Mechanics Driving Change Through Innovation

The journey of the mechanic has been shaped by the same history as the cars they work on. From the early days where techniques were often rudimentary, through to today where cutting-edge technology plays a crucial role in diagnostics, have skills developed and kept apace?

Innovations in the car industry have gradually transformed what it means to be a car mechanic. Indeed so sophisticated is this role, that many are now referred to as Technicians (or even Master Technicians – but more of that later). As our cars have become more computerised, so, too, has the job of maintaining and fixing them. And now a trade that was once largely mechanical is today principally technical, requiring workers to be skilled computer users, able mathematicians and knowledgeable in electronics.

Yet it wasn't always this way. To understand how far this occupation has come, let's take a drive down memory lane and look at some of the important landmark developments. Simply put - you can't understand the mechanics job without first understanding the car.

Start Your Engines! – The 19th Century

Karl Benz is generally regarded as being the father of the motor car. His first offering, built in 1886 was a three-wheeled car powered by an internal combustion engine named the Benz Motorwagen. Benz also patented his own throttle system, spark plugs, gear shifters, a water radiator, a carburettor and other fundamentals we would recognise in cars to this day.

Bertha Benz meanwhile – Karl's wife and business partner – could easily be credited as being one of the first car mechanics. During an inaugural drive she seemingly adopted the maxim 'necessity is the mother of invention', which saw her use every day items to fix problems encountered along the way.

This included using her hat pin to clean a clogged fuel line and making the wooden block brakes more robust by having a cobbler nail leather patches to them to act as brake pads. Indeed, these traits of practicality, innovation and problem solving are typical of the best car workers today.

Moving up the Gears – The 20th Century

Karl Benz's invention sparked something of a feeding frenzy and many iconic manufacturers whose names are just as familiar to you as your own – Ford, Renault, Vauxhall – were born. Interestingly electric cars enjoyed some popularity between the late 19th century and early 20th century, however with advances in internal combustion this technology soon became obsolete. Nowadays we are experiencing something of a volte-face in that regard, but let's not get ahead of ourselves – we are still looking at the 20th century after all.

During the first 30 to 40 years of this new century development was rapid and included the introduction of the electric ignition system, independent suspension and four-wheel brakes. By the late 1930s, most of the mechanical technology used in contemporary vehicles had been invented.

Fuel injection was considered the next biggest development in the 1980's in the UK, becoming the primary fuel delivery system used in car engines and replacing carburettors. Designed specifically for the type of fuel being used, the modern fuel injection system offered better efficiencies for both driver and the wider environment.

What of the mechanic during this time? Less rudimental certainly than the early days, the emphasis on work practices was still largely mechanical and hands-on. A typical day could involve a wide variety of jobs including engine diagnostics (performed manually of course), repairs, changing; filters, spark plugs, points, condensers and brake pads. And in the process getting overalls covered in a lot of oil.

A key shift during the early 1990's was the introduction of co-ordinated manufacturer training, ultimately leading to Technician – and Master Technician - status. Volkswagen for instance are considered to have developed an industry leading programme, covering all of their brands - Volkswagen, Audi, SEAT and ŠKODA. Combining hands-on fault finding with the latest in technological advances, this automotive giant has ensured an almost forensic approach to car maintenance and repair.

Network Learning and Development Manager for the Volkswagen Group, Richard Welch, comments: “It's a dynamic and evolving field to work in. Gone are the days of oily rags and dirty overalls. Our workshop staff and dealer networks receive training in electronics, the latest in in-car entertainment and computer diagnostics"

Now We're Motoring! – The 21st Century

According to government statistics there are 35 million cars on the road today – a massive change from the 200,000 at the start of the 20th century. That's a lot of vehicles to keep roadworthy. Thanks to technological innovations cars are almost unrecognisable from those early days of manufacture. So too is the way a mechanic – or more accurately a Technician – works.

Propelling this shift is clear within Lookers' Glasgow Audi dealership and is demonstrated every day through industry leading systems and processes. 

“Computers on vehicles are controlling everything: braking, engine management and fuel consumption. As a result Technicians have to be very skilled at tracing those problems to their source," comments Aftersales Manager Robin Henderson. 

The facility – which successfully processes on average 700 cars per week through its cutting edge workshop - demonstrates the perfect marriage of process with technology. Using the rather futuristically named ODIS system (Offboard Diagnostic Information System) and characterful ELSA (Electric Service Manual) allows Audi cars to be diagnosed with the most up to date information available.

Linked directly into Audi HQ they store a complete 'how-to' in their respective databases.

This includes information related to: vehicle data, workshop manuals, circuit diagrams and technical product information. In essence they are a one-stop shop not only allowing diagnostics and repairs to be identified and completed, but also the identification of common faults to be recorded and corrective action taken.

Gordon Moir, Workshop Quality Controller, describes the practical application: “We have 15 Odis machines on-site which we use routinely every day. Everything we do is technology-led. A bluetooth dongle is plugged into the car, data is downloaded and transmitted to the Audi factory for a fault code to be generated."

Once that code is available ELSA then swings into action. It reveals a very detailed set of instructions needed to complete the necessary repair or maintenance programme. Every completed activity is logged with a date and time stamp allowing a full history to be maintained in one central location.

The use of technology doesn't stop there as functionality named 'Audi Cam' allows medical-like precision to be achieved. Much like a surgeon might examine a patient with a scope, Audi Cam facilitates a fully transparent experience for the customer. Head-mounted cameras beam pictures and sound direct to the customer who could be sitting comfortably enjoying a coffee in the comfortable reception area. As the Technicians are also equipped with two-way audio links, customers can quiz them directly and can ask as many questions as they like - including the likely cost of any repairs.

Neil McKerley, Quality Control Technician, highlights the advantages: "We want to ensure that everyone who entrusts their Audi to us for servicing and repairs knows exactly where they stand and exactly what to expect. We know customers like transparency and clear communication and we aim to consistently provide that for them."

As with advances in technology generally, the ways in which we design, build and power cars continues to move with the times. So too has the way in which drivers make purchasing decisions.

In a survey of over 5,000 consumers by telecommunications company Telefonica, around half said they would now consider connected features a key part of their next car purchase. “We are seeing a drive from consumers to actually have the same level of connectivity in the car that they would have whilst walking down the street, whilst sat in their front room, whilst sat on public transport," commented Mathew Pagman, Global Head of Connected Head at Telefonica.

And so the journey that began more than 100 years ago continues to gather speed. With developing technologies such as hybrid and electric cars – already on the roads today – and driverless and even flying cars mooted for the coming years, the skills required to efficiently build, maintain and repair these vehicles remain just as crucial as ever.

In an industry estimated by the Institute of the Motor Industry to be worth £150bn annually, training is constantly being refreshed and refined as car manufacturers push the envelope with their design offerings. David Massie, Skills Manager at IMI confirms this. “With the rapid pace of technological change in the motor industry it is critical that not only technicians, but lecturers delivering Modern Apprenticeship programmes, are kept up to date with new and emerging technologies."

What would Karl and Berth Benz make of it all? As pioneers of innovation and invention themselves they would no doubt give their full seal of approval.

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