Laying It on the Line

Oct. 1, 2016
With worries about salary compensation, the increasing costs of health benefits and a general sense of uncertainty, many shops have experienced the all-too-common approach of needing to do more with less. While nothing can truly make up for another set of hands, the right layout in the shop can enhance efficiency, reduce the steps for technicians and, most importantly, get customers out the door — because the less time the customer spends in the shop can actually help ensure they’ll be back next time.Considering the right layout should be on the top of any to-do list for managers and

With worries about salary compensation, the increasing costs of health benefits and a general sense of uncertainty, many shops have experienced the all-too-common approach of needing to do more with less. While nothing can truly make up for another set of hands, the right layout in the shop can enhance efficiency, reduce the steps for technicians and, most importantly, get customers out the door — because the less time the customer spends in the shop can actually help ensure they’ll be back next time.

Considering the right layout should be on the top of any to-do list for managers and operators, but what exactly this entails can run the gamut from simple organization to a full-blown remodel. Not every business can opt to do the latter, but the right set up can greatly improve a shop’s layout, and with it, the shop’s ability to be efficient and effective.

Simple but Effective

Sometimes a major remodel simply isn’t in the cards, but getting creative can help ensure you can become effective.

“My shop is a two-by-two with an additional bay with an alignment rack, so it’s actually a two-by-three,” said Carl Goedeof Rivers Edge Oil & Tire in Mukwonago, Wisconsin.“This was done because we started as a two bay and could not expand sideways, so we went deeper instead of wide.”

Being three bays wide can help in terms of efficiency when selling additional services, added Goede who further explained, “We have a bridge from one catwalk to the other for the lower tech so he does not have to go down stairs, walk across the floor and go back up another set of stairs. Having a two-by-two lube shop, you have to walk the entire length of the shop to get to the vehicle in the rear.”

A key in this layout is it can resolve bottlenecks that result when a vehicle in the front takes longer than the one in the rear.

If you can’t get rid of the pit, keeping it covered when not being used is probably a good idea. There are several options for covering the pit including pit covers that are designed to fit into existing systems.

“Ours are three quarters of an inch thick and weigh just 10 pounds each,” said Alec Stanimirovic of Stan Design. “They can support up to 1,000 pounds and can help so an employee doesn’t accidentally fall into the pit. ”

Even some basic organization, along with the right standard operating procedures, can help enhance the way a shop runs. This can be simple, even low key, but operators have noted it can make a big difference.

“You have to keep things neat and orderly, but other small things are important, too; a big thing is that inventory is out of sight of the customer,” said Jeremy Moss, who oversees operations in the Oklahoma market for Precision Tune Auto Care. “We never want customers to see a cluttered mess of oil filters and air filters.”

The placement of these products further helps speed the servicing process.

“Oil filters are kept in the pit, so they’re right where they need to be,” Moss said. “Our No. 1 objective is to do the right thing consistently from shop to shop.”

With six locations in total, this means any employee at any of Moss’ Tulsa locations can fill a role at another location.

“If at any time we need to change up employees, having each shop laid out as close as possible to one another can really save time,” Moss noted. “This way an employee can do the job without having to stop and ask someone unnecessary questions. It should be like the shop they normally work at.”

Being efficient doesn’t mean the job is being rushed either.

“We try to set up things so it is easy for the technician,” said Mitch Vicino, owner of Cottman Transmission and Total Auto Care in Beaverton, Oregon. “We have an area for general repair, a lift specifically for quick lubes and an area for transmission repair — this is where we can move the car off the lift without taking it outside. This saves a lot of time. It allows us to do work that is unscheduled without having to move a lot of cars around.”

Placement of tools is one part of Vicino’s efforts, too.

“We have overhead pumps for fluids for transmission repair that are accessible to every lift, and we keep the filters by the quick lube lift,” he added. “We have the tools and equipment centrally located so techs can see the tools from anywhere in the shop, and that limits the steps they need to take. One other key point is we made sure to have power outlets and air hoses installed at every lift; it is a lot harder to add it, so when you’re designing a shop make sure those are where you need them.”

It’s the Pits

One con regarding shop layout might seem surprising, especially given it has been a part of auto service for decades — the pit. Several operators said pits have more pitfalls than benefits.

“Personally, I would like to get rid of pit systems and go to lift systems,” Moss added. “Pits are slip and danger opportunities, and you really can’t do all the necessary inspections that you need to do.”

Moss is hardly the only one to tell National Oil & Lube News that a lift system has numerous advantages — which is why he opted to go with Zip Pits.

“Zip Pits are a very efficient option,” said owner and chairman Ricky Price of Hawaii-based Flagship Fast Lube. “It is cheaper than building a basement, but, more importantly, you don’t have to have someone dedicated to the pit.”

For Price, this means better communication, but it also keeps employees out of a basement, where they can only do the servicing from under the vehicle.

“With Zip Pits an employee can do a myriad of different things, and this way he or she can help speed along the process,” Price said. “The other part is ergonomics. In a pit you are looking up, neck back and head up. With Zip Pits you are in a prone position with your hands in front of you.”

By switching from a pit, Price added it has enabled the team to keep things neat and orderly, as well.

“I’ve been in thousands of bays, and let me tell you, they can get very bad, very quickly,” he noted. “The Zip Pits are easy to clean; you wipe it up and you’re ready to go. I’ll never build another pit.”

Pros and Cons of Modular

One option many shops now have is the ability to go modular when building a new location, or even when conducting a major renovation. Modular design not only reduces construction time considerably, but it is also further geared toward efficiency once it’s up and running.

“These modular facilities are designed and equipped to maximize employee efficiency and create a 10- to 12-minute oil change for the customer,” said Matthew Corey, National Operations manager at Modulube. “The layout reduces the amount of steps a technician needs to complete an oil change and tire rotation. Each bay is equipped with a Zip Pit and a Blazer 9000 lift.”

Modular facilities also can address the ever-changing industry, too.

“There are fewer grease fittings now than before, and many of the oil filters are now changed by the upper tech,” Corey said. “Compared to a full basement pit, where one technician is always below, the Zip Pit allows the technician on the glider to easily work topside after replacing the filter and reconnecting the oil drain plug. As more work continues to be done on top, the Zip Pit makes better use of your technicians.”

Modulube’s Blazer 9000 lifts also offer many advantages for shops facing changing times that — and it does this by allowing shops to be more flexible in the services they can offer. The lifts can mount outside a lube bay and without a cross member, which would otherwise interfere with the technician working below.

“The Blazer 9000 converts conventional lube bays into tire rotation service bays and allows for both oil change and tire rotation services to be completed concurrently,” Corey explained. “The Blazer 9000 is ETL and ALI certified and provides greater lifting capacity — 9,000 pounds — so it can lift 99 percent of all vehicles a lube shop usually services. Many shops that sell tires use the Blazer 9000 as their main lift.”

Modular buildings can offer a number of other benefits: they are built off-site in an indoor facility and, therefore, not subjected to weather and other related delays; once built, they can be erected and installed on-site in one or two days; modular buildings are pre-wired and pre-plumbed, which can further reduce installation time; and because the IRS considers modular buildings as equipment, it can create tax advantages by accelerated depreciation over seven years instead of 15 to 30 years.

“The modular dimensions and layout maximizes the space and reduces the number of steps for each technician,” Corey added. “When compared to a stick-built facility, it is similar in price but faster into service. When you can plan ahead, the building can be built before you close on the land or the mortgage, thereby eliminating the carrying cost.”

However, modular may not be for everyone — because one added cost to factor in is transportation. Modular can work well if one’s shop is close to the facility that produces the units, but when the distance becomes greater, the costs most certainly go up accordingly.

“Modular buildings are a quick, easy way to go,” said Price, who added that it didn’t work for his shops. “It didn’t make economic sense because we’re located in Hawaii and the shipping costs were too high. With five to six modules, it could be expensive to ship.”

Instead, Price has had success with retrofits of existing buildings.

“We have done that in several places, including one that was a service station with bays,” Price explained. “We knocked out one side, put in doors and it worked out well. We’ve found you can retrofit a building without a lot of problems.”

The Right Stuff

Aside from the building’s design, another part of layout is having the right tools for the job.

“This is why we offer a product line designed to help the flow of the shop,” said Russ Terry, national sales manager for Herkules Equipment Corporation. “There is nothing that will slow the process down like not having the right tools for the job. You need products that are compact.”

This may not be enough for a shop facing increased labor costs, but it can help a shop operate more efficiency.

“What we’ve seen is the layout in shops has improved, and lifts can provide better ergonomics, as well,” Terry said. “You don’t want people to spend five to 10 minutes getting a car on the jack. It needs to be lifted in a short window of time.”

Pit jacks are ideal for allowing tire rotation from a quick lube pit. Some roll down inside of the pit when not being used and lift the vehicle from the rear and front axle. This provides flexibility in terms of the vehicles that can be serviced while offering the ability to do more services in the shop.

“Our pit jacks aren’t restricted to any wheel base, ” Stanimirovic added. “They can lift a stretch limo or Mini Cooper in the same pit. The whole idea is getting the car high enough that the tires can be rotated or changed quickly. It is safer because you’re not lifting the car that high, but they add a service and keep the customer happy — because this added service won’t mean added wait time.”

However, new tools shouldn’t be seen as a substitute for good employees. Shops shouldn’t cut corners by reducing staff, either, Terry warned. Even with the right equipment, teamwork is a crucial part of a shop and must be a key piece in the overall puzzle that is its layout.

“Shops can’t be a one-man operation; you gotta be quick and you gotta be safe,” Terry emphasized. “And determining what is right for your shop requires a conversation. Operators need to have that conversation with the equipment reps, where you can brainstorm with the salesman to determine what you really need.”  

About the Author

Peter Suciu

Peter Suciu is Michigan-based writer and NOLN freelance contributor who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He lives in the land of cars not far from one of Henry Ford's estates.