BodyShop Business
Better, Not Bigger: Shop Layout and Design

One of the most talked about and debated topics for shop owners is shop layout and design. What's the ideal body shop, and where is it located? The answer is simple: It doesn't exist yet!

Before shop owners go blindly in search of creating the so-called ideal shop, they should first ask themselves, "Do I want to design the ultimate body shop, or do I simply want to optimize and enhance my existing facility using conventional methods of vehicle repair?"

There's a tremendous difference.

The traditional method of designing, or redesigning, a shop has always been based on the following principles:

  1. Proper utilization of a productive work area.
  2. Correct ratios of body and paint technicians.
  3. Adequate refinish area and equipment.
  4. Correct placement to achieve good flow.

Improving one or more of these principles has benefited many shops, but it doesn't help in defining true efficiencies or the optimum shop design. Instead, the principles focus only on facility layout. If greater capacity is needed, you add square footage.

This "bigger is better" principle has led to the concept of mega body shops (75,000 to 100,000 square feet), which carry huge overheads and large staff counts. These mega facilities may have tremendous capacity, but they're usually less efficient than their smaller counterparts.

So how do we define the parameters for the ideal body shop? How do you take a 10,000- to 20,000-square-foot facility and have it produce what traditionally would have required 75,000 to 100,000 square feet? The answer lies in an important detail overlooked in the basic principles: the repair process and the fact that it must change.


This drawing doesn't reflect the detail process or overall work-mix segmentation
but is designed to give a visual understanding of the flow and layout behind this concept.

The Typical Repair Process
Let's look at how a car goes through a typical repair process:

From the point a vehicle is damaged, an estimate of repairs must be written and negotiated with either the customer or an insurance company until an agreed repair order has been generated. At this point, scheduling the repairs takes place according to the availability of a technician and a work stall, and the typical schedule practices don't take into consideration the specific repair needs or work mix of the vehicles entering the facility.

Once the car is moved into a stall, one technician performs all the repairs from disassembly and frame work to reassembly and, in some cases, mechanical repairs; this can also include the primer stage of the refinish process, all within the same stall. This system requires experienced personnel within the traditional collision repair labor pool, forcing a technician to try to become a jack-of-all-trades, performing all types of work on each vehicle, but not really acquiring a specialized skill in any of them. This traditional process, while being very inefficient, also makes for very complex training requirements, not taking competencies or true skill into consideration.

Once the repair work has been completed, the car is then ready to be painted. If the ratio of body technicians to refinish technicians isn't correct and if the work mix of vehicles isn't choreographed with the paint department, a bottleneck is created, whereby vehicles take up space in stalls that could otherwise be used for work on other cars.

I call this process the "outside in" design, which has the industry feeding work into the facility until it exceeds capacity in one or more departments, pressurizing the system (the push principle). The entire process takes an average of four to five days, from the time the vehicle enters the shop to the time the car is returned to the customer. This method has been used for more than 20 years and is still the method used today - with few changes.

Body shops following this traditional model operate at only 150 percent to 160 percent efficiency. Sounds good, but it could be a lot better considering that we can show a shop owner how to operate at 200 percent efficiency and nearly double total annual sales.

Repairing the Repair Process
To design the ideal body shop, you must begin with the repair process and work out. The layout of the facility will become a byproduct of this "inside out" design. True efficiencies are driven from the ideal repair process - the key to which is repair and work-mix segmentation.

The repair process must be segmented into specialized areas of repair, which carefully address the work mix of incoming vehicles. Vehicles move through stations in a straight or u-shaped design, depending on the space available. The stalls are arranged in such a way that vehicles flow easily from one station to another in a continual, forward motion, similar to an assembly line. No more moving the vehicle sideways across the room from one stall to another; a specific task is done in each stall by a specially trained technician for that segment of the repair.

By implementing these new processes, the turnaround time of a vehicle from the point it enters the facility until it's returned to the customer can be cut in half, from the average of four to five days to one to two days. This drives the greatest efficiencies within the facility.

Segmenting the Shop
A segmented repair process demands a segmented facility. The body shop would be set up with specialized areas equipped for handling different work mixes, moving at different speeds, according to the repair requirements. This also holds true for the refinish department, which would be set up to refinish at the same production levels as the line that's feeding it. As illustrated, the accompanying graphic of a typical inside-out design can involve 10 to 12 individual steps that must each be addressed by their own specific processes.

This type of facility doesn't require as much physical size as was traditionally thought and will allow for a true two- or three-shift operation of the body shop. From the process engineering and design work we've been doing with interested parties within the industry, it appears the optimum size will be about 25,000 to 30,000 square feet. The average body shop would house three u-shaped lines, the outer one for heavy repairs and the inner ones for moderate and light repairs.

Optimizing Existing Facilities
As the industry begins to understand and accept these new concepts, it's unlikely that full implementation will take place immediately due to the significant cultural change. Instead, people are looking to phase in and retrofit into existing facilities, gradually adjusting to this new environment. The design effort isn't very dissimilar for existing or new operations. A thorough analysis, such as a process-engineering exercise, can be done on the current or proposed operation using a predetermined shop model.

From this, an evaluation is then done that determines which aspects and at what level this process redesign can be implemented into a facility. This evaluation involves a complex understanding of vehicle repair and logistics and shouldn't be oversimplified. It encompasses all portions of the repair cycle to include internal and external functions, point of contact, estimating and insurance relationships. These are assessed against the existing operation.

The operation is then segmented, and selected areas are chosen for implementation. This usually addresses one particular work mix of vehicles, generally smaller repairs, while longer-term implementation plans are drawn to phase in other areas of the operation.

At this point, you may be thinking, "Sure, who wouldn't want to have the ideal body shop, but who can afford to make all these changes?" I'm telling you that you can not only afford to make the changes, but you really can't afford not to! Keep in mind most of what we're changing is process. We're not adding huge square-foot additions or looking for exotic, high-priced equipment. We're taking full advantage of what currently exists by altering the process.

The facility would require high-quality computer and computerized imaging equipment, along with top-level frame and body measuring equipment. Infrared curing stations will also play a key role and so will quality prep-work stations and paint and cure booths. Keep in mind, though, these pieces of equipment aren't out of the ordinary; many shops already own them. The change lies in the repair process and how the equipment is used within that process.

Your labor force will also change. As I demonstrated in the ideal repair process earlier, there are 10 to 12 specific areas a car will pass through. Each area contains technicians who perform specific, specialized tasks that contribute to the success of this repair system.

Combination people will be a thing of the past. Frame technicians will work only on structure, welders will weld, panel fitters will install parts and body technicians will handle dents. Although this type of facility may require more personnel to staff each department, you now have the opportunity of hiring employees from outside the traditional labor pool. These additional numbers will be offset by the ability to compensate by specific departmental skill levels - through hourly pay methods, as opposed to traditional flat-rate pay - and by the increased efficiencies and improved output of the facility.

Cost vs. Profits
Cost will depend on the level of implementation and on whether you have an existing facility and equipment or are creating a new operation. Capital expenditure for complete implementation and start up of a new operation would range between $800,000 and $1 million, and the facility would then be capable of generating total annual sales of $10 million from one shift - all from 25,000 to 30,000 square feet.

The knowledge, technology, equipment and materials already exist to make this concept a reality, but what's been missing to date is the acceptance of change within the industry. While the automobile industry has evolved, the collision repair process in the United States has remained the same for the past 25 years; very little change has taken place regarding vehicle repair. To date, traditional methods are still taught - from the way an estimate is written and processed to running the vehicle through the facility and delivering it back to the customer - which leads back to the traditional body shop itself.

But there are places in the world where these process-engineering principles have been implemented in collision repair. Japan, for example, has facilities successfully using these new concepts to produce four to five times greater production per square foot than any facility we know of in the United States.

But not for long.

We're currently working with U.S. shop owners to introduce to them new concepts of process engineering and shop design. And once these revolutionary - evolutionary is more like it - changes are in place, it's only a matter of time before these new ways of thinking become the industry standard.

Writer Mark Rapson is the North American technical service manager for ICI Autocolor. Mark can be reached at (800) 647-6050.

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