Every shop wants to save money. Rather than cut corners on quality or beat your suppliers to a pulp for extra discounts, why not try a more positive and practical approach? Here are seven proven methods to reduce your expenditure for paint and materials:
1. Reduce Inventory
Paul Simon sings there must be 50 ways to leave your lover. Well, there must be 500 ways to do collision repair. Rather than suggesting I have specifically the right process, I do suggest the best method is the one that delivers a quality repair in the shortest time. One sure way to spend less on materials is to get your technicians to agree on standard products and procedures for your shop.
Typically, you have technicians with their own material preferences. One painter wants 180-grit D/A discs, another wants 220 grit and the third insists on 240 grit. The same holds true with final sanding of the clearcoat – one wants 1200 grit, the second 1500 grit and the other only uses 2000 grit. Money invested in material goes up rapidly as a result because the shop must have an open sleeve of each grit plus a backup sleeve so no painter spends valuable labor time waiting for a delivery truck.
How can you get technicians to agree on a single part number? Have a shop meeting with everyone present. Explain that the goal is to produce a quality job while reducing the money spent on materials. Get the techs to vote on which grits of sandpaper, widths of tape, body filler brands, spot putty styles and bare metal primer will satisfy everyone. In my original example of the D/A discs, I’d hope the 180-grit proponent would be willing to move up to 220 grit and the 240-grit guy would be willing to come down one grit. Rather than dictate a product, let the technicians have input into the changes and vote on their preferences. Realistically, you should be able to reduce the number of part numbers stocked in your shop by 10 to 20 percent and still keep all the techs happy.
How much money should your shop have tied up in inventory? The goal, of course, is to keep just enough stock on hand so production is never interrupted by a tech running out in mid-job. One statistic suggests a shop should stock inventory equal to one half of one month’s purchases, not counting mixing tints. This includes all the open cans, boxes, pails and cases, plus their corresponding backup containers on the shelves.
A full bank of mixing tints with a backup for each color can easily cost many thousands of dollars. While not part of the calculation for half of one month’s purchases, the money invested in mixing tints is still very well-spent.
On average, any shop mixing its own color is spending 10 percent less on total materials than a comparable shop that buys color from a jobber. Mixing your own paint remains the absolute best way to save money. The 10 percent savings result from a combination of the shop contributing the labor to mix the paint and their ability to mix less than a pint of color. Few jobbers sell less than 16 ounces of color; they have to cover their costs too, and you can’t buy much gas or insurance with the profit on 4 ounces of basecoat. But, if the average collision repair costs $1,500, many jobs can be completed with less than a full pint of paint.
2. Organize and Count Inventory
One advantage of organizing your inventory is to make it easier to count. An equally important benefit is that it’s easier for technicians to find stuff during the day. If all the sandpaper is in the same cabinet and stored on a shelf in ascending grit sizes, it’s faster for everyone. If sandpaper is stored in several locations in the shop and randomly stocked in those cabinets, it takes the techs longer to locate it.
Labor time is still the most expensive thing in a body shop. Since the national average door rate is about $34 an hour, that means every minute of every technician’s time is worth 57 cents. Something as simple as keeping the in-use cans of solvent in logical order on the paint bench can save hours of labor at the end of the month. If the 70-degree F solvent is right next to the 80-degree F solvent, it’s much faster to find and choose it. If the painter has to rummage through all the open cans of primer, sealer and clear on the paint bench to find the correct speed solvent, then time’s a wastin’.
Human nature being what it is, people are more careful and conscious of the materials they use if they know someone is watching. Take a regular count of the products in inventory and record the total for comparison in future months. I suggest you vary the time of the month when you physically count your stock. If you always count at the very end of the month, you’ll seldom have half of one month’s purchases on hand. If you always count at the beginning of the month, you’ll likely scare yourself with how much stuff you’ve got.
Produce (or ask your jobber to produce) an inventory sheet that lists the part number, a brief description and your cost for every item in your inventory. Sensibly, you’ll have to re-do the inventory sheet twice a year to correct for price increases and changes in the products you use.
Treating this calculation like a score sheet gives you an opportunity to implement one of the best material savings methods I know of: cutting your techs in on the savings. If your goal is to reduce your material bill by 5 percent, offer your technicians a piece of the pie. I know several shop owners who split the material savings with their technicians. Some folks keep the money in a party kitty and everyone eats and drinks merrily once a month on the shop’s dough. Other shops put the savings in a tool kitty and when techs want a new piece of cutting-edge equipment, they get to vote on if they want to use the kitty to buy it. Still others return some portion of their material savings to their technicians each week in their paychecks. However you do it, giving the people using the paint and materials a chance to profit from their careful husbandry is a great idea.
3. Streamline the Paint System
No matter which brand of paint your shop uses, it has lots of product options. If the various products you now use require separate sets of solvents for the primers, another for the color and a third speed range of solvents for the clear, you’ve got a lot of part numbers and money involved. There’s a school of thought that says the best paint system is one where you can carry one can of all the support products involved in one arm load.
This time the shop meeting to reduce your inventory should include your jobber and paint rep as well as your techs. With everyone’s help it should be possible to whittle down the various product offerings to a functional minimum:
- one moisture-tight bare metal primer,
- one or two primer-surfacers,
- a single tintable 2K sealer,
- a basecoat color,
- a direct gloss color,
- a panel repair clear and
- an overall clear.
If all those products share the same solvent range and catalysts, you’re getting pretty close to a single armload of “paint.”
Remember, just because your paint brand has 35 clears doesn’t mean your shop needs them all. If your painters can’t agree on a single sandable primer surfacer, have them use the two or three choices for a week each and vote for the winner at the end of the month. Simplified paint systems not only save money, they allow the painters to become more proficient with fewer products as well.
But don’t go so far in streamlining that you neglect to stock a few quarts of the specialty products that make a painter’s life easier. Things like fisheye eliminator, flexiblizer, low-gloss interior clear and special plastic primers make jobs better and save time.
4. Establish and Follow Procedures
If your shop posts on the wall the required steps to complete each part of a collision repair, all jobs will be done the same way. Not only will the customer get a consistent job no matter who fixed the vehicle, but you can be sure you’re doing a quality job quickly.
At the all-shop meeting when you delineate what those procedural steps are, make sure everyone gets a chance to speak. Just because your shop has always done something a certain way doesn’t mean it’s the best way. Typically, autobody technicians have worked in a half dozen other shops in their careers. Make sure you poll them for past successes and challenges.
I’ve seen written repair procedures that were overly specific – “attach disc to sanding pad by pressing flat” – to those that were overly general – “thoroughly sand car.” It seems to me the best ones speak to exactly what should happen, while giving credit to the techs to be competent repairmen. I believe these procedures should be laminated and posted in every work stall.
I also believe they should spell out exactly which grit of sandpaper to use at each step in the repair and when to clean the vehicle with which solvent. If all the metal men finished their work in 220 grit and wiped it with wax and grease remover before passing the repair onto the painters, the painters could get more done. When the painters receive some bodyman’s job in 80 grit and covered with dust while another body tech sends them clean, 400-blocked cars, confusion results.
5. Eliminate Re-Work
I’m convinced that re-work is the single biggest drain on material costs. One university study suggests that a re-do costs a body shop three times the original amount in materials. For example, if the average collision repair is $1,500 and 10 percent of that is materials, the original job had $150 invested in it. This means the average re-do costs a shop $450 in materials.
And don’t forget that the out-of-pocket material costs pale in comparison to the customer’s unhappiness if he or she had to bring the car back. That unhappy customer will tell 10 other people what a shoddy job you did.
When re-work is necessary, I’m all for posting the offending technician’s name on the shop bulletin board, much like they used to do at the neighborhood grocery store. As you passed through the checkout lane, returned checks were taped to the side of the cash register. “Don’t accept any more checks from these people” the sign above them said. The grocery store’s goal was to make it so embarrassing to write a bad check that you wouldn’t do it. Re-dos cost lots of money, and embarrassing the technicians who caused them might prevent another.
In my experience, most shops have a “shortcutter.” This is the guy who only puts back six of the eight bolts or only welds two-thirds of the way around a panel. “What the heck,” he says, “that’s close enough for government work.” This shortcutter is responsible for most of the re-dos in the shop (surprise). The other technicians don’t have work come back because the paint was peeling or the door wouldn’t latch, but this guy does. He’s already financially penalized by having to re-repair the job for nothing, but he’s eating a big hole in the shop’s material bill to do it. Post his name on the Wall of Shame and let the other techs give him grief. Maybe next time he’ll follow all the steps listed on the laminated repair procedure sheets.
Most shops will fire a thief who steals material; the tech who knowingly skips steps to save time is just as dishonest.
6. Use ALL HVLP Spray Guns
Whether in a regulated area or not, most shops these days are shooting their $100-a-gallon clearcoats through HVLP spray guns. After all, even if you only saved 10 percent of the material, the savings add up fast.
But too many shops are still shooting undercoats through beat-up conventional spray guns. If you haven’t looked lately, it’s not hard to spend $100 for a gallon of primer or 2K sealer also. Wouldn’t you like to save 10 to 25 percent of that cost, too? My suggestion is that you take the current topcoat HVLP guns ($500 cost) and start using them to spray primer, primer-surfacer and sealer. Then buy the absolute latest generation of HVLP spray guns to shoot your color and clear.
If you haven’t purchased an HVLP spray gun lately, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how well they work. I know some shop painters who tried an early generation HVLP gun (first available in 1987-’88) and had poor results. Whenever I suggested they take a trial run with a newer gun, they refused. “Tried those damn things. Won’t use one till the government makes me!” they say. But every year since California’s Rule 1151 passed, HVLP technology has gotten better.
Look for a new gun that has a small diameter fluid tip. This seems backward to many painters. If the new paints are higher in solids (thicker), then you should use a bigger fluid tip to spray them. Wrong! Because National Rule-compliant paints have more resin and less solvent, the cloud of paint that must be atomized is bigger than with older paints. To successfully flow out more resin requires much more atomization air pressure – which makes for a bigger “tornado” in front of the air cap, which blows the paint off target. What new high-solid paints need is a smaller hole to pass through.
Here’s a neat explanation of the problem according to one of the country’s most senior technical paint instructors:
Imagine, he says, that you’re standing on the same chocolate candy assembly line as Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance. Most everyone has seen the episode of “I Love Lucy” where the two of them are supposed to put the emerging candies in a box. However, the line moves so quickly that they can’t keep up and begin to stuff the excess candy in their mouths. It’s a famous comedy scene.
This instructor’s story goes like this: Your job is to take a big wooden mallet like Wily Coyote uses and smash (atomize) each candy as it comes by on the conveyor belt. However, the candies (paint particles) come by too fast and your can’t flatten them under the mallet quickly enough.
The solution? Make the hole the candies emerge from smaller. Now you can hit each one with the mallet and life is good. Equip all your spray guns with small tips and needles; you’ll like the result.
Throw out any conventional spray guns your shop may still have and insist everybody who paints anything use an HVLP gun. The money you’ll save in material will quickly pay for all the new guns. Plus, you’ll save the environment for your grandchildren.
7. Separate Waste Streams
There are lots of costs associated with the drum of liquid hazardous waste your painters generate. Most of those drums are filled with solvent from cleaning the spray gun, approximately 70 percent by some estimates.
One thing worth considering is how much that other 30 percent costs you. If your shop threw away, unused, a single pint of color every day for a year, you would’ve thrown out $3,000 worth of paint. Add the excess primer, surfacer, sealer and clear to the waste drum and it wouldn’t be hard to imagine throwing out $10,000 in paint products a year. Not to mention it costs an extra $150 to $200 to have the drum hauled away!
Are all your painters equally good at mixing the exact amounts of liquid required? Doubtful. I’ve had great success with separating the waste according to painter before it disappears into the 55-gallon drum. For one month, lock the big drum of waste and make each painter dump his own waste into individual gallon or 5-gallon cans. Once the individual containers are full, have the foreman unlock the big drum and empty the painter’s personal residue can into it.
At the end of each week, compare how much liquid waste each painter generated in comparison to the paint hours they booked. It becomes quickly apparent which painters are mixing up way too much product. “Hey,” they’ll claim, “it’s still cheaper to mix enough paint than it is to stop mid-job and mix more.” I agree. However, a happy medium exists.
Just like the simple act of counting the inventory will make technicians more conscious of what they use, this idea does the same thing. If Painter A sees that Painter B is painting about the same number of cars, but only emptying his waste can half as often, Painter A becomes more careful about how much he mixes.
This trick takes time to implement and monitor, but all painters are trainable. After a month, the point is made and everyone goes back to dumping their waste into the communal drum. Hopefully now it doesn’t fill as fast!
Now Go Save Some Money!
These seven ideas will save money on materials and help ensure a quality repair. But there’s no magic here. Addressing the issues, getting input from those affected and setting up methods to monitor their success will work – no matter what the problem.
Writer Mark Clark, owner of Professional PBE Systems in Waterloo, Iowa, is a well-known industry speaker and consultant. He’s been a contributing editor to BodyShop Business since 1988.
The Wall of Shame
Most shops have a shortcutter – the guy who only puts back six of the eight bolts or only welds two-thirds of the way around a panel. This shortcutter is responsible for most of the re-dos in the shop (big shocker). Although he’s already financially penalized by having to re-repair the job for nothing, he’s eating a big hole in the shop’s material bill to do it. Post his name on a wall of shame and let the other techs give him grief. Maybe next time he’ll follow all the steps necessary to repair the vehicle.
Start Saving Money
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