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Choosing the Right Scan Tool for Your Shop

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The task, looking back on it now, was pretty much insurmountable—impossible, even.

As the former co-chair of the tool and equipment committee for the National Automotive Service Task Force (NASTF), Donny Seyfer heard the question all the time, from his fellow shop owners, from repair technicians, everyone: How do you pick the right scan tool?

Seemed like a simple question, he thought, simple enough that NASTF should be able to provide a resounding, clarifying answer to the industry.

So, Seyfer’s task became just that: create a matrix that would allow shops to pick the correct scan tool based on their respective work-mix needs.

Seyfer finished the project in 2012—or, really, he says, he “ended” the project.

“We were aware of it going in, but the problem was that it was essentially impossible to ever be done with it,” he says. “There are hundreds of tools out there, and they’re changing all the time with new updates and software. It’s something that could never be finished.”

Still, Seyfer, owner of Seyfer Automotive Inc. in Wheat Ridge, Colo., says that it’s necessary for every shop to go through their own similar process of finding the correct diagnostic equipment to effectively repair today’s vehicles.

“Having [the correct diagnostic scan tool] is the biggest thing in increasing efficiency and competency—when you have the right one,” he says. “And, not having the correct one is going to be your biggest hindrance.

“Vehicles today have so many diagnostic and reflashing needs, and you’re only going to see more and more.”

Researching and purchasing scan tools can feel like a daunting task, but, as Seyfer and CARQUEST’s George Lesniak help point out, there are simple steps every shop can go through to ensure it equips its technicians with the right diagnostic equipment.

Teach a Tech to Fish: The Challenges

Lesniak is the curriculum development manager for the CARQUEST Technical Institute. He’s been teaching and writing courses for technician training for 14 years, and he has personally run thorough test trials on the products of a number of aftermarket and OEM scan tool providers.

He knows diagnostics, and he says that before any shop owner sees a scan tool as a “silver bullet” or a “quick fix” to their diagnostic dilemmas, they need to ask themselves one question: How much time am I willing to invest in learning the advanced functions of the scan tool I purchase?

“Technicians want to know what’s wrong with the vehicle they are troubleshooting today,” he says. “This is why scan tools with built-in diagnostic tips and tricks are so popular. I believe this is a fundamentally wrong approach. Remember the old adage, ‘If you give a man a fish … .’ Well, the same holds true for troubleshooting. If you give the technician an answer, he may fix a car but if you teach a technician how the vehicle works, how his diagnostic equipment works and how to think for his or herself, they can fix nearly anything.”

Bottom line: A scan tool is not a crutch, Lesniak says, even though many technicians and shops like to use it as one.

And that’s just one of the many challenges that these tools present. Here are four others Seyfer and Lesniak say to keep in mind:

1. No standardization. Despite the pending changes with Right to Repair legislation, there is no universal, standardized approach to diagnostics right now, , Seyfer says. And because of that, the majority of scan tools operate and route through the vehicle’s computer system differently. That’s why certain scan tools work—or even partially work—on certain vehicles and not on others. It’s another reason techs need to understand the tool and the vehicle system, Lesniak says.

2. Reverse engineering. Because aftermarket tool makers are not given complete vehicle information, their tools must be reverse engineered to be able to work, and that often can lead to missed capabilities.

3. Nothing is universal—even if it claims to be. One of the most difficult things for shops is to weigh a tool’s claimed ability against its actual capabilities, Seyfer says. Simply put: There is no one tool that can do everything for every vehicle, or even come close. And that brings us to ...

4. Information gaps. Whether it’s because of reverse engineering or even simply not being the latest version of a tool, the equipment will have information gaps. The problem is, Lesniak says, a scan tool only shows you what it can do, not what it can’t—yet another reason to understand the vehicles you work on, he says.

Hunting for Answers: Choosing Your Tool

Every shop will have different needs and uses for a scan tool, Seyfer says, so it’s critical to identify your facility’s specific needs from the equipment. He and Lesniak outlined six steps for doing that.

Step 1: Look at what you work on. Take a look at your work mix, Seyfer says. What vehicles do you work on the most? What makes, models and years do you see most often? “The more specific and ‘specialized’ you can be with what you work on, the better off you’ll be,” he says. Pick your 10 most worked-on vehicles, Lesniak says, and figure out your needs for those.

Step 2: Look at what you don’t work on. Of course, a scan tool should be able to help you bring in additional vehicles, jobs, revenue and, ultimately, profitability, Lesniak says. “People ask me all the time, ‘What scan tool should I get?’” he says. “And my first response is always asking them, ‘What don’t you work on?’ Then I ask, ‘Why?’ Usually, that helps you identify vehicles in your area you’re missing out on. For an example, Seyfer and his shop recently invested in equipment to properly diagnose Jaguars, as he saw many in his area and very few shops that were taking advantage of it.

Step 3: Research the tools. Here’s where shops often get discouraged, Lesniak says, but if you have the proper approach and the correct vision for your shop’s work mix (Steps 1 and 2), then you’ve already narrowed it down quite a bit. There are six things to consider:

Coverage. What data does the tool come with? What subscriptions? What vehicles do those cover? What makes and model years? Seyfer says that, because of changes in vehicle design and capabilities, not even OEM tools cover all of their own vehicles. And some are able to access multiple manufacturers. You need to fully understand what each tool is capable of reading.

Training/Ease of Use. Most aftermarket tools are easy to “pick up and go with,” Lesniak says. OEM tools often come with a steeper learning curve for first-time users. Try to get a feel for the time and effort it will take for your staff to master the equipment, and what training the manufacturer or provider offers.

Compatibility. Some tools can be used through a Windows-based PC or laptop, and Seyfer says that often means one single tool can work with a number of different versions of manufacturer software to provide a wide range of coverage.

Technical Support. Some tool makers and vehicle manufacturers provide hotlines of sorts to call for additional information or for difficult diagnoses. Understand what each tool has to offer.

Upgrades/Updates. As per Seyfer’s dilemma with his NASTF matrix, tools are constantly being upgraded and updated. He says to research the companies you’re considering and see what they offer in terms of upgrades—not just for the purpose of the equipment but also to see if they cut any deals on updating the tool.

Cost. There’s going to be a large discrepancy in price between tool makers. This is why understanding your work mix is important to grasp the value of the tool.

Step 4: Analyze the return. There are a lot of ways to try to analyze how valuable a scan tool is in a shop. Seyfer likes to sort of low-ball the return and only compare the cost of the tool (including subscriptions and upgrades) to the amount of money he makes on diagnostic charges. Obviously, he says, that doesn’t take into account any improvements in efficiency, car count, etc. He says it helps give him an absolute minimum that can serve to directly pay off the tool.

Step 5: Demo the tools. Lesniak says to be wary of any company that isn’t confident enough in its product to let you have it for a full, on-your-own trial period. “Receiving a demo from them is not good enough,” he says. “You need to have it in your technician’s hands and let them be able to see its full capabilities on your actual work mix. Testing the tool on your own is the most important thing you can do to make the correct decision.”

Step 6: Implement the tools. Although this step must come after you selected and purchased a tool, it will also help to confirm your decision. Don’t just simply buy diagnostic equipment and hand it off to the technician. Create processes and systems for your shop to use it correctly, Seyfer says, and make sure to market your capabilities.

Keep It Simple

Lesniak and Seyfer both feel that choosing a scan tool for your shop can be a daunting task. The important thing to remember, Seyfer says, is that you need to find the best fit for your business—not just the flashiest, most expensive equipment (or the most affordable, for that matter).

Get as much information as you can, Lesniak says. Talk with other shop owners, talk with your vendors, ask about it in 20 Group meetings, association gatherings, on message boards—anywhere you can. There’s plenty of information online about each tool and iATN, the Equipment and Tool Institute (ETI),  NASTF and others have detailed information.

In the end, though, Lesniak says to try to make the process as simple as you can.

“There’s no one answer for any shop,” he says. “But, if you do your research and test the [scan tools] out beforehand, you can make it a whole lot easier on yourself.” 

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