Waiting for car repairs is one of life's great annoyances.
But an executive at a Pennsylvania auto dealership group found a solution after being inspired by a hallmark of automobile manufacturing: the assembly line.
When John Rickards toured Honda Motor Co.'s factory in Marysville, Ohio, in the late 1990s, an idea struck him: Why not apply the tried-and-true method for building vehicles to making general vehicle repairs?
Rickards thought a repair line could save time and money. He drew some sketches and took them to Automation Design Engineering Inc., of Richboro, Pa. Automation Design then supplied the equipment and built a five-station service line at Bobby Rahal Honda in Mechanicsburg, Pa.
The conveyer-driven line can be used to change spark plugs, oil and other fluids and rotate tires. It also can perform routine service, such as change wiper blades and filters and conduct emissions tests. The line has been operating since September 2004.
"Kind of like a Jiffy Lube on steroids," says Rickards, vice president of Bobby Rahal Automotive Group, the corporate umbrella organization for Bobby Rahal Honda and six other dealerships. Bobby Rahal Automotive Group is a partnership that includes Rickards, former Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal and group CEO Ron Ferris.
The five-station line is 150 feet long and 22 feet wide. It is staffed by seven workers. Each station performs specific repairs while as many as five vehicles move down the line. With the line, a 30,000-mile service checkup can be done in about 28 minutes. That includes about 22 checks and repairs and a car wash.
Without the line, a checkup takes three to 3½ hours. "The object of the line is speed," Rickards, 43, says. The line handles mostly Hondas. But it can service all car and light-truck brands, except Hummer.
The process begins when a car is loaded onto the line and the year and model are entered into a computer. A screen at each of the five stations gives workers instructions, which prevents repairs from being skipped. The parts are kept at the stations.
The line runs on a computer that is so precise it knows exactly at what height to lift the car and how much oil to install. "It has really helped us on backlogs with appointments," Ferris says.
Rickards says the startup costs were hefty - about $300,000 - and the line costs about $500 to $1,000 a month to maintain. But, he says, the store is saving $20,000 or more a month in labor costs.
That's because the line operates simply: Most of the thinking is done by software. So it can be staffed by people who are trained to work on the line but aren't paid as much as technicians. The service-line workers make $7 to $10 an hour, while technicians earn $13 to $19 an hour.
By using the line to do routine service, higher-paid technicians are free to focus on complex repairs and diagnostics. Seven of the 26 service department employees work on the line. "What this allows us to do is keep the labor costs in control," Rickards says.
Injury claims are less likely because all of the parts are at the stations, and there is no heavy lifting, he says. For example, a tire handler is suspended from the ceiling to fit tires on a vehicle.
The line also saves space. It would take about 20 repair stalls to equal the line's capacity to service cars.
And the line has been reliable. The biggest fear looming over the project was that it would break down often, potentially taking even more time than usual to fix vehicles.
But since its debut, there have been only five breakdowns, mostly in the first two months of operation when the kinks were being worked out. There have been none recently. And there was only one day that the whole system was shut down.
Rickards characterizes the line as close to "bulletproof." In the event of a problem, cars in the stations ahead of the trouble spot can be finished, while those behind it are held up until the problem is solved.
A new business
Ferris says the space-saving repair line could be particularly useful for dealerships in big cities, where land is expensive. To set up a line, though, dealers would have to go through Rahal. The dealership group has created a unit, Bobby Rahal Vehicle Movement System Inc., to handle future repair-line business. The company has applied for a patent.
"We'd love to sell one to every dealership in the country," Rickards says.
He says that future dealerships' startup costs would probably be about 30 percent less than the $300,000 spent by Bobby Rahal Honda, which had to research and design the process before implementing it and then iron out the problems.
The next service line will be installed at Bobby Rahal Toyota, also in Mechanicsburg. The company hopes to have it running in the spring.
An East Coast dealership group also is interested in installing the line, Rickards says.
And Rickards will try to keep coming up with good ideas. He joined Bobby Rahal Honda as a service manager 16 years ago and worked his way up to an executive position at Bobby Rahal Automotive Group.
One of his goals, he says, is to open a stand-alone service center based on a repair line. He also has developed a software program for the dealership that streamlines sales.
Says Ferris: "John's a great out-of-box thinker."