When the government announced that all new car registrations should be of cleaner-energy models from 2030, car workshops are at a crossroads.
Many are already struggling to hire skilled mechanics, and compound that with electric vehicles (EVs) which are about to become part of our urban landscape, it will be another challenge for car workshops to grapple with.
In this article, Eric Goh, co-founder and director of Motor Edgevantage, offers insights into the problems car workshops face to get their business EV-ready, and touched on what it takes to attract a new generation of mechanics and how car workshops can automate and digitise their operations to thrive in a digital era.
As an industry veteran with over 30 years of experience, Eric has his pulse firmly in the automotive industry and also shared his thoughts on whether EVs will dominate our roads in the next decade.
Future-proofing the business
Eric was candid when asked whether he thinks car workshops today are ready for the EV transition.
“It depends, but I believe most of them are not ready. Think about how long it took for automobiles to completely replace horse carriages as our main mode of transport. 50 years!”, he exclaimed, letting the gravity of the comment sink in before continuing.
“Learning how to repair an EV will require specialised IT knowledge and understanding of how the battery and motor work. Unfortunately, the skills gaps between what conventional mechanics know versus what they need to learn are far too wide.”
Rather than sugarcoat the truth with unrealistic optimism, Eric tells it like it is. The shift would hit many workers hard. Instead of dismantling an engine, mechanics will play the pseudo-role of a software engineer, fiddling with an oversized machine to troubleshoot the problem with EVs.
As for how long it takes to retrain a mechanic to undertake these tasks, Eric mentioned it would usually take around six to nine months.
“It depends on the individual, but those with an affinity to IT should have a much shorter learning curve. In fact, three of our staff will receive their National EV Specialist Safety (NESS) certification at the end of this year. We have also budgeted S$45,000 to send 13 more for the course.”
“Besides the NESS certification, our mechanics also attend a combination of on-the-job and external training, alongside web-based learning to polish their skills,” he added.
Practice makes perfect, but with so few EVs on the roads, are Eric’s mechanics prepared for the real-world practicalities of handling EVs in a workshop?
Eric maintained a sanguine deposition to the question. “Well, most, if not all, the EVs are still under warranty by the manufacturers. Therefore, our mechanics are doing paintwork and retrofitting jobs for now.
“However, we are fortunate to be an authorised dealer for Startech Refinement, which offers aftermarket products for retrofitting the Tesla Model 3. So far, our mechanics have worked on retrofitting digital instrument clusters, sports steering wheels and suspension upgrades on Tesla cars.”
The death knell for car workshops
Besides building an army of skilful staff, having the requisite hardware is essential to the survival of car workshops if they are serious about riding the EV wave. To elaborate on that, Eric succinctly categorised EV readiness into two parts.
“The first part is easy. Workshops will need to reconfigure the workspace with EV plugs and sockets, equip the staff with high-voltage safety gears, and install the correct vehicle hoist since EVs are heavier than their combustion engine counterparts.
“But the biggest difficulty is the availability of access to Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) software. Without it, mechanics cannot do any diagnostics and service the cars.”
According to him, OEM software is a major obstacle for many car workshops. Not only are they specific for different car manufacturers, but they also operate through a subscription service that does not come cheap.
This means workshops could either specialise in servicing one to two types of EVs, or pay an exorbitant sum to pay for the various licences every year.
For many smaller workshops operating on a tight margin, the lack of access to OEM software is literally the kiss of death. Unless something changes, many workshops will simply go out of business.
Attracting the next generation of mechanics
As a society that places a premium on white-collar jobs, becoming a car mechanic is hardly the aspiration for the masses despite our enthusiasm for the Fast and Furious franchise.
Eric recognises that, along with the limitations preventing the automotive industry from getting the spotlight it deserves.
Without our own car manufacturers or local dealership group, the private car industry is not a focus or growth segment in Singapore. As a result, there are hardly any push or pull factors to lure young people into the industry.
“Do you know? ITE is having difficulty getting enough enrolment to form a class for their Automotive Technology diploma.”
Youngsters not wanting to get their hands dirty in apprenticeship programs is not unique in Singapore. To Eric, he felt adamant that changing the perception of mechanics being seen as a dead-end job with limited prospects is the way forward.
“It is important for people to know there is a career progression in this industry. That is why we invest in staff training, sending them overseas to countries such as Germany and Estonia to learn from the best without subjecting them to a bond.”
Speaking to Eric, he is clearly passionate about developing a core of local talent in an industry he feels strongly about. Like a proud father, he recounts the story of Nicholas, a trainee who found his calling through the ITE Work-Study program to become a tuning specialist.
“We are one of the training partners for the ITE Automotive Engineering program. I see that as a good platform to attract and develop local talent.”
Would that change the societal perception of mechanics? After all, without the dirt and grease, working as a mechanic could almost pass off as a white-collar job.
“I doubt so,” he said, “the social status of car mechanics is low. It will not matter whether they are working on EVs or conventional cars. People call them grease monkeys.”
The labour crunch in car workshops is likely to continue, and hiring and retaining talent remains an ongoing issue. However, Eric is upbeat about the future.
“I want to focus on learning and development, to build human capital and cultivate a performance-based culture where all staff can share their success together.”
Building a car workshop of the future
The world of fast cars might be glamorous, but the workshops maintaining them are anything but. Ask anybody on the streets what they think of car workshops, and the words dirt, grease, and grime still come to mind.
Eric is aware of our perception of the automotive industry. In fact, he experienced firsthand how it negatively affects young people from joining the industry.
It is deeply ingrained that working in an office with floor-to-ceiling windows sounds infinitely more glamorous than toiling in a garage with dim lighting and oil slicks on the floor.
But as an industry leader keen to challenge the status quo, Eric has taken it upon himself to reinvent the image of a car workshop.
These days, Motor Edgevantage feels more like a laboratory than a fully-fledged car workshop. The space is clean, bright, and modern, with mechanics walking around with iPads instead of clipboards, lending to them an air of sophistication.
Of course, modernising a traditional car workshop goes beyond the decorations.
For Eric, harnessing the power of technology is how he intends to build a model workshop of the future, and at the core of that change is digitalisation.
“We used to have too many files for invoices, customer records, inventory, and so forth. But now, we use an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system to digitalise all our business operations, from customer profiling to supplier management, financial reporting to inventory management.
“This has allowed us to deliver a more personalised experience to our customers and make data-driven decisions to optimise our business performance.”
In an industry defined by manual labour, Eric is also determined to incorporate a high level of automation into his workshop. This, he feels, would free up his staff from mundane and repetitive chores, allowing them to focus on more productive tasks instead.
“We have an automated storage and retrieval system integrated with our ERP, allowing us to monitor our stock turn in real-time and reduce stock discrepancy.
“Also, it used to be so time-consuming to locate and retrieve spare parts since we store them at different locations. But with a centralised storage unit, it has freed up time for the staff and space for the workshop.”
Automation will save businesses time and money, but Eric maintained that is not the only goal. As an employer who believes in developing human capital, Eric wants machines to value-add his employees, not make them irrelevant.
“We have also automated our car wash process, which has improved our operational efficiency tremendously. Instead of finishing up one car every 30 minutes, each car wash cycle now takes an average of eight minutes.
“But in doing so, we ended up redesigning the job function of the car wash attendant. By training him to operate the car wash machine, we have added value to his role and rewarded him with a higher salary.”
According to experts, car workshops by 2050 will become innovative hubs, with 3D printing and holograms used to assist mechanics in repairing car problems.
While we are still some ways away from these technologies, people like Eric are taking small steps to move away from the archaic methods of doing things.
And along the way, they are also challenging our prejudiced views of car workshops and restoring the professional dignity of a group of workers mockingly labelled as grease monkeys.
The future of EVs in Singapore
So far, Eric has been taking positive steps to future-proof his business and get it EV ready. However, he appeared much less enthusiastic when asked whether he feels EVs will dominate our roads in the next 10 years.
Not one to mince his words, he conceded that the adoption rate will depend on several factors.
“For starters, EVs are not the most reliable cars. There is a report measuring vehicle quality, and Tesla actually ranked near the bottom.”
Eric believes the widespread adoption of EVs will be beneficial, but he also recognises the limitations of EVs.
“Range anxiety is another concern since batteries will only get weaker and hold less charge with time. Our hot and humid weather also causes the battery to deteriorate faster.”
As for the army of charging points being built to ease range anxiety, Eric agreed that while they are a positive step, it is still not ideal.
“Currently, the charging duration is still too long since it takes five to six hours for a full charge. Ideally, you want ultra-fast charging stations where one can charge and go in 10 minutes.
“And you know what? Singaporeans love driving to Malaysia. For them to buy an EV, you must convince them they can charge their cars easily in Malaysia to make the return journey.”
These are indeed practical problems, which begs the question, who are the people buying EVs in Singapore now? Are they unfazed by these issues?
“People with EVs typically use it as their second or third car. I believe the luxury EV market will grow because these are the customers with the affluence to make the (environmental) shift,” said Eric.
It was on that note that the interview ended with a silent acknowledgement – that owning an EV, for now, will continue to be a novelty factor and a privilege reserved for the very few.
Featured Image Credit: Motor Edgevantage