The next-generation workshop

A mechanic and an apprentice working on an vehicle

If the march of technology in the automotive industry over the past decade or so has told us anything, it is that forecasting the future is a pretty risky business.

Many experts are making predictions about what the aftermarket sector will look like in five or ten years, but like the rest of us they are only guessing. But everyone is talking about it, because whatever happens, there will be some kind of impact on those in business today or planning to open a workshop any time soon.

My role in the industry as a workshop operator, trainer and technical information provider demands that I try to predict the future. I have to admit I don’t know for sure — but I have my thoughts.

I have confessed in past Ignition articles that in my own business I like to think five years ahead, and thanks to my positive outlook about the future of aftermarket businesses, I have survived quite well.

Probably the new direction in everyone’s mind right now has to do with electric vehicles (EV). Despite the fact that some governments have mandated a phase-out of internal combustion engines (ICE) as early as 2030, issues relating to sourcing the rare minerals required for batteries and slow delivery of charging facilities are slowing down the uptake of EVs by the general population.

My view is that the transition to EVs, in whatever form it takes, is going to be slower than expected, but it will happen eventually. The development of electric vehicle technology is far from over. Proof of this is the recent announcement that General Motors will end production of its bestselling Chevrolet Bolt electric car by the end of this year and will turn to electric pickup trucks. This is merely an indication that electric vehicle technology will continue to change and improve over time.

This leads to the conclusion that ICE-powered vehicles are going to be around for a long time yet, but finding the talent to diagnose and repair these vehicles is going to get a lot harder. There is already a skills shortage in the auto aftermarket, and it will get worse, maybe even lasting until the very end of ICE vehicles.

Trying to find a competent ICE technician in the near future will be like trying to find a good carburettor rebuilder in 2023. An exodus of retirees from long-established aftermarket workshops, expected in the next five years, is only going to make the skill shortage worse for those still in the trade.

Despite these issues, I have a very positive outlook on the future for everyone, and the aftermarket growth potential over the next five years is as promising as it has ever been.

The big question remains. What do business owners need to consider for their own survival, and how can they ensure that the changes being made right now are the right ones?

One thing is certain, the industry is going to be very high-tech. It will need smart technicians able to service, diagnose and repair vehicles that are being sold today. Special skills will be needed in electronics, software programming, ADAS recalibration, and high-voltage electric vehicle diagnosis. Such skills are certainties, so it makes sense for workshop owners and managers to start learning them right now.

For my workshop, I have embarked on my next five-year journey to specialise in electric and hybrid technologies, to add to servicing, diagnosing and repairing regular ICE vehicles. This is not the first time I have undertaken such dramatic action. About 30 years ago, my five-year plan included mobile air conditioning and HVAC systems. A decade later I chose EFI and engine management, and ten years ago I adopted a program of customerfocused service levels covering the full range of automotive care.

Being able to adapt to changes in technologies and market forces over the past 40 years has enabled my workshop to stay ahead of the game — I aim to never be in catch-up mode. Having chosen electric and hybrid specialty services for the next five years takes me back to my roots. I began my time in this trade as a freshfaced 16-year-old apprentice auto electrician. It seemed logical to see out my working life in the same role, as an auto electrician. If nothing else, my experience is a lesson in using your inherent skills to help choose the right direction for your workshop.

My electric journey began years ago with my purchase of a hybrid vehicle, followed by a fully electric vehicle — the Nissan Leaf. My workshop now has two electric vehicles and two hybrids in its loan fleet. It wasn’t long after hanging my new competency certificates on the waiting room wall that repair work poured in. To help spread the word, the workshop spent $500 on a run-down Toyota Prius, restored it to health and adorned it with messages about our electric and hybrid services.

The decisions I made won’t suit everyone, and besides, there are so many opportunities for special skills development now available. Here are just a few.

Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS): Recalibration of a radar, cameras and sensors, a skill needed after an accident, windscreen replacement or even the replacement of a side mirror.

Thermal management: Overall thermal management of late model vehicles, including full electric and hybrids. Specialised management of HVAC components and the complex cabin climate systems is going to be a long-term growth area and will need advanced skills.

ECU programming and recoding: Another long-term growth area because replaced control units, new or used, genuine or aftermarket, will need programming to link them into the vehicle’s electronic systems.

Key programming and immobilisation: A specialised skill set will be needed because this area includes telematics and vehicle external communication.

Gasoline injector testing and servicing: These skills would cover GDi, FSi and SiDi to name just a few.

There are so many choices for future directions. Some workshops may decide to focus only on current technologies because there is no doubt that low and ultra-low-emission vehicles will need quality service, diagnostics and repair for more than another decade.

Whatever decision you make, make sure you are where you want to be in five to 10 years’ time. The future is looking good for those who plot their course.

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This article was published 29/08/2023 and the content is current as at the date of publication.