This is primarily
aimed at the installer market, where they have a material disposal
issue," says Cross. "They would be able to pass these
parts underneath a stationary lamp or use a hand-held lamp to
flash at the parts while they were still on the car, to determine
how to handle the pads."
At this point, the company is only
experimenting with tags. It has not yet sold any pads with them.
But if a customer wanted them, Cross said they could speed up
the research and have the tagged pads on the market quickly.
And
while tagging materials may help in properly handling them, rebuilders
come back to the all-important issue of cost. Tagging would increase
the price of the materials, something that would not be a welcome
event in an already price competitive marketplace.
Still another
dilemma facing rebuilders is integrally molded (IM) brakes. "The
difficulty is that most of the OE brakes are integrally molded,"
said Gil Laycock, executive director of FMSI. "Rebuilders
don’t really have the facilities or capabilities to make IM replacement
parts. Therefore, they have to make some sort of an adaptation
of a rivet pattern for IM original equipment.
"Basically,
a number of steel suppliers have established rivet patterns, and
in some instances with input from the friction manufacturer, for
IM parts. So, as long as rebuilders can continue to create rivet
patterns for OE applications, and as long as the parts are viable,
working parts, I don’t think there’s a problem. But if two companies
work on the same part independently and come up with different
rivet patterns, it does cause confusion."
At Performance Friction,
Van Slambrook said probably 95% of the new contracts his company
has been in competition for have been for IM only. There was not
an option for a riveted version. He also believes that in five
to 10 years, maybe sooner, the market will be all IM.
"The
OE market is going more and more to the integrally molded disc
brake pad where those cannot be rebuilt," said Van Slambrook.
"The days of riveting a puck onto a backplate are slowly
shrinking. It means rebuilders have to change their perspective
and change their strategies. For example, they may have to align
themselves with a company that makes the IM pads."

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When is too many enough?

Tagged or not, IM or not, there
is little question that the number of parts is still increasing
in the aftermarket. It sometimes seems like there is a daily onslaught
of new numbers – parts are re-engineered, a bolt is changed, a
new hole added, or an old one deleted.

New part numbers continue to
arrive on the market, said FMSI’s Laycock. "It has tapered
off a little bit, but that varies from model year to model year,"
he said. "We are continuing to see new part numbers added
at a fairly good pace. When the manufacturers do redesigns, when
they start downsizing and reworking front wheel drive, etc., they
do a fairly complete job re-doing the brake systems. There’s less
and less consolidation opportunities all the time."
As an
example, Laycock mentions the Nissan Sentra of a couple years
ago. It had one set of front brakes for the 1.6L, a different
set for the 2.0L, and a third set for the 2.0L with ABS. On the
rear of that same vehicle, there was a drum brake and two different
disc brake options.
While this can prove
to be a headache for the rebuilding industry, keeping up with
the numbers comes with the turf. "I don’t think part number
proliferation is a problem," says EIS’ Suber. "There’s
still quite a bit of consolidation out there. But there are quite
a variety of new numbers coming on-board every year. If you want
to cover 100% of the applications, you’ll need to have quite an
inventory. But that’s in any business, or any product line."
Util’s
Rhodes agrees, noting that the aftermarket has a chameleon-like
quality when it comes to handling new challenges. "I really
believe the market has adapted to it," said Rhodes of the
proliferation of part numbers. "Yes, it’s overwhelming, but
I believe the industry has handled it quite well. In fact, I think
the brake industry has handled it better than most."
Calipers
experience a little bit of lag time because of the high cost of
the casting," Rhodes continued. "But when it comes to
replacement disc plates, steel stamping, linings, the shoe stampings,
etc., it’s only a short period of time before supplies are filled.
In fact, we put more material into the market in new numbers than
can be consumed."

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Big versus small

While part numbers may be increasing,
smaller rebuilders are under assault as larger companies consume
ever greater portions of the market. With many large retail outlets
and installers, the brake rebuilding industry is finding itself
breaking into two primary segments: the big rebuilders who can
fill the demands of national chains and large volume accounts,
and the smaller companies that are finding their strength in niche
markets.
"Unfortunately, we’re getting a considerable disparity
between the small local rebuilder and the large rebuilders,"
says Conklin Equipment’s Markano. "It’s becoming increasingly
difficult for the small local rebuilder to compete.
"Years
ago there were virtually hundreds of rebuilders across the United
States. Currently, a large proportion of the shoes are sold through
very few rebuilders. That creates a problem for the little guy.
So he’ll find his niche in local markets – in short runs and special
things, more oddball stuff, forklifts and industrial applications,
for example."
Focusing on niche markets and competing where
the opportunities present themselves is the way all rebuilders
have always survived. "I think there’s always a market for
the small guys," said Stuart Power’s Walker. "If you
sent a caliper into one of the big rebuilders, say a special caliper
off a ’67 Jag, it could take three or four weeks. We can do it
in three or four hours. That’s an advantage you have when you’re
small."
So, as always, it all comes back to the basics. By
continuing to focus on quality and service, rebuilders both large
and small say they expect to continue to provide valuable products
and services to the marketplace, no matter how many parts they
have to stock, no matter how much technology changes the face
of the rebuilding process.

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