Repair technicians need serious training

We all have things that we must do, but would rather put off indefinitely. At the top of my list is taking my car into the dealer for service, even for a simple oil change. Just the thought of it makes my heart race, my blood pressure rise, and my voice utter squeaky sounds. Why? Because I doubt the mechanic had ever earned an engineering degree. Without the degree, it is not likely he would know how to diagnose a problem that his hand-held vehicle computer scanner could not analyze.

I know mechanics are “certified” after having had training at a licensed school. When I was the engineering manager of an automotive diagnostic test equipment manufacturer, I attended several General Motors mechanics’ classes and received certificates that qualified me to repair ignition systems, onboard computers, electrical systems, emission systems, and more. But I also have an electrical engineering degree. I attended the classes so I could rub shoulders with “real” mechanics and find out what kind of test equipment they needed to do their jobs. Multimeters and oscilloscopes were the best test instruments we could offer in the early 70s, but when onboard computers became more widespread, hand-held scanners were necessary.

But diagnostic scanners cannot solve all problems. Mechanics still cross-thread oil pan plugs, break gaskets and seals, forget to replace anti-vibration snubbers and brackets, and worst of all, cannot fix electrical problems that are not programmed into the scanner. For example, the last time I took my car in for routine maintenance, I told the mechanic that my power seat did not operate after my previous visit. I had looked in the fuse box and discovered a blown 30A fuse. The load for that circuit comprised the forward-reverse motor, the up-down motor, and the lumbar pad.

Obviously, the scanner would not diagnose such a problem, so I expected the technician to check the seat for pinched and shorted wires, a jammed track that would stall one of the motors, or a shorted motor winding. After two hours, I was informed that I would have to return the following week to have the defective lumbar switch replaced because it had to be specially ordered. I wondered how a defective switch could blow the fuse, so I asked the technician how he diagnosed the problem. He replaced the 30A fuse with a 40A fuse, and when he pushed the lumbar switch, it smoked, and the fuse blew! He deduced that it was, therefore, a defective switch because it smoked! I asked him what instruments he used to diagnose the problem and he said, “My nose and my eyes!”

After I left the dealership, I checked the circuit myself and measured the isolated motor current to be 8.5A and the lumbar circuit to be 1.5A. I examined all the wires, cables, and seat tracks and found nothing wrong. So, I replaced the incorrect, blown 40A fuse with the proper 30A fuse, and everything worked just fine. Unfortunately, I might not have solved the problem either, since it could be an intermittent “short circuit”, but now I know that the circuit should only draw 10A maximum, and it is protected by a 30A fuse that can handle the inrush current plus a little more – and certainly blow if the “short” shows up again.

This technician was certified, but he lacked very basic knowledge about simple circuits. Should we expect him to understand basic electronics? I would expect it if he was an electronics technician, but these techs work on everything. If anything, they need a Mechatronics degree or similar training. But, I just ask that they get a tougher instructor, learn to use a multimeter, and be required to update their knowledge annually. Finally, at least one person on the team should be an electronics technician. What do you think? Tell me on the Engineering Exchange.

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Comment by John R. Gyorki on December 7, 2010 at 9:46am
Thank you for the insightful comments. Mr. Peruso reminded me of my own career before getting my degree. I was a radio and TV repairman, and later, a computer repairman. I received my degree in engineering after having been a technician for about ten years. I would not trade that experience for anything. It helped greatly when I went to college, and when I had to troubleshoot some of my own designs. I always believed that an engineer should be a technician first. But I guess the bottom line is, how much passion do you have for what you do? If you are really interested in life, you can find the time and accomplish anything.
By the way, last month I traded in that car with the "defective switch,"which was a Mustang. It was one of two 2008 Ford vehicles I had leased. The other was a Taurus-X, which I really liked. I traded it in because the engine was "torn apart" to get at some internal sensors (part of a recall), After they put it back together, I noticed some broken insulating washers around the spark plugs, and brackets and vibration dampers that were not reconnected. I did not have any confidence that the internal engine parts were all properly connected and replaced, after I saw that! In addition, I thought I felt the transmission slip a couple of times. I did not want to deal with transmission problems! I have another story that could go 500 words on the subject of transmissions!. Thanks for your comments.
Comment by David R. Peruso on December 1, 2010 at 6:24am
I've worked with engineers who have no diagnostic skills either. That being said I also used to work as an automotive repair tech and like Warren I also had a knack for anything electrical, but you are right today’s techs need at least 1 semester of DC and AC theory.
Comment by Warren Buckles on November 30, 2010 at 9:56pm
Back in the good old days - 1968-1973 - I fixed everything automotive from brakes to cooling system to engines to transmissions to front ends but my specialty was electronics. My secret weapon? Ohm's law...and a multi meter. Just like John, above, most of my colleagues didn't have the faintest idea of the relationship between current, voltage, resistance and power. I could fix anything electrical on a car, and back then cars were mostly linear circuits with a few semiconductors in the alternator and voltage regulators (which were often bang-bang mechanical circuits). The 1973 oil embargo made me see the light and I sold my business to my partner for enough money to get me through six semesters of UW-Madison Engineering (24 credits/semester and I graduated in three years...but my kids didn't see much of me). The bottom line is that any automotive technician with the smarts to do the job will head for engineering school at the drop of a hat. We have to pay these people what they are worth to keep them in the business or find a way to make the systems even more self-diagnostic. A motor that draws more current than normal shouldn't blow a fuse except as a last resort - it should tell the central diagnostic unit that it's drawing too much current and when- this isn't a mechanical engineering problem but a UI problem with the diagnostic module. Still, it doesn't replace the smell-touch-horse sense of a good tech. We should value those techs and make it worth their while to stay in the business, training their successors and keeping the skills moving from generation to generation. Too often I see a tech swapping parts rather than thinking of what the system is telling them - data, not speculation, solves problems - and that applies across all disciplines, not just car (or system) fixing. I had a doctor in med school tell me 'listen to the patient - they are telling you what's wrong.' That applies to any system, from hardware to software to wetware. We have to listen, not change parts.
Comment by Dick Tomsic on November 30, 2010 at 2:07pm
Unfortunately none of us, engineers and otherwise, know a lot about a lot of things. We have to learn what we can thorugh formal education and through "experience" (trial and error, getting your fingers burned, watching someone else do it, etc.). In my opinion, there are too many people who are "educated" who know how to react to simple, straightforward stimuli but don't know how to try to pick apart possibilities of causes of problems. Too much is "cut and dried" learning, including computer graphic oriented engineers. One thing that developmental psychologists encourage is free play for children; discovering how to make there own games, how to make certain games fit the available resources (e.g. playing baseball in a street with much fewer than nine people on a team). About 45 years ago there was an effort to teach science in high school via the "discovery" method. This, in part, was to let students "play" with equipment and discover what it could do and what they could find out about their environment (physical, chemical or biological) by using their own minds (wits). Curiosity, a good library, available manuals can go a long way to learning (decreasing our ignorance) about many things, including the societal world.
Comment by Kent on November 30, 2010 at 1:48pm
I agree with Chuck. Sure there are mechanics/technicians that are basically swap out parts to "fix" the problem. But I know far more skilled guys who really understand much more. The days of knowing how to turn a wrench are simply not enough.

But the same can be said for engineers. I am often amazed by some of the absurd things I have encountered. Simply receiving training or certification of any sort doesn't imply the person can actually make effective use of this knowledge in the "real world". People that I graduated from college with were generally clueless. There are always exceptions, but ultimately it comes down to what passion the person has for their employment. It it just a job, a career or a lifestyle? That applies to college graduates and technical school training all the same. It appears to me that your experiences have been with people who are just there for a "job".

Besides, I've learned more real useful things in the years since I left college. The college education helps, don't get me wrong, but I learn every day.

One last thing, I am an mechanical engineer and I do all my own auto repairs. Probably not always as effective as someone who does it for a living (think slow and plodding). I only take it to a pro if the tools cost as much as it would for me to take it to them. AND I'm picky about who does the repair. I avoid places full of people there just for the paycheck and use places that really get cars.
Comment by Thomas Mathues on November 30, 2010 at 1:44pm
I was trained as an automotive mechanical engineer and went to transmission schools similar to your story to see the service side personally. I now have a son who is a "Drivability Technician" for a major automotive dealer. He gets all of the strange and intermittant powertrain, brake and chassis glitches whether electronically generated or not. I have seen his frustration when the tools (which are usually excellent) don't guide him. He makes liberal use of the technical assistance lines and becomes extremely frustrated when they are of no use. At that point I often will get a call. He spent a week trying to refire a fuel injected V-8 that had lain dormant for three years in a junk yard and was reinstalled. All of the electronics and measurements showed perfect but the engine had no fuel in the cylinders. The injectors were firing normally with good pressure in the rail. All eight injectors were mechanically stuck closed from varnish. This got solved by an old carburetor guy (me) who had seen the same issue with needles and seats on old unused engines. I agree that the technicians need get more basic problem solving training but in their defense I see them in school a lot of their time just to stay abreast of the new systems coming at them. I really think that the tech assistance people that are in place to help them really need a significantly higher level of the theoretical side of the vehicles so that they can logically work through a problem that has defied the standard trouble trees.
Comment by Chuck Weber on November 30, 2010 at 1:30pm
Well as a mechanic turned Designer-Engineer I can tell you that many engineers are terrible mechanics. Our best Field Service guys are really well versed in electrical and mechanical systems and through years of experience can diagnose or fix just about anything. I think the changes in car design that require a higher level of engineering expertise to fix are great in that cars are safer and more reliable(sic) but the degree requirement doesn't have much to do with the actual experience required. Being a top notch mechanic is still a learned trade that requires skills training, apprenticeships, dedication to quality of workmanship etc same as it ever was. A degree doesn't insure any of that except some of the training. Many younger engineers don't even know how to service their own cars. They can look it up online, locate the P/N's required etc but actually doing the work? rebuilding an engine? Ha. So the short answer is yes mechanics-techs need to be better versed to deal with newer technological requirements and engineers need to learn something from mechanics as well. Designs always go together in a 3D software program but can it really be assembled in real life?

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