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Braking system complexities underscore pressing value of training

Thursday, March 16, 2017 - 07:00
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Educational requirements for brake repairers and the distributors who serve them are showing no signs of slowing down as an alphabet soup group of terms – ABS, ESC, TCS, EBD and AEB – are increasing the levels of knowledge needed to make the correct diagnosis and fix the related computerized circuitry that may be at fault.

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Anti-lock braking systems (ABS), electronic stability controls (ESC), traction control systems (TCS), electronic brake force distribution (EBD) and automatic emergency braking (AEB) are just a few of the newer technologies breaking into a rapidly evolving brake category that previously involved replacing parts typically located directly behind the wheels.

Under an agreement recently reached among 20 automakers and American regulators, AEB will be standard equipment on all light vehicles sold in the United States by 2022.

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“It’s definitely more complicated than it used to be,” says John Gardner, an instructor at Chipola College of Automotive Technology in Marianna, Fla. and host of the “Tech Garage” television show on the Velocity Network, sponsored in-part by Advance Auto Parts.

“One of the most viewed topics is brakes – right back to the basics. I tend to want to lean into computer-command control and sensors, but when we get back to the basics it’s always the highest views,” he says. “You can do a brake job in your driveway as long as you don’t have codes to diagnose.”

For do-it-for-me professionals, “you have to break it down by pieces. There’s a lot more theory involved – it used to be all hands-on. The more complex it gets, you need more technicians who are able to do it, and there’s a shortage of technicians who are properly trained,” says Gardner. “A lot of the training has to be theory, hands-on and mentoring in the industry.”

Chipola’s brake education, also offered onsite at hotel conference rooms, distributorships, retailers and shops throughout the U.S. and underwritten by vendors, encompasses 60 percent theory and 40 percent hands-on.

“Brake manufacturers host a lot of classes to get people up to speed. The Aftermarket School is for technicians (and other industry professionals) already out there who can already do brake work, but they attend to learn the new systems,” Gardner says. An array of training videos is additionally available.

In June of last year, the Carquest Technical Institute (CTI), the commercial training division of Advance Auto Parts, added an eight-hour “Antilock Brake and Stability Control: Operation and Diagnosis” course to its curriculum for shop owners and technicians. Use of scan tool data, digital volt ohm meter testing and oscilloscope techniques are among the covered topics.

Avoiding comebacks

“Vehicle braking systems are getting more and more complicated all the time, and technicians should be properly trained to work on these systems,” says Rob Grant, lead service advisor at industry software provider Openbay.

“Until recently, automotive manufacturers had not changed braking systems in 30-plus years,” he points out. “The brake rotor was a solid piece of metal, and typically two brake pads per side. Technicians could practically change them with a Swiss army knife and an adjustable wrench.”

Over the past few years, though, “with the addition of hybrid regenerative braking and electronic parking brakes a technician needs to have a computerized scan tool that can cost thousands of dollars, not to mention training,” says Grant.

“Every vehicle is different nowadays, and an improperly trained technician can do more damage to other parts if they are not properly disassembled and reassembled – never mind brake noise and comebacks from poorly installed parts.”

“To add to the complexity,” echoes Openbay service advisor Paul Rota, “most European luxury vehicles and some top Asian luxury vehicles are equipped with electronic brake-wear sensors. Most vehicles’ brakes can be replaced during a typical brake job without an issue, but more often the system itself requires reprogramming, which can only be done with scan tools.”

A non-dealership shop “can often perform the repair without hesitation, but may not have the specific scan tool to recalibrate the system once complete,” Rota warns, “resulting sometimes in a follow-up trip to the dealer and an unsatisfied consumer.”

As aging vehicles remain on the road longer, North America’s aftermarket for rotors, drums and calipers is expected to reach $1.64 billion by 2020, with rotor work accounting for roughly two-thirds of the category’s value, compared to 2013’s sales tally of $1.39 billion, according to Frost & Sullivan analyst Stephen Spivey. “In particular, rotors wear quickly as they have become lighter and thinner and need to be replaced often.”

“Rotors used to be made with more material, which allowed for resurfacing typically at least once over the life of the rotor,” reports Rota. “With manufacturers looking to cut costs and reduce vehicle weight, rotors are thinner and typically only last for one service.”

Consequently, counter personnel, service advisors and technicians face a customer relations challenge when “explaining this exact issue to some of the more seasoned drivers, who were used to regularly resurfacing rotors on older vehicles, and who don’t want to pay for new rotors,” Rota says. “Luckily the cost of brake rotors has also reduced over the years, and the cost to resurface vs. replace has essentially equaled out.”

Integrating electronics

“We’re changing from mechanical to electronic, and it’s becoming increasingly complex,” says Laura Lyons, who sits on the board of directors at the Automotive Training Managers Council (ATMC) and is president of ATech Training in Walton, Ky.

ATech specializes in constructing instructional display models out of braking system components and conducting train-the-trainer classes at its headquarters while also exhibiting at trade shows and hosting onsite sessions at various venues. Coursework materials are provided with the mockup devices to ensure that trainers and their students receive a complete education.

“We teach them how the system works. You can’t drive the car (undergoing demonstrated repairs) because there’s not a safe way to do that, so the students practice on the devices. Technicians learn to be better technicians by practicing,” she says.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all; we all come with different skill sets. Some people have a more mechanical aptitude, and some people have a more electrical aptitude,” adds Lyons, encouraging the industry to review flat rate payment standards for brake repairs. “Not everybody can do it as quickly as everybody else – you have to build that time into the job.”

“They keep integrating more and more electronics into the braking system,” says Glenn Dahl, manager of technical operations at Bridgestone. The firm operates the world’s largest network of company-owned service centers, including some 16,000 technicians employed at nearly 2,200 Firestone Complete Auto Care, Tires Plus and Wheelworks locations across the U.S.

“Three years ago we saw this coming,” and Bridgestone collaborated with NAPA to implement the necessary educational programs. “I personally work with them so we get the best of the best for our training. You have to be right up there on top of that stuff.”

Two levels of instruction are taught. “Once we get them in their comfort zone we go on to diagnostics.” The advanced sessions are “where we get into the deep dive on electronics.” Upon completion managers and staffers “can confidently go back to their stores and attack” the entire realm of brake services, according to Dahl, stressing the importance of making sure the imparted knowledge is consistent for all the company’s locations.

Courses are conducted at training centers throughout the country, combining classroom and shop environments. “We do a lot of training with mockups,” he reports, and suppliers participate in providing the instruction. “We’ll use our vendors in various capacities.”

Brake jobs account for about 10 percent of the sales at the 8,000-square-foot Advantage Auto Repair in Albuquerque, N.M., where recreational vehicle repairs are a core specialty. Owner and head technician James Bracken is highly focused on obtaining education, and he expresses enthusiasm for onsite brake system training from NAPA and periodic manufacturer-conducted instruction.

“They do them at the local community college,” says Bracken, who occasionally attends solo and then passes along what he’s learned to the technicians. “Sometimes I take them with me and sometimes I go by myself.”

Online courses are accessed, and Bracken pores over books and manuals in a constant quest to broaden his expertise. “I read a lot,” he says. “Once you have the information you can fix just about anything.”


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