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Computer-Assisted Alignment

Hardware-driven alignment gear has been around since the ’70s and has simplified wheel alignment quite a bit for operators.

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With the technological advancements made to the
alignment process since then, many – maybe even you – have developed
a "rocking chair" attitude – content with the software
used to align vehicles, content with the quality of work it produces,
just generally content.

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But, don’t get too content. Equipment out
there is about to make another round of changes, causing the industry
to evolve once again.

The Evolution Begins …

In the 1970s, hardware-driven alignment replaced
a lot of the light and mirror stuff that was OK, but a little
iffy to keep on track with calibration. This evolution of PC-based
technology brought the alignment industry around to the notion
that cathode-ray-tube screens were the ticket out of the old technology.
There were problems though.

The trouble with the early systems boiled
down to the basics: The stuff ran too slow because of too many
operator steps, and the update capability was simply too expensive
for what you got.

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Enter the software craze (thank you, Microsoft).
The ’80s brought with it alignment equipment that did a bunch
of new things, freeing up the operator to get involved with the
adjustment process first hand via the computer. This software
illustrated adjustment parameters, gave technical specifications
in several formats and had the ability to drive the menu by or
around an obstacle.

For example, with some menu-driven aligners,
it was a required step to swing for caster before you could acquire
an adjustment page that had a decent bar graph. This was a "fail
safe" to be sure the total vehicle alignment was secured
before a thrust line was spec’d into the final setting formula.
Good idea, but if you were just running toe on a vehicle because
of a tie-rod change, you could eat your lunch while waiting for
this merry-go-round process. (Can’t make money like that!)

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Open vs. Closed Architecture

"Open" and "closed" architectures
have created the infrastructure that brought software-enhanced
systems to the forefront. Open architecture refers to an alignment
system not strictly tied to one software selection that only operates
one specific company’s aligner – which means that programs formerly
owned by one company now can be found on a competitor’s equipment.
This is the stuff that dreams are made of if you’re a body shop
owner.

By having an electronic imaging system show
which shims to select for a rear-wheel adjustment and then offering
various choices for the vehicle you’re working on, it becomes
possible to source parts from one or many manufacturers.

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Some companies, on the other hand, have tagged
their alignment processes with strict hardware-based software
requirements – a.k.a. "closed" architecture. With this
gear, agreements and licenses made with software companies, product
producers, etc., limit the equipment usage to those operating
programs and hardware features designated by the manufacturer
as part of the package sold to the end user.

It appears that open-style architecture is
becoming more of the norm, though. Major companies offer their
wares in shades of gray or full dress, as you might like – for
example, program-guided software that still goes through an alignment
process but will allow the operator to "hop off" when
and where he wants to customize the procedure to a given job.
Also, new measured- value display features are vehicle-only specific
and eliminate confusing generic data. Making the package more
user friendly is done by handling the software with point-and-click
devices, such as the light pen on some of the new gear.

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Built into one system’s software features
is the ability to find parts from more than 200 manufacturers;
that same system can show a technician a laundry list of tools
and kits for the vehicle on screen, as well as run training videos
and operate a comprehensive electronic information system.

What’s Here, What’s Next

Since the software of various manufacturers
all seems to have features that enhance PC-guided properties,
it’s easy to imagine the next step would be to integrate hardware
tasking into the software packages. In fact, one major equipment
manufacturer has done just that.

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In this package, wheel units that are used
in all four vehicle positions never require calibration. Cameras
attach themselves to an acquisition line on the vehicle and gather
target data that’s represented in a 3-D format for the processor
to relate as a mathematical equation. The operator is guided through
the process in as few steps as possible by the on-board software
of the aligner.

Since the equipment requires actual vehicle
movement, the accuracy is pristine and the process is speedy.
Updating of the alignment procedure is constant. Because of the
rapid acquisition capability of the camera, 3-D remodeling of
the process is amazing. If you can imagine a ghost image of the
vehicle on a 3-D shelf and the integration of a stationary fixture
that’s scanning the image, you’ll understand why even a plumb
rack or work surface is no longer a firm requirement with this
system.

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Thanks to the wonderful capabilities of software
that can calculate in seconds the time, space and given location
of a spindle in a relative plane, we’re really getting somewhere.

Other, more simplified equipment packages
still exist, too – very good software packages that use programs
such as cradle-adjustment data and illustrations, multibay calibration,
paint-by-number shim selector packages and even constant or on-demand
calibration.

And don’t forget to take a look at the laser
stuff that’s tied to good software-functional programs. PC-based
criteria for this equipment might be just the ticket if you’re
into straightforward alignment without a lot of the hoopla. These
systems are stationary or portable and can be customized via software
to various degrees of complexity while offering the accuracy of
an industrial laser.

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Straight to the Point

Due to nearly constant technological advancements,
the art of collision repair is constantly changing – and evolving
– as is the alignment software used to repair collision damaged
vehicles. The good news is, there’s stuff out there for everyone
-from simple to rocket-scientist complex.

Writer Bob Leone, a retired shop owner,
is ASE Three-Way Master Certified and is completing qualifications
as a post-secondary automotive instructor in the Vocational School
System in Missouri.

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