Better, Not Bigger: Shop Layout and Design

Body Shop Layout and Design

By altering the collision repair process and better using what you've already got, a 10,000- to 20,000-square-foot facility can produce what traditionally required 75,000 to 100,000 square feet.

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

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

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

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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