ROI takes time but will be worthwhile.
Investing in aluminum repair equipment may not provide overnight ROI, but it’s the reality of today’s collision industry.
At Budds’ Collision Services, General Manager J. R. Martino discusses the aluminum repair room that was constructed in the mid-1990s. “We’re certified with Jaguar and Land Rover, our largely British demographic likes these vehicles, so we were the first collision repair facility in Canada to have an aluminum room,” says Martino. “But only now are we beginning to see a bit of a return on our investment.”
It’s Martino’s belief that with certification becoming more prevalent and OEMs taking ownership of customers, adding aluminum to your menu of services is essential. “If you’re not looking forward, this is the way the industry is going,” says Martino. “You’re going to be left behind. Insurance companies and OEMs are going to move their business down the street.”
“Are you going to make a return on your investment the next day? No, you won’t. But if you want to be in business for the long run, and you plan on fixing more cars, that’s what you need to do. Just like a paint booth or a type of abrasive, it’s another investment that needs to be done for the long term good of your business.”
OEMs and insurers are calling the shots, because they have more involvement with proper repair procedures. “The OEMs are protecting their investment, their customers and their brand,” says Martino. “They know that in order to protect their brand, they need qualified repair facilities. The last thing they want is one of their customers getting into an accident with one of their vehicles, having that vehicle not repaired correctly, and then switching brands.”
It’s wise to devise a plan. “To put a huge investment into dedicated benches, aluminum equipment and an aluminum room overnight is not the best option,” observes Martino. “The first step is finding a designated space for aluminum repair. Many OEMs require having it segregated with a long plastic curtain, and that’s not a huge investment. As long as you can afford some space in the shop to dedicate to aluminum repair and have a barrier, that should suffice.”
Then, periodically invest in some tooling, and send one technician for training. “I-CAR does a fantastic job in the aluminum area, and the OEMs also have great training seminars,” suggests Martino.
But Richard Perry, OEM and strategic account manager for Chief Automotive, says that manufacturers will tell you if you’re going to do aluminum, you need to have certain items in place right away. “It may be a clean room, curtained-off area, separation of tools, a certain vacuum system, hand tools, dollies, or a welder,” notes Perry. “All these become requirements for one specific type of repair with aluminum, vs. steel.”
The big issue is avoiding cross-contamination. “Many shops have been doing aluminum panels like hoods or fenders, and using aluminum dent stations,” says Perry. “But when it comes to structural repairs, they require you to have a clean room – that’s across the board with all manufacturers.”
However, different OEMs require different tools. “Whether it’s a rivet gun or a welder or dust extractor, each OEM has a different requirement,” says Perry. “They go through the process of testing and approving each product. It’s very costly for them. If they did three or four, they may not look at any more until they need additional products.”
As a result, shops that decide to get into the aluminum game will find they’re duplicating many of the tools they already have. “You’re going to have a whole tool box just for aluminum repairs that can’t cross over,” says Perry.
Everyone in the shop needs to be up to speed, with access to OEM information. “If the estimator is writing the estimate, he needs to be able to determine if it’s a job that the shop can do,” notes Perry. “Some OEMs will restrict part sales, if a shop isn’t certified with that OEM, they can’t buy the parts, they can’t do the repair. If that vehicle comes in, you need to know whether they can order parts for the vehicle – once they start to order, that process will be stopped and shut down by the manufacturer.”
As far as Ken Friesen, President of Concours Collision Centres is concerned; the primary issue with doing mixed materials is ensuring that everyone is trained properly. “People need to be aware of these materials and how they’re being used in the vehicle,” he says. ”Training is number one, whether it’s I-CAR or the manufacturer, any way you can get it.”
And it’s not just the technicians, but also the people doing estimating. “They’re the ones passing this information on to the technician,” notes Friesen.
It starts when the vehicle comes into the shop. “You need to be able to pull the manufacturers’ specs, so that you can identify all the different types of materials in a vehicle,” says Friesen. “You’ve got to have access to repair data, whether through AllData or something similar. It’s got to be readily available.”
Staff need to be able to recognize and know the difference between different types of steel, aluminum, and carbon fibre. “Aluminum is becoming more prominent, there’s no question about it,” says Friesen. “Much of the carbon fibre that we’ll see in automobiles will be more likely a replacement service than a repair.”
For aluminum, shops will need to stock up on welders, vacuum sanding systems with wet vacuums, riveters and hand tools. “You have to buy it all,” emphasizes Friesen. “If you have the welder, it’s no good if you don’t have the rest of the tools. You have to have separate hand tools, welder and riveter, because they all work together.”
For different high strength steels, there are a few specialty tools, but Friesen says they are not “super expensive.” Again, he stresses, this is where training is important. “There are different types of steel, and you have to be able to identify them—you can’t take a high strength steel panel and start heating it with a torch because you take the strength out of it.”
“Everything comes back to training and understanding what you’re dealing with.”