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Digital data screen is the future of auto repair

11:27 PM CDT on Friday, September 17, 2004

By TERRY BOX / The Dallas Morning News

GRAPEVINE – As technician Kurt Ward leaned over an engine at Classic Chevrolet recently, he caught a glimpse of the future flickering from the brim of his black baseball hat. Mr. Ward, a master tech with 31 years' experience, was wearing a device that allowed him to view complex repair and diagnostic information from a 2-inch screen attached to his hat – as he worked on the car.

In the past, Mr. Ward would diagnose a vehicle's problem with information from its on-board computers and then use one of the service department's personal computers to call up a Chevrolet technician Web site.

After copying the repair information on the Web site, he would walk back to the ailing vehicle and start the real work.

Now, he simply logs onto the Web site from a transmitter on his belt and views the information he needs on the small, clear screen of the device, called the Nomad Expert Technician System.

"You've got it right at eye level while you're working with your hands," said Mr. Ward, 48. "There's a learning curve with it. But I foresee in the future that it will cut our diagnostic time in half."

The technology was introduced to the industry last winter at the National Automobile Dealers Association convention. Classic Chevrolet in Grapevine is one of about 10 dealerships nationwide that are trying it.

Nomad maker Microvision Inc. of Bothell, Wash., is eager to place it in other dealership departments, and in businesses outside the auto industry.

The Nomad functions like a tiny, wearable laptop computer, said Tom Sanko, the company's vice president for marketing.

"For us now, it's all about mobile workers – people who aren't tied to a desk," Mr. Sanko said. "We still think the airline industry could be a possibility. We also think body shops would be good or parts warehouses, fleets, heavy-duty trucks, those sorts of businesses."

Many auto dealerships need more production from their service departments, particularly in the current business climate, with retail sales up one month and down the next.

"Back in the '70s and '80s, most dealers made their money from the front end of the store, in sales," said Drew Campbell, president of the New Car Dealers Association of Metropolitan Dallas. "But that was back when it was mostly the Big Three, before you had 39 manufacturers trying to sell cars in this country."

Nearly 12 percent of a dealership's revenue – and at least half of its profits – now come from the service department.

The service and parts departments typically generate enough revenue to cover about 54 percent of a dealership's overhead, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association.

Many push their service departments to absorb 80 percent or more of the overhead so they don't have to rely as much on the volatile sales side of the business.

"Both the used-car department and parts and service will have to pick up the pace in the next few years as sales margins continue to slide," said Paul Taylor, chief economist of the NADA.

In the last few years, though, service and parts departments have grappled with new challenges. More than half of service-department revenue used to come from warranty work paid for by the automakers. That has dropped to less than half as the quality of new vehicles has improved.

In addition, automakers have cut the allowed repair time on some warranty work, further reducing their payments.

Both have forced dealerships to hustle more customer-pay repair work.

Nonetheless, when Mike Zorn at Classic Chevrolet heard about the Nomad system a couple of months ago, he initially rejected it.

"It was so off the wall, I said 'No' at first," said Mr. Zorn, the dealership's service director.

But Microvision had a tantalizing claim about the system:

"It's supposed to increase production 30 percent when we really get them up and running," Mr. Zorn said. "I fight to get 10 and 12 percent these days."

Five of the dealership's 27 techs are using the Nomad and others plan to join the yearlong evaluation of the high-tech tool. Each unit costs about $4,000.

"Before it's over, I expect probably half of our techs to be outfitted with these," he said. "It used to be acceptable to keep cars two or three days for repairs. Now, you've got to have it done in two or three hours. If there is anything that can aid me in turning out cars faster, I'm for it."

The technology originated with the Air Force more than a decade ago, and Microvision has spent the last 11 years trying to commercialize it, Mr. Sanko said. Microvision developed the technology – called scanned beam display – used to provide the images on the screen.

"As they say in the tech business, we've had a long beta cycle," Mr. Sanko said.

Microvision, a publicly held company with 160 employees and revenue last year of $15 million, had originally intended to focus on the aviation industry.

Then American Honda Motor Co. Inc. heard about the Nomad and began working with Microvision to refine the device for service techs.

"At some point, we think, it will give dealers a competitive advantage," Mr. Sanko said. "If techs can do their jobs in one-third less time, that means they can do more jobs, earn more money for the dealership and themselves. It's a story that usually interests dealers."


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