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Make Reflashing a Profit Center

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The days of repairing vehicles without a laptop at your side are dissipating, Brian Pickens says, and the J2534 interface exemplifies that.

By utilizing a “pass-thru” device, the J2534 interface allows technicians to create a connection between a vehicle’s on-board diagnostic system and a computer to access and install EPA-mandated vehicle software updates—a procedure known as reflashing. And while it was once too expensive to perform, reflashing has now become a profit center at a number of shops around the country, including Transolution Auto Care in Missoula, Mont., says assistant manager Pickens.

But there’s a slight problem: Shop owners are wary of equipment costs, the training required and the complexity of the process, Pickens says, and thus balk at the opportunity to make money off reflashing, resulting in work being sent to dealerships that have invested in the necessary equipment.

“If you’re not reflashing, you’re basically sending money away,” he says.

Pickens, Chris Gerber (owner of Transolution) and Glen Eaton (product manager at Drew Technologies) break down the costs and training requirements reflashing, and how to achieve the best return on your investment.

The Investment

There are basic costs every shop will incur to set up reflashing—then it’s about properly charging and performing reflashes often enough to achieve a return on investment.

The equipment. There are three basic necessities you’ll need to reflash: the pass-thru device, a laptop and an operating system.

Gerber bought Transolution’s pass-thru device through Drew Technologies for $1,700, which covers all auto manufacturers that sell in the U.S. However, if you specialize in certain OEMs, Pickens says several companies produce pass-thru devices that cover single makes for around $65.

You’ll then need a laptop (Gerber uses different laptops for various OEMs) that is Windows compatible (Pickens says most OEMs require Windows 7 or higher).

The subscription. While OEMs are required to make their updates known for free through technical service bulletins (TSBs), a paid subscription is required to install the necessary updates.

There are two options with subscriptions, Gerber says: A long-term subscription (lasting six months to one year) typically costs over $1,000, while a two-day subscription costs between $50 and $60.

“If you’re not doing a lot of [reflashes], then you’re better off just buying the two-day pass for each job,” Gerber says. “You can do as many as you want in those two days.”

Gerber purchased a yearly Chrysler subscription through a discount with the Automotive Service Association. He says many organizations and programs offer similar reflashing rebates that help soften the cost.

With a subscription, Pickens says you aren’t restricted to only having access to vehicle software updates.

“You’ve actually got access to deeper level diagnostics,” he says. “For instance, with BMW, you can get in there and it’s like you’ve got the dealer scan tool in your hands. You’ve got a lot more information through this tooling than you would through any of the aftermarket scan tools.”

The Return

The return on a reflashing investment will vary from shop to shop, Eaton says. While Transolution invested in several laptops, theoretically you only need one laptop, the operating system and the pass-thru device to get started, which will initially cost roughly $2,000-$2,500 total.

Gerber says, in the long run, it has been well worth the investment. When Transolution didn’t have the proper equipment and training, it would send all reflash jobs to dealerships, which would charge $120, leaving a small profit for the shop. “You can’t make money,” Gerber says. “Especially if the technician has to drive the car down, drop it off, wait for the reflash, pay the bill, and then drive back. It’s a waste of time.”

With reflashing now being performed in-house, Transolution has turned the procedure into a profit center. With a two-day subscription costing between $50 and $60, Gerber charges between $125 and $145 for an hour or so of diagnostic work. Pickens says the shop will typically perform between four and six reflashes per week.

Eaton works with several shops in setting up reflashing, and says most businesses see a return very quickly. Over a longer period of time, if you’re reflashing multiple vehicles with one subscription, he says the average software charge to a shop for a reflash ends up being around $25, while the average revenue on tickets is $150. At just five tickets per month, that would be $125 in fees and $750 in gross revenue—and $9,000 annually.

The Training

Most reluctance amongst shop owners regarding reflashes, says Pickens, is the lack of training available.

“A lot of shops are fearful. They go to seminars and hear people talking about crashing computers and wiping things out and costing the business a bunch of money,” he says. “And since there’s not a lot of good training on how to do it, it’s very discouraging.”

Fortunately, Pickens says several pass-thru device companies provide training videos on their websites and live technical support—often free of charge. Gerber says the shop also has a subscription to AVI OnDemand (a technician training website), which offers several videos on reflashing.

“We have several videos and documentation on how to subscribe, what equipment you’ll need, what software you have to download, and actual examples of a reflash program,” Eaton says about Drew Technologies. “By looking at those videos, you’ll be able to see everything before you hook up to a car and attempt it yourself.”

Since the process requires you to be a bit computer savvy, says Pickens, he recommends training one or two of your most capable technicians on the reflashing procedure.

“You’ve got to be pretty sharp, very dedicated on what you’re doing,” he says. “If you’re not being very attentive [during the reflashing process], you could miss something small and screw up a repair.”

The Procedure

Gerber says charging customers has not been a problem at his shop, as reflashes are often the only way to fix certain drivability problems. The real money waster, however, comes from misdiagnosing vehicles.

“If reflashing doesn’t fix it, then we’ve got some explaining to do,” he says. “We didn’t do our job right, so we can’t charge the customer.”

To avoid wasting time and money on a reflash, Eaton, Gerber and Pickens say there are four key factors to keep in mind before and during the reflash process:

Check the TSBs. Several repairs, especially drivability and fuel efficiency issues, result from corrupt files on vehicle software. Auto manufacturers issue TSBs containing updates for these vehicles, and reading through them thoroughly ensures reflashing fixes the real issue.

“If you don’t look up the technical information on the TSBs, you could end up doing repair work that’s not necessary,” Gerber says. “If it’s related to the drivability problem, you need to be able to isolate it and know it’s a reflash rather than replacing parts. You’ll waste money if you replace the transmission and still have the same problem.”

Establish a good Internet connection. It’s important to keep a solid Internet connection throughout the reflashing process, which Gerber says typically lasts an hour. Because wireless Internet is prone to cutting out in his shop—which once accidently wiped out a vehicle’s computer—his technicians only use wired connections during reflashes.

“You should be conscious of the environment you’re working in,” Eaton adds. “There’s a lot of metal in a shop that could potentially mess up the signal and nullify an entire job. And if you’re going with a wired connection, make sure cables are set up so people aren’t tripping over them.”

Check the voltage, battery, alternator and cables. The system voltage specified by the OEM must remain consistent during the reflash. Also, the vehicle’s battery and alternator must be charged and in good condition (Eaton recommends purchasing a battery maintainer), and all cable connections must be established properly.

Read each screen carefully. While your pass-thru device will guide you through a reflash screen by screen, each new screen requires your attention for important information.

“The worst thing you can do is think you know everything because you’ve done it 10 times and then just start clicking through the screens,” says Eaton. “Sometimes there’s a different screen or new information that pops up and you’ll just blow past it and miss one of the selection items.”

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