Proper wheel alignment is a safety matter as well as a potential revenue stream for the independent tire dealer. The past few years have seen major advances in automating the alignment process, with improved sensors, enhanced software functions and “3-D” capability – where the system creates a color, three-dimensional model of the vehicle, then measures and tracks corrections in real-time on a flat-screen monitor.
Buying such sophisticated equipment is expensive, but the investment can pay for itself by greatly reducing set-up and adjustment time. When considering the dozens of features and options available, look for equipment that is designed to last, is user-friendly and easy to learn, and is accurate and easily calibrated so it can serve as a reliable profit center.
There are shop-based and mobile alignment racks for automotive and heavy-duty applications, but the main difference now is how they measure all of those angles – either by using electronic sensors at the wheel or by using cameras and reflective targets. The various electronic sensors can include automatic target-seeking laser measuring devices accurate to 1/1000th of an inch or gyroscopes to calculate the position of the wheel with 10-times greater accuracy than the electric sensors previously used. Newer sensors electronically measure camber, caster, SAI, thrust angle, scrub angle and front and rear toe using fewer electronic components and circuits than previous models, and are up to 50% lighter than their predecessors.
Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries power the energy-efficient sensors. Sensor pods on some units display the percentage of charge remaining and can even alert the technician when batteries need to be changed. On another model, sensors recharge while they are mounted on the aligner. On a number of models, cables between the sensors and console are no longer necessary because they communicate wirelessly.
The other type of alignment system employs digital cameras to measure the position and orientation of the wheels by using reflective wheel targets. There are no electronics at the wheel, so no cables or batteries are needed. The camera beam can be mounted to a fixed or lift column, on a wall or overhead, or even cabinet-mounted for mobility.
The hardware is impressive enough, but the numerous functions made possible by innovative software are truly remarkable. Software can assist beginners with extensive help screens and how-to videos, and it can improve the productivity of more experienced technicians by giving them easier access to advanced options. Vehicle specification databases that cover 25 years or more let the operator select the vehicle type from the on-screen list, and the aligner provides the OEM alignment specifications. The optional VIN scanner on some models allows the technician to scan the vehicle identification number and automatically input it into the aligner, saving time and eliminating the opportunity for operator error.
Software guides the technician through the process of setting the steering angle sensors or targets, raises the vehicle to a comfortable working height, quickly captures measurements and presents the results. It then directs the technician in the optimal alignment procedure while it automatically sets tire pressure and operates turnplates and slipplates on the lift. When alignments are complete, software saves the alignment data to a customer file and prints color-coded documents so the customer can see before-and-after details. Advanced software options can help minimize tire wear for vehicles with aftermarket wheels or other modifications, provide shim or bushing installation information, or offer OEM service and maintenance procedures related to electronic stability control or electric power steering systems.
Some alignment systems offer remote display units so technicians can enter data away from the console, or they have iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad apps to view measurements live and control software features from those “smart” wireless devices.