Increase service department productivity While cutting expenses

fixed-ops-coverBy Kenny Smith

As a Service Manager and Service Director in new car dealerships for many years, I can remember, on occasion, looking forward to a profitable month in the Service Department and then being disappointed because a major shop expense changed everything. I’m sure many of you have had a similar experience. If your pay plan was or is tied to net profit, then it really stands out in your memory. Service on vehicle lifts can be a major part of those expenses. However, while necessary at times, it can be detrimental to both Service Department profit and productivity.

Many two post lift companies in the industry use slide/friction blocks between the carriage and column of the lift. This is the point of contact when the lift goes up or down. The blocks wear, not unlike a set of brake pads, and they must be replaced periodically. This service requires that the lift column be disassembled, resulting in a major expense and lost productivity because of Service bay down time. Many Service Departments have a shop labor rate of over $100.00 per hour and several hours of productivity are lost during this type of service. When you multiply the repair costs, lost revenue due to a down Service bay times the number of lifts in your Service Department (maybe 20-30?), you can quickly see how costly this can become. There are also other factors that are difficult to measure, such as the potential for poor customer satisfaction because a promised vehicle completion time could not be met.

Instead of slide/friction blocks, some vehicle lift manufacturers utilize a forklift mast design with dual sealed, self lubricating roller bearings. Forklifts are designed to go up and down continuously, with a heavy load, and not wear out. A perfect design for a vehicle lift!

safety-lockTo put this into perspective, consider the service / replacement intervals for a set of front brake pads on a vehicle versus a front wheel / hub bearing. Brake pads get replaced on a regular basis and are considered a maintenance item not unlike a friction / slide block on a lift. Front wheel/hub bearings rarely get replaced and if they do, it’s usually after the vehicle has well over 100,000 miles on it.

Additionally, plastic rollers and cables can also create unwanted service needs. The plastic rollers break and cables stretch and fray and must be replaced on a frequent basis. Engineering out these weak points results in a much stronger lift with fewer overall service needs.

At one point several years ago, the majority of vehicle lifts were built much heavier and used the forklift mast roller bearing design. You may still have some older lifts in your shop from various manufacturers with this type of construction. In many cases, these older lifts continue to remain in service when lifts that were purchased more recently end up getting replaced.

The perceived need for a cheaper lift, competition and the introduction of Asian made lifts into the marketplace caused many lift companies to seek lower production costs, which resulted in a lower quality lift that now requires additional service. Because the lift is initially less expensive, it gives the perception to the customer that they are saving money. However, when you figure in additional service costs, bay downtime, lost productivity, etc., the total cost of ownership is the same or more than what you would have paid initially for a higher quality lift.

You should also keep in mind that a higher quality lift normally carries a longer warranty because the manufacturer is aware that it will require less service and fewer repair needs. For example, a heavily constructed lift with heavy gauge welded steel (not lighter gauge bent steel) and a forklift mast roller bearing design can carry a structural warranty as high as 25 years and a mechanical warranty as high as 10 years. Larger hydraulic cylinders and rods, commonly seen in higher quality lifts, are able to operate at a lower pressure, which results in fewer seal, pump and motor repairs and replacements.

broken-pulleyThere are many commonly used lift components that do not require a lot of attention. For example, leaf chains, unlike cables, do not stretch and fray and do not require frequent replacement. Mechanical locks are heavily construct ed and typically not a high wear item. However, routine inspections and maintenance should still be performed on all of these components.

In-ground lifts have experienced renewed popularity in recent years be cause of the aesthetically pleasing view they provide across the Service Department and the perceived bay space savings. Although, some things to consider are that you must still have a bay of the same width to be able to accommodate the vehicle itself, open doors and to have room for equipment to pass between adjoining bays. There’s also additional expense and effort for excavation. And what happens to that custom shop floor if the lift has to be removed or replaced?

Since many vehicle services require the vehicle to be in the raised position, an inoperable lift equals lost productivity. Keeping your vehicle lifts in good working condition is key to high productivity in your Service Department. Regular lift inspections will identify needed areas of service and parts replacement and will result in less bay downtime due to a major lift failure. It’s a well known fact that a Service Department customer that has routine inspections and re pairs performed has fewer breakdowns and experiences longer vehicle life. Unfortunately, this same philosophy is not always applied to the equipment in the shop. Be sure to practice what you preach.

Regular lift inspections create a much safer work environment and are becoming a more prominent focus in regard to shop safety. While annual lift inspections have been a requirement, it was only recently that a National Certification Program for lift inspectors was implemented.

(Visit for more information on vehicle lift inspections and the Certified Inspector Program. Click on the inspector locator, under the “Certified Inspector Tab,” to locate a “Certified Inspector” in your area. The section on purchasing a vehicle lift is also very helpful if you are in the market for new lifts along with information regarding OSHA and other topics of interest. This site provides a wealth of information and is a great reference tool for vehicle lifts.)

Some key points to remember:

  • When considering lift purchases, be sure to look at the total cost of ownership and not just the initial purchase price. While the lower priced lift may look attractive on the surface, it may end up costing you more in the long run.
  • The equipment will be in use for years to come and is a tool to help you generate profit in the Service Department. Your technicians buy the best tools available and take good care of them because they know their livelihood depends on them. That’s a good example to follow.
  • Major equipment purchases normally get depreciated over several years. A price difference that may seem like a large dollar amount gets much smaller when it’s spread over seven years.
  • Equipment service and repairs normally get billed to your Department the following month and for the entire amount.
  • Someone once said, “If you’re going to spend less money on some of the equipment in the shop, spend less on the equipment you stand beside instead of the equipment you stand under.”

In summary, higher quality lifts provide increased productivity, less overall expense and more money in your pocket. They may cost a little more up front, but will be the least expensive lifts you’ll ever own.

Kenny Smith has spent the past 30 years in the automotive industry and is the National Distribution & Key Account Manager for Mohawk Lifts based in Amsterdam, New York.