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Troubleshooting tools of the trade

Nov. 7, 2022
Diagnostic tools are critical to the present and future of commercial vehicle repair, and shops must not only consider which to use, but training who will use them.

Gone are the days when a scan tool and experience were enough to repair a fleet of vehicles. It’s critical for today’s diagnostic tools to keep up with more complex vehicle systems and components and to help technicians make sense of it all. As maintenance providers prepare for evolving diagnostic solutions, shops are investing in new technology, reconfiguring layouts, and training technicians.

On new Class 8 trucks, for example, there are upwards of 25 or more computers, said Bruno Gattamorta, chief commercial officer for Cojali USA. “More computers generate more sensors, cables, and electronics,” he said. “Anything electronic cannot be diagnosed without a tool.”

That’s because identifying issues quickly, such as intermittent faults, is crucial to get the truck up and running. “Most of the times, these are circuitry and electrical faults,” said Haresh Gobin, product development manager for Launch Tech USA. “Access to advanced diagnostic scan tools with an in-depth data analysis, latest software updates for that particular vehicle, and tools such as oscilloscopes, multimeters, and other high-level functionality can detect these types of issues.”

More electronics and high-tech components are being added all the time. And as more and more electric vehicles are added to fleets, the complications will increase.

“The proliferation of [advanced driver assistance systems] and increased sensorization on trucks means technicians can no longer take a siloed approach and diagnose a single component or two,” said Jason Hedman, product manager at Noregon. “Because these onboard systems are so reliant on one another, only diagnosing a single component based on the location of the issue could lead the technician to miss the root cause.”

And technicians, who often have to do more with less, must rely on diagnostic tools that can do more as well.

“Stand-alone diagnostic solutions are not enough anymore; fleet and shop owners are now looking for complete ‘packages’ that allow them to organize and plan shop activities in advance,” said Fabio Mazzon, technical manager at TEXA USA, which offers its all-encompassing Fleet Package.

Scan tools have become more like smart tablets, allowing for repair-specific videos, original equipment manufacturer service information, and the ability to save and refer to previous scans.

“These tools are now the first thing technicians use when starting a repair, and we can anticipate more shops and technicians will rely on diagnostic tools as the workshop continues its rapid digitalization,” explained Scott McKinney, senior product manager at Bosch.

According to Sandeep Kar, Noregon’s chief strategy officer, the technician-to-diagnostic tool ratio is rapidly decreasing; what stood at 6-to-1 (or one tool for every six technicians) dropped to 4-to-1 this year and will fall to 2-to-1 by 2025, he said.

Tool training

When planning for the future, fleet management must not only budget for the tools but also for training techs to use them as well.

“Fleets must invest in new tools and training at the same time—investing in a new tool without training the operators can turn into a waste of money and time,” Mazzon said. “Investing in diagnostic solutions allows the fleet to be more independent with repairs, cutting costs and downtime.”

Tools are only as good as the technicians, and training remains critical. Improper training, assumptions, and cross-brand transfer of information and skills can often lead to wrong and even damaging procedures being used, according to Brian Bressler, director of powertrain aftersales at the Paccar Technical Center.

“Since the emission emphasis evolution began in the late 1970s, training has played an ever-increasing role in the proper maintenance of vehicles, especially engines,” Bressler said. “Where there is an absence of proper training, improper training will often come in to fill the void.”

Duane Tegels, powertrain product marketing manager for Volvo, noted that technology is constantly evolving as emission regulations become stricter. Regular training to stay on top of advancements in the latest industry practice is pivotal to successful fleet maintenance.

McKinney recommended multiple training sessions per year for all technicians. “Ideally, novice technicians should participate in three to four training sessions a year, and more experienced technicians should attend one to two training sessions a year to keep up with tool and vehicle advancements,” he suggested.

Training has become more versatile, making it easier for shops to access. “COVID taught us to be more diverse in our training efforts,” said Chris Freeman, director of heavy-duty sales and training for Autel North America. “Ninety percent of my end-user trainings are remote now.”

Data as a competitive advantage tool

How increased diagnostics affects maintenance operations can vary based on a fleet’s size. “The larger fleets have more diagnostic tools, so they have asset management programs to put in place,” Freeman noted. “It can affect a management team at a very high level.”

Navistar is seeing larger fleets gradually increase the level of diagnostics they expect their technicians to perform, and they are ensuring the correct software is available in their shops, said Kirsten Rodway, director, remote and autonomous diagnostics, Navistar.

Fleets are also increasingly using telematics, which provide real-time information about vehicle health—improving uptime. “They can predict a failure before it becomes a major failure. Every major failure starts as something small,” Freeman said. “If you can catch a coolant leak before an engine overheats and has to be out for two weeks for an overhaul, that is a money saver.”

There has also been a shift from diagnostics completed in the shop to now supporting more diagnostics while the vehicle is still on the road. “Prior to the vehicle’s arrival at a dealer, we can review the vehicle health and order potential needed parts,” said Brian Mulshine, director of digital service delivery at Navistar.

Mulshine said vehicle connectivity is expanding at International. “[International] trucks sold come standard with OnCommand Connection vehicle diagnostics for five years. This helps us with the visibility with our integrated tools for our dealer technicians and customers to streamline maintenance and repair,” he explained.

Cummins has partnered with Elevāt to integrate its Cummins Connected Diagnostics application with the Elevāt Machine Connect IoT platform. “We are going in and monitoring information and sharing with Cummins, so when an event occurs, they can send the right recommendation through the Elevāt platform,” said Adam Livesay, co-founder of Elevāt.

Elevāt also offers a virtual technician that allows the OEM to dial into the machines remotely. “It could be that it isn’t a Cummins issue; it is an OEM parts issue. They can go in from their phones or computers and look at the critical pieces of their systems,” Livesay said.

Cummins Connected Diagnostics wirelessly connects engines to enable continuous monitoring and diagnosis of system faults. Fleets can make informed decisions on whether to stop machine operation or continue to the end of the shift by understanding the suggested root causes.

Edwin Hopkins, digital solutions business leader at Cummins, said the platform ensures customers get a 24/7 response. “It is not to replace the warranty work or the technician. It is to help the fleet manager have a greater insight,” he said.

Drawing on technology

Diagnostics are becoming more complex as onboard systems continue to evolve.

“Programming and calibrations that previously required a singular process or step more frequently require multiple steps and processes,” said Tom McGuire, chief operating officer of Precision Diagnostics. “There is a much stronger need for the diagnostician to be able to fully vet and understand service information and verify full functionality of systems.”

Even some hard parts now require calibrations that require technology. “There are ball bearings that have sensors and are Bluetooth connected. The brake system has actuators turning things on and off,” Gattamorta explained.

As vehicle technology becomes more complex, basic diagnostics are no longer enough. “You have to add other layers—troubleshooting trees, technical information, operational text,” Gattamorta stated, furthering that Cojali has added a component replacement guide that offers detailed visuals on how to take and remove, replace, and, if necessary, recalibrate a component.

While diagnostic applications can identify all vehicle issues that trigger a fault, advanced applications, such as JPRO Professional, can also identify inactive and pending faults. However, there are mechanical issues that exist which electronic diagnostic applications can’t read, so technicians need to pair a comprehensive vehicle scan with a thorough visual inspection. “JPRO’s visual inspection lets users automatically grab vehicle details like VIN and mileage, then check off items from a customizable visual inspection report,” Hedman said.

Freeman said that the types of tools fleets turn to depend on the operating system they’re using. “Everyone has a different operating system they run on. There is no handbook saying, ‘If you’re running a fleet shop with this many trucks, you need this system,’” he noted.

Tackling triage to high-level issues

One of CanDo International’s large fleet customers recently set up a triage area where trucks coming back from a trip with lights on the dash can first be scanned with CanDo’s HD Code II code scanner.

If the vehicle just needs a DPF regen, for example, the tool can diagnose and perform the function.

“The tool can also determine if the light on the dash needed further diagnostics and repair,” said Victor Revilla, marketing director for CanDo International. “If so, the vehicle would be moved to a higher-level service location of the shop, where our HD Pro Tab is being used to get into more systems in the truck, along with deeper capabilities, such as coding injectors or performing adjustments and calibrations.”

Diagnostic tools can help technicians run a quick check of the health of the system or dig into more complex repairs.

Simple items such as basic system function tests and basic health checks can be done quickly and easily. “The critical aspect is knowing what to do with the data and when to dig deeper,” McGuire explained.

Identifying fault codes can help prevent a critical failure. “DTC codes can help to identify issues that can lead to complete engine failure or even lighting issues that can cause potential DOT violations,” said Kristy LaPage, business manager of commercial vehicles for Mitchell 1. “While a code can help to identify a malfunction, the critical thinking done by the technician during the diagnostic process to properly identify the root cause is crucial.”

Often the part of the vehicle that identified the code may not be the root cause, or a code that has had intermittent failures could be left untreated, leading to more significant issues down the road, LaPage warned.

There are several high-level issues diagnostics allow fleets to identify, including components of the aftertreatment systems—such as diesel particulate filters, SCR, sensors, and DEF injectors. Volvo’s Tegels said technicians struggle with understanding the diagnostic process to follow when dealing with aftertreatment systems and interpreting diagnostic test results.

McGuire said that many of today’s tools, including the Autel Ultra and 909, contain the architecture to allow for complex analysis of communications systems through module topography and extensive programming capabilities across multiple platforms. “The OE tooling, which is a crucial necessity, is designed in parallel to work directly with the new systems as they are introduced,” he said.

Selecting the best tool

When investing in a new tool, McGuire and his team look at the overall diversity in terms of comprehensive coverage. “At the same time, a tool that can service all the major makes and models with limited service and access capability is virtually useless,” he said. “A good tablet will be able to gain access into the vehicle system to communicate and have a range of functionality that can provide programming and calibration capabilities as well as system topography and scope access.”

Tools should also provide value by making a technician’s job easier. “In the case of diagnostic tools, they should be able to identify issues quickly and accurately with the vehicle, making it easier for technicians to perform their desired tasks,” McKinney said.

Technicians need to consider how often tools are updated. “The best scan tool software updates are developed using technician input, since those are the folks that use it the most and can better identify when there is an issue,” McKinney concluded.

About the Author

Mindy Long