As the use of aluminum increases in automobile manufacturing, shops across the country have been training and purchasing equipment. And many collision repair technicians and shops are still very confused on how to repair an aluminum panel. The focus of most training has been toward the release of the 2015 Ford F-150. A large number of repair shops since the introduction of the F-150 have seen an increase in aluminum repairs not just on the F-150 but on other vehicles as well. This has presented a problem. Not all aluminum is the same. There are basics to all aluminum repair as to how and what is repairable. The Ford push gave many facilities and technicians a great deal of what they needed to learn to repair aluminum. Does this mean all aluminum is the same? I wish it was that simple. Different vehicle manufacturers use different types of aluminum with different alloys, along with characteristics. To say one type of aluminum welding wire repairs all aluminum would be wrong. Trying to learn the differences and how to work with them has created some apprehension.
Ford’s release of the F-150 sent shops to suppliers to get ready and be able to repair aluminum. Some shops found the panic and push to get equipment and training to be a bust when it came to return on investment (ROI). There simply wasn’t that many vehicles to repair. However, this opinion varies greatly. I’ve seen a lot of shops’ work increase dramatically. The training and practice to prepare for the F-150 was completed a long time ago, which caused talent or skills to become rusty and information not easy to recall. This leads to the “suddenly syndrome,” or the occasion when suddenly one rolls into your shop for repair. It could be a Ford or some other vehicle manufacturer. Where do you start?
Before we go any further, I want to clarify that I’m talking about common vehicles we see on a daily basis. Shops that are designated repair facilities for Jaguar and other vehicles have a great deal of equipment and training invested to be certified shops. They also have direct databases filled with procedures to be followed. This all is a part of the network they joined. This is different than noncertified shops. For noncertified shops, with all the training and equipment purchased, you would think finding information on how to repair a vehicle would be simple. It all depends on how much you already know. The training and background most technicians receive is a great knowledge base. There are some things that may have been forgotten, but much is retained. If information is needed, there are some resources:
- The vehicle manufacturer’s website or publication
- ALLDATA for OE information
- I-CAR website and classes
- Aluminum websites
- Abaris Training Information providers (CCC, Mitchell, Audatex)
One problem is that sometimes there is no information or simply not enough information on how to repair the vehicle, or information is somewhat vague or confusing. This type of problem can goof up a shop’s cycle time and repairs.
Because of the lack of information, I receive calls from shops with all sorts of dilemmas. I also want to mention that the vehicle manufacturers are not perfect. They make mistakes. Sometimes procedures do not work. Stuff happens. It does in all aspects of life. The trick is to find your way.
I receive a lot of emails and phone calls from folks who are having issues or dilemmas as the result of writing articles for BodyShop Business. I would like to think I know a lot, but I always use the phrase, “I know less today than yesterday.” Changes keep happening, and faster. The “wow factor” came when I received a question I could not answer from a shop I do I-CAR training for. I called a friend of mine who had more experience than me on the issue. He, too, is an independent shop owner. He said to have the first shop call him. So these two managers connected and found that they had a lot of the same questions. Then another shop called and asked that shop questions. To make a long story short, these shops now have a network that they can contact to discuss issues that arise while working on the F-150. Even though they’re not affiliated, they bonded through the need for experienced answers. They’re competitors who are just trying to do the right thing. What I’m trying to show is that a large segment of the industry has questions. Sometimes we all need to remember we’re in this together.
One of the first dilemmas that many face is that aluminum repair or removing a dent is a time-consuming process. It’s not the same amount of time as a steel dent and is more labor intensive. Aluminum is very strong and, when a panel is damaged, it’s formed to the damage. This work hardens the aluminum, making it really strong. Repairing the damage without damaging surrounding metal can be difficult. Heat is often used to soften the aluminum to reform the panel. The use of heat must be regulated so as not to destroy the aluminum. We also need to make sure where and how far the heat regulates outward. The heat can weaken or separate adhesive joints and foams, which will create even more problems to repair. Have technicians practice on panels from different manufacturers. Each panel will react differently due to alloys and mechanical properties. Also, before welding any tears, seek out which wire is recommended. The wrong wire could cause weld cracking.
The attachment of panels, be it with steel or aluminum, is far from perfect. In aluminum, it can be confusing as to which fastener to use. Or should you should just weld it? The appearance of rivets where they were not before could upset a customer. The original attachment may have been a self-piercing rivet (SPR) but the replacement supplied is a Henrob rivet. You wonder why? That’s the beauty of our industry. Sometimes it gets built and then we find out there was a problem. We may not know what the problem is. In this case, sometimes SPRs don’t bond well with two thinner gauges of aluminum.
I-CAR deserves some kudos for the new technical question service on their website. If the aforementioned websites can’t help you, then maybe I-CAR can as they have an enormous amount of information and talent answering questions. Another option is to call a shop with experience. You might be surprised at how helpful some will be. Many are usually willing to help. Take some I-CAR classes, as you’ll find there is some great information there. Have an open mind and you’ll get what you put into the class. Many people in class have been there and done that. Many times, I get some awesome information on dilemmas with great resolutions.
You’ll have to look for the answers; they won’t drop out of the sky. I wish it was simple but it’s not. But that’s life.