The Tools that Improve Technician Efficiency
Terry Keller wants to posit a theory: You were probably a technician at one time. He believes that most shop owners these days (he roughly guesses about 90 percent) have been technicians or have technical backgrounds.
“All of us techs are tool junkies,” he says . “We love ways to improve technical capabilities. We love gadgets. It makes so much sense to find the right tools that allow us to operate our shops efficiently.”
It’s the beauty of a technician-turned-shop-owner managing a team—it’s also the problem, says Keller, owner of Keller Bros. Auto Repair in Littleton, Colo., and CEO of Auto Profit Masters. He has consulted auto repair shops for years, and consistently finds that technician-turned-shop-owners usually only know the tools and equipment that made them more efficient individually, but lack the knowledge of what makes an entire team of technicians more efficient.
“It’s not about just having a house of gadgets and tools,” he says. “I’ve seen guys buy stuff that is stupid. All these tools and gadgets don't mean much if you can’t fix cars right, and you can’t get the work out the door quickly and profitable. And that's the bottom line.”
So, what tools have worked best in improving efficiency for Keller over the past few dozen years? How about for Mark Lowe, the owner of Yeck’s Tire & Auto that started a tool-sharing program with his business development group at NAPA? Ratchet+Wrench spoke with both owners to get their picks.
It’s possibly the most obvious suggestion, but Keller doesn’t want sidestep the most valuable tool in his arsenal for making technicians more efficient: his management system.
“It’s about seeing how daily production benchmarks line up with targets and how to fix them if they don’t,” he says. “We ensure that technician efficiency is high daily, and we know whether techs are up to par or not.”
While many shops that he consults have mismanaged varying labor gross profits, Keller Bros.’s has been “flat as a pancake and has been for 20 years.” That’s because he monitors the metrics that his technicians’ tools affect each day, such as hours billed per tech per day.
“If you don’t know what you're producing, how can you improve it?” Keller asks. “Just by virtue, by measuring and understanding what’s going on, performance will improve.
“It also helps me look at parts shrinkage,” he adds. “I can see performance drop off, and then I can start asking what happened.”
Efficiency is all about maximizing time—even the smallest pockets of time, Lowe and Keller say. Flushing and changing automotive coolant and eliminating air pockets only takes a few minutes, but it’s also a few minutes that shouldn’t be eating up your technicians’ time. The key is, then, to employ a flushing machine.
“Once you hook up a flushing machine and it starts to work, the tech can go to another bay and turn wrenches until the flush is completed,” Keller says.
Keller says the efficiency upticks are so prevalent that his shop has purchased several different flushing machines for transmissions, cooling systems, brake systems, etc. In this category, Keller says the shop’s machine that cleans induction systems is the biggest gamechanger..
Air Conditioner Equipment
There’s one word Keller often hears when he’s pitching the importance of air conditioner equipment.
“They think it’s ‘pointless,’” he says.
But to Keller, it’s just common sense: If a technician is waiting for the A/C machine, and they can’t move to another bay at that moment to channel work in and out, how much is that costing you? That’s why he says it’s worth investing in A/C equipment, from recharge machines to gauges to tanks to leak detectors.
“If you kill production for a technician by $500 per week waiting for a machine, you can pay for that thing pretty fast,” he says.
Cordless Hand & Power Tools
Ratchets, impacts, wrenches—you name it. But if it’s got a cord attached to it, Lowe’s team doesn’t have time for it.
Purchasing cordless equipment has gone a long way in saving time at Yeck’s Tire & Auto, where technicians can move tools from bay to bay without having to get in each other’s way or tripping up on something.
The only real change Lowe’s team had to make was monitoring the batteries on the tools, which isn’t a big deal, he says.
Aqueous Parts Washers
Keller replaced his shop’s petroleum-based solvent parts washers with aqueous process machines not only required less electricity to power, but also went a long way in improving efficiency for his technicians.
“They wash the parts, blow them off with a high pressure washer and blow them dry,” he says. “These parts washers are slick. They work great and save a ton of time.”
Anybody can buy a scan tool, Lowe says. Everybody knows the importance. They know the safety risks involved. They know that scan tools can, in theory, save a lot of time.
It’s just buying the right scan tool that’s difficult.
That’s why he suggests researching your options and finding a tool that works for multiple vehicles, is easy to use and can be updated at a fair price.
Vacuum Purge and Refill Tools
Once again, a seemingly miniscule, negligible act has been a huge time saver for Keller’s team over the years: vacuum purge and refill tools.
“It takes a lot less time to refill the system, and it does a great job of burping the air out of the system,” he says.
While these tools are a timesaver in the moment, Keller says they’ve also gone to save money in the long run by eliminating comebacks.
“I can't tell you how many comebacks we used to have because we weren’t aware of what the problem is,” he says. “When you do a water pump and it drains down, in some of these engines, there is air trapped and the system won't fill up.
“This tool doesn’t completely eliminate that, but in a high percentage of cases, it will purge the air out of the cooling system, and the system is completely filled to capacity. It stops overheating.”
The next suggestion is a no-brainer to Lowe, yet he says they still needs to be widely adopted by shops: alignment machines.
“You can set all four heads in two or three minutes,” he says. “That used to be the biggest problem. You’d hang the heads ... and then have to point them and calibrate them.
“This does it all automatically. You can cut alignment time by 25 percent over older technology.”
On-Car Brake Lathes
This is a tool that has gotten better over the years, Keller says. With the technology on on-car brake lathes that exists today, he says they save significant time for technicians.
“Rather than having to pull the graders and machine them, we have that on-car brake lathe system today,” he says. “Years ago, the brake lathes would shatter and you wouldn’t get a clean cut. The new ones will cut them clean.”
Keller’s team runs a battery test in every car that comes through the shop.
“Even if the customer is complaining about another issue, we check the conditions of the battery and advise the customer,” he says.
This practice often ends up being a great use of time, as it leads to more work. The customer will often decide to replace a weaker battery rather than wait until it fails.