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Breaking the Bottleneck

The collision industry has gone through a gamut of changes in
the last 20 years – most of them due to the constantly changing
automobile industry and the technology required to repair those
vehicles to preaccident condition. Others have been due to EPA
guidelines and the concern for the environment. Along with these
changes, new equipment, materials and procedures have been introduced.

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Just recently, however, the changes have begun to target the very
core of our industry – how we do business.

For a few years, innovators have introduced "turnkey processes"
to their organizations, targeting selected areas within their
businesses. These systems have given the innovators a competitive
advantage, and they’ve prospered justifiably. Today, however,
we’re faced with a much different situation, a change that doesn’t
come from technological changes but from within our indusry: consolidation.

Consolidation of our industry is inevitable. There are simply
too many repair facilities to do the existing market potential,
and it isn’t going to get any better. What do systems-driven,
volume-based organizations with unlimited financial resources
see in our industry?

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Tremendous inefficiency for one thing! And for such organizations,
inefficiency translates into opportunity and a return on investment
when systems and processes are implemented. I’m sure you’ve heard
of people who buy real estate or houses and, with a little fixing
up, make a killing during the resale. This is exactly what investors
look for and see in our industry.

Unfortunately, you can’t wait until it hits you. Ask the small
grocery store owner how business today is compared to the late
1970s. It’s a different world with different rules.

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Like other industries, it’s critical for us to look at our processes
and develop systems to better assist us in surviving in the future.
Soon, you’ll be expected to provide a high-quality product at
a lower cost and, very importantly, within a much shorter time
frame. You may have already heard the phrase, "cheaper, faster
and better," but soon, you’ll be expected to do all three
– not just one or two. If you want to survive in an increasingly
demanding market, you have to break through the bottlenecks strangling
your shop’s productivity and profits.

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Where to Start

The first area we must get a better handle on is the paint department.
The efficiency gains possible in this department are astronomical,
and the commitment necessary to achieve these gains is much easier
to visualize than in other production areas of the shop.

First, answer the following questions honestly. Give yourself
2 points for every "yes" answer, 1 point for every "almost
never" answer and 0 points for each "no" answer.

1. ______ Do you feel your paint department is a bottleneck of
the production process?

2. ______ Do you have refinisher(s) who make more money than any
other employee (yourself included)?

3. ______ Does it ever occur that the color doesn’t match once
the vehicle is in the booth and must then be tinted?

4. ______ Do you have one booth and multiple refinishers coordinating
schedules to use it?

5. ______ Do you have a difficult time getting the parts "edged
in" in time for the metal department?

6. ______ Your paint department isn’t very busy the first part
of the week but come Thursday it’s packed?

7. ______ Your gross profit on materials is less than 25 percent?

Your Total Number of Points : ______ .

If you scored less than 5 points, you already have insight into
the processes discussed in this article that will help you to
score 0 after implementation. If you scored 5 to 8 points, you’ll
need to prepare yourself to look at these processes honestly and
with an open mind. If you scored more than 8 points, hold on –
suggestion of the following processes may come as a shock.

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To let you in on a little grading secret, none of the above scenarios
should ever happen. Some are due to different problems, but all
relate to efficiency and can’t continue if you wish to remain
competitive in the future.

Scheduling Processes

The workflow of the refinishing department is directly affected
by the initial scheduling of vehicles in for repairs. "Bring
it in Monday, and it will be done Friday," is a very poor
scheduling system, but it’s recited often.

Vehicles must be properly scheduled to maximize the employee resources
and work space of the paint shop. How do you do that? Categorizing
jobs can lead to better scheduling. A job that requires four days
can be scheduled for metal work to be performed Thursday or Friday
and for refinish work to be done Monday. This may sound elementary,
but I have yet to come across a shop that doesn’t experience the
heaviest volume of drop-off vehicles on Mondays and the heaviest
volume of promised deliveries on Fridays. This scheduling system
creates a bottleneck and poor efficiency before the vehicle is
even pulled into the shop.

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Color Verification

How many times have you heard, "The color doesn’t match when
it’s in the booth"? If you’ve heard it even once, you’ve
heard it to too many times. Color should be verified, at the latest,
during the edging process.

Let’s look at it a different way. How many vehicles that don’t
require refinishing enter your shop? Probably very few, but why
doesn’t anyone plan out exactly how much paint is needed, mix
it and then verify the color match before the vehicle is in the
paint department? The potential efficiency gains your shop could
achieve if someone verified the color before the vehicle entered
production, mixed the product and had it ready precisely when
it was needed is astounding. Implementing this process alone could
increase your refinishing efficiency by 25 percent.

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How is that possible, you ask? There’s no law that requires your
technicians to look up a paint code, mix the product, do a spray-out
test panel, find out it doesn’t match and then find out there
are five or more variances. Today, options are available to almost
eliminate this time-wasting process.

First, if your paint system has a spectrophotometer available,
use it. Spectrophotometers have been around for many years. But
within the last several years, they’ve been refined with software
improvements to make them practical for the repair industry. As
with anything computer related these days, they’ve become faster,
and the price has dropped. This piece of equipment can greatly
assist in obtaining a blendable match immediately and can be a
great marketing tool during the estimating stages.

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There are two main types of spectrophotometers used today. Both
bounce an internal light source off a painted area to read the
reflected wavelengths of color. These reflected wavelengths produce
a "fingerprint" of the color. With one type of equipment,
this color analysis is compared to a data base of formulas and
characteristics of tinting bases once it’s downloaded into a computer
system. With the other type, the color is analyzed against a data
base of colors contained within the unit. Either design will provide
a blendable match a high percentage of the time if the surface
is cleaned before a reading is taken and if the equipment is calibrated
properly and used according to directions.

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The second option: If your paint system offers a color-mapping
system, get it. Paint manufacturers are beginning to produce color
maps for their systems, though they’re not necessarily a new idea.
One particular system has had color mapping available for more
than 10 years. Today, it’s becoming more refined and widespread.

What are color maps? They’re actual "spray outs" of
the color formulas. Instead of looking up a paint code for a color,
your painters can now grab the colors that look close and identify
one that’s blendable from the start. Does it matter that it might
not match the vehicle type, year or manufacturer? An acceptable
color match isn’t necessarily what’s on the paint code label,
but rather what you and your customer see.

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If these two systems aren’t available, then you’ll need to produce
spray-out panels with formulas on the back for every job. Using
3-inch-by-5-inch primed aluminum may provide a more permanent
example, but it isn’t absolutely required. The important thing
is to write the formula applied, as well as any other important
variables, on the back of the panel. This must include the tinting
performed to get it to the sprayed color, as well as any undercoat-color
needs. These panels should then be stored on a wall rack and used
as a color map. This process can also serve as a supplement to
any paint manufacturer’s program.

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The point is to have tinting done before the vehicle stops production,
especially in the booth. If you don’t have a paint manufacturer’s
color map, it may take awhile to build a sufficient inventory
to see results, but just spraying out common colors such as white
variances will surely cut down on wasted time and materials.

Parts

Even with all the possible challenges, parts requiring at least
some refinishing should be preordered, their color verified and
the actual parts "edged in" before the vehicle goes
into production. To increase efficiency, many shops will completely
refinish parts off the vehicle. Even radiator supports and inner
front aprons are completely refinished and welded areas are cleaned
when needed. After any metal work has been performed on adjacent
panels, these areas are then refinished and blending is performed
as the job dictates.

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Right about now, you’re probably asking yourself, "How can
this possibly work?" It can, if color verification is performed
and parts edging is handled like any other job for the booth.
Often, however, parts are handled at the time the metal department
needs them.

Another efficiency gain is the ability to handle multiple parts
and colors from multiple vehicles at the same time rather than
one at a time. All this requires is your technicians to look at
the jobs much earlier and become proactive in preparation and
planning.

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Production Improvements

A great deal of wasted time is also spent drying paint products
– but this will no longer be acceptable to stay competitive in
the future. Today, short-wave infrared drying units can increase
efficiency dramatically. Unfortunately, they seem to be used more
often to dry the door jambs that were forgotten when the customer
is waiting for his vehicle than to be put into a system that improves
production.

In most cases, shops will need more of this type of equipment,
training on how to get efficiency gains that pay for the investment
and a commitment to the new processes.

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These units can shorten primer and topcoat drying to a few minutes
rather than hours, but they’re not used consistently by most paint
departments. Imagine the efficiency gains that can be reached
if your technicians could dry something in 10 minutes rather than
60 minutes. This available technology and its resulting efficiency
gains will change the way vehicles flow through your shop, as
well as the timing of operations on each vehicle. This, too, will
require training and accountabilities, but it will lead to vehicles
moving through the paint department process much quicker and with
less difficulty.

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Paint Materials

It’s obvious that systems in the paint department in regard to
material usage, location and incentives are greatly needed to
prepare for the future. Wasting materials is the same as throwing
money out the door. Unfortunately, it’s also not an area that
can be monitored cost effectively by management every second of
the day. Incentives must be used to achieve such benefits.

Some areas that can be reviewed immediately, however, involve
the mixing of materials and the waste produced when too much is
mixed. HVLP/LVLP equipment have provided a mechanism to lower
paint-material consumption dramatically. Unfortunately, many shops
haven’t realized the benefits because they’re now disposing of
twice the amount they should be. Habits of mixing pints, quarts
or liters must be changed to ounces and milliliters through training
and accountabilities.

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Color-family collection containers should also be used to store
uncatalyzed color when a small amount remains from a job. This
collection can be used in the future as a base color before the
actual color is applied. Containers for reds, golds, greens, blues,
whites, yellows, browns and silvers are several examples of major
color families that could be collected. This process will provide
a method to improve the profitability of your paint materials.

Shops of the future are expected to maintain a profit margin on
materials of more than 40 percent. This can be achieved today
with proper incentive programs and organization strategies.

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Personnel of the Future

Resistance to change often appears more often with high-tech refinishers
when they’re asked to implement new ideas, such as those mentioned
earlier, into an established system. This is unfortunate since
today’s paint systems themselves don’t require expensive, high-tech
people to apply them. In fact, an entry-level person with aptitude
could, in six months, be taught to apply products as well as anyone
else. In most cases, however, he won’t have the ability to problem
solve immediately. In the future, high-tech painters will be utilized
in positions of management rather than production, and this will
most certainly require management training for many of them, as
well as a willingness to set themselves apart from those who won’t
change.

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It will become much more cost effective to have a management level,
such as the one mentioned, if multiple shifts of lower-tech sprayers
are also created. In addition, consider hiring women as color
verification experts since their ability to work with colors has
been proven to be better than men’s. This will create a new labor
pool to draw from that historically hasn’t been tapped, as well
as lead to the replacement of many positions in the paint department
currently held predominantly by males.

Breaking the Bottleneck

Most systems to improve efficiency in the paint department and
break though the bottlenecks are already available. Unfortunately,
not many shops have utilized them to their full potential. In
the future, however, these efficiencies will be needed for more
than a competitive advantage – they’ll be a requirement to survive.
In the future, the market may require repair jobs to be completed
in half the time they’re currently scheduled to be. If you miss,
you may be penalized or your competition may then have the opportunity
to jump in.

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Though this article looked at the refinishing side of the production
process, other production operations need to be re-examined as
well. Don’t spend time dwelling on how to get by or how to resist
the inevitable change. Instead, ask yourself what opportunities
and profits are available to improve and prepare for the challenges
that lie ahead. Remember, performing repairs cheaper, faster and
better is the wave of the future. By implementing new processes
and ideas for breaking through any bottlenecks holding your shop
back from higher productivity and profits, you can be sure your
shop survives – no matter what the future may hold.

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Writer Tony Passwater is a long-time industry educator and
consultant who’s been a collision repair facility owner, vocational
educator and I-CAR international instructor; has taught seminars
across the United States, Korea and China; and is currently an
industry consultant. He can be contacted at (317) 290-0611 or
([email protected]).

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