Comparing Shops in China to those in North America

China is a country that has grown by leaps and bounds over the past two decades, but to be honest some of us really don’t know much about its automotive aftermarket, and some may even have preconceived notions that aren’t necessarily so.

Dann Ingebritson (Figure 1), a veteran technician and technical trainer who works for Brake Parts Inc, the manufacturer of Raybestos Brakes, recently had the opportunity to spend three weeks in China, conducting brake-training classes for shops throughout the country. He was joined by Gary Li (Figure 2), technical trainer, China office, who also acted as Dann’s translator. Gary is originally from China and now represents BPI in his homeland.

“I’ve been an automotive trainer for the past 16 years but the majority of my training classes have been taught throughout the United States and Canada,” Dann said. “Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to China for three weeks to instruct some of our largest Raybestos customers, and I jumped at the offer to see that part of the world and bond with technicians. I have to admit that I had many preconceived ideas on what the auto-repair industry is like in China. Some were confirmed, while many were completely inaccurate. What was totally amazing are the similarities between the repair industry in the U.S. and those in China.”

For example, just as in North America, Dann noted that many repair facilities in China are well equipped, professionally trained and spotless (Figure 3). But there are also the poorly equipped shops, technicians with no formal training and dirt floors (Figure 4).

“What really astonished me was the reasons they all gave as to why it was so hard to perform a quality brake job. The No.1 reason is the customer just wants the cheapest repair. Sound familiar?”

There are also other reasons that are really out of their control, such as lack of technical information, tool availability and parts availability,” he said. “But what most of us don’t understand is that the learning curve for these techs must be phenomenal, and that’s where Gary and I came in to help them succeed.”

Dann explained that in the year 2000 there were about 16 million cars in China, and in the past three years, the Chinese have bought 59 million cars. In contrast, the U.S. purchased 48 million in that same time frame. The types of vehicles on the road in China are astonishing, he said.

“Yes, there are many familiar models I knew, such as GM, Ford, BMW and Audi, but then there are millions of Chinese-made vehicles including Chery, Geely (the largest), BYD, Great Wall and others (figures 5 & 6). Then throw in the less-popular Citroens, Peugeots and Saabs and you have a collection that would rival any U.S. area. That is one of the biggest issues – so many models, so few parts and information.”

In many ways China is like the U.S. was a couple of decades ago, he said.
 
“There are new-car dealers that have the training and most parts, but the information is closely guarded and parts are strictly regulated,” he said. “Unlike the U.S., the average age of vehicles in China is about four years old. In our country it’s about 11.5 years. Since the big car boom occurred recently, the majority of the vehicles are newer models. I was in Beijing for a couple of days and finally saw an ’80s Corvette and an older model Rolls Royce.”
As a side note, Dann said the country’s older form of transportation still exists.

“Millions of scooters can be seen on city streets and country roads,” he said. “Many are now electric powered because of regulations in the larger cities, such as Shanghai, where air pollution is a major concern. I saw electric- and gas-powered scooters in smaller cities, such as Jinzou. Some of the older gas-powered scooters look like Cushmans or Indians from days gone by in the U.S., but most had no badging.

“Driving a scooter in a large city with cars that are constantly cutting in front of you takes skill and a lot of nerve.”
With that, Dann noted that China knows no time frames.

“I try to stay off the roads during rush hour near my home in suburban Chicago but there is no rush hour in China – just constant congestion,” he said. “Most roads are three or four lanes wide, but you have to share the road with scooters and trucks that are constantly cutting you off and drivers that don’t stay in their lanes very well. As a result, a vehicle’s braking system gets quite a workout – along with their horns.
 
“Just as in the states, brake work is the most common repair and is very competitive, he said. Price plays a big part and varies dramatically as you move to different-size cities – sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

“My first 10 days were at a newly opened technical school in Jinzhou, a major city about the size of Houston, Texas. The typical class was two days long, consisted of 10-15 technicians and included classroom and hands-on training in the shop.”

The training facility, which was very well equipped, belonged to one of BPI’s best customers in China, Zang Dazhi, owner of Aoxing Yuexiu ECTA Auto Facility. The garages not only do mechanical repair, they do complete body shops, paint booths and detail shops. They also sell a limited number of auto parts to other local garages.

“He was one of the first to sign on to a program BPI started that is called Raybestos Brake Service (RBS). Dazhi has been to our training facility in McHenry, Ill., a few times, bringing employees and his customers to learn proper procedures and techniques.

“He had the vision to include training in his business for not only brakes but body work, painting and auto accessory installation, such as window tinting, and he’s doing a great job so far. His training facility includes a bench brake lathe and an on-the-car lathe, lifts, a decent amount of tools, many specialty tools and a complete mockup of a frame with all parts attached. The classroom has an overhead LED projector and a variety of parts for identification that have been supplied mostly by BPI. And I really appreciated that the operation is air conditioned (figures 7 & 8). It definitely gets hot in China in July. I’ve been to many tech schools in the U.S. with less equipment).

It’s not the same at some of the independent shops where training was conducted, Dann said. “One difference that stood out to me was the lack of huge tool boxes. In fact, many shops shared tools that were company owned. This did create a problem during the hands-on phase of the class. One poor technician had to run back and forth between buildings just to get proper tools. Many of the smaller shops didn’t have dial indicators for brake work and the techs were fascinated when Gary and I demonstrated how they could solve rotor runout. We made a point of taking several of the dial indicators with us during our three-week journey throughout the country.”

Although industry members in the U.S. often talk about the lack of younger technicians, Dann noted that the average age of techs in China is definitely younger than here (figures 9 & 10). Some of the most experienced technicians had up to 16 years on the job, while three to six years seemed to be the average. The majority learned by on-the-job training, as the case with most technicians in the states. And just like the U.S, hands-on training gets harder to find the farther you get from the larger cities.

Dan said he sees the biggest challenges for Chinese technicians is finding specs and technician information.
 
“We take for granted the amount of information we have at our fingertips,” he said. “I can log on to IATN, Identifix, AllData and Mitchell 1 right on my smart phone to get specs. I can bring up the procedure on YouTube and watch others make mistakes. I can call the Raybestos tech line, along with other manufacturers’ tech-line services for product information – not in China. There are many U.S. cars on the road, but there are more Chinese-made and orphan makes than U.S. models. Heck, it would be hard for me to get Peugeot parts and information here; think about the technicians there.”
The Chinese-made vehicles have dealership shops where the technicians know the car, but the information is not shared.

“Now, think back 20 years ago in the U.S.,” he said. “I gave 18 brake clinics in nine cities and asked every class what their biggest brake issues were. Number one was brake noise followed closely by brake pedal pulsation, low pedals and brake pulls. Guess what topics are most prevalent on our Brake Parts Inc technician service lines and in the classes we taught in China? They are the exact same issues in the same order.

“All the training was truly appreciated and I made a lot of friends and contacts during my stay in China. I am looking forward to going back in a few years to see the progress they have made. It is truly amazing that no matter where I go in North America or Asia, the automotive repair business is not much different.”