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Comparing Computerized Measuring Systems

Pilots flying in dense fog have to rely on their instruments to make safe landings. Can you do the equivalent of an instrument landing when repairing a vehicle? Only if you can determine the dimensional accuracy of a structural frame…by using a computerized measuring system

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Writer Charlie Barone has been working in and around the body shop business for the last 35 years, having owned and managed several collision repair shops. He's an ASE Master Certified technician, a licensed damage appraiser and has been writing technical, management and opinion pieces since 1993.

If you were flying a jetliner in a dense fog and had to land at a busy urban airport, you would be required to rely on your instruments as a guide in order to safely land the aircraft. The idea of driving anything without visual references can be intimidating, especially with a cargo of passengers on board.

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These circumstances have applications in collision repair, particularly with the use of measuring systems in determining the dimensional accuracy of a structural frame. That is, can a technician place his trust in a system that tells him that the figures on the screen are true and that it’s safe to complete the structural task and weld the components in place without test fitting the sheet metal? Can you do the equivalent of an instrument landing in a collision repair?

Most technicians feel the need to test fit some sheet metal prior to welding in a radiator support, section of an apron or quarter panel, mostly because if they’re off, the repercussions are enormous. The problem is the time it takes to clamp or screw the components in place and test fit fenders and hood assemblies prior to welding. Heck, it’s difficult enough to get the job right when the inner structure is on the mark, much less when the body has been slammed hard enough to demand a number of hours pulling it out, over and up.

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The manufacturers of computerized and manual measuring systems say that their systems are, in fact, reliable enough to do just that. And from reports in the field, it seems they aren’t lying.

A Growing Trend

Over the past 15 years, the number of shops with computer measuring systems has increased greatly: up to 50 percent, according to the 2009 BodyShop Business Industry Profile. One of the reasons may be because having one is a requirement for many direct repair programs. Furthermore, the burgeoning post-repair inspection business has given consumers another set of what can often be critical eyes on shops’ structural repair work.
I will take a look at three measuring systems in this article, two of which have been sold and used in the U.S. market for over 15 years. The third is a relative newcomer to this market but has built a proven track record in Europe, a business environment that’s as sophisticated as our own.

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One note: Anyone using a frame and unibody dimensioning system must have basic knowledge of the three planes in which vehicles are measured: length, height from datum plane and width from centerline. If one cannot conceptualize these planes instinctively, he or she shouldn’t be doing this kind of work and should be relegated to other simpler tasks in the body shop. These computerized measuring systems are for “A” techs.

Chief

The Chief line of frame repair equipment is one of the most well known brands in the collision repair industry and has earned top spots in shops due to the popularity of its EZ Liner machines. In fact, there are probably more Chief electronic measuring systems in the U.S. than any other system.

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In the ’90s, Chief introduced its Genesis line of laser measuring systems to the collision market and has improved on that basic design today with its Velocity system.


Chief Automotive Technologies

Year Founded: 1972

President/CEO: Gary Kennon

Equipment: Pulling systems, anchoring systems, computerized measuring, welding equipment, comprehensive vehicle specification and collision repair training

Other Info: Became a subsidiary of Dover Corporation in 1984. In 2009, it was integrated with Rotary Lift Company to become Vehicle Service Group (VSG). Headquartered in Madison, Ind., the company serves markets in 43 countries.


The Velocity system operates with a revolving laser that resides under the vehicle and gathers information from targets that are hung from specific locations on a vehicle’s structural and/or frame members. Each target is coded with respect to its size and length which, when read by the laser scanning the target, will tell the system where in relation to the three planes it’s located. For example, target number 28 is hanging from the front frame horn lower mounting hole, and it’s 32 mm short of the specific length, 42 mm higher than the specified height from datum plane and +5 mm away from the centerline of the car. In other words, the frame is back, up and away from its original position.

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When setting up the system, one can use a minimum of three targets to establish a basis for the measurements, or where the car is in space defined by three dimensions. From that point, a technician can hang as many targets as he or she desires in order to diagnose damage, monitor repairs and certify the final results.

To measure upper body points on the car (the ones most commonly damaged in minor collisions), you must set up a bridge from which pointers are hung and aimed at specified points on the vehicle body. For example, the hood latch mounting bolts are commonly referenced in the body dimension guides on which the system operates.

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The Velocity system offers various accessories, one of which includes a scanner that reads the vehicle’s ID from the bar code on the vehicle, which eliminates manual entry of the data and thus minimizes the possibility of error. It wouldn’t be good to pull all day long and finally get the specification for a pickup truck with a different wheelbase than the one on which you’re actually working.

There are extensions for the targets that will give a technician access to virtually any part of the vehicle, including roofs, trunk apertures, etc. Also offered is a Bluetooth-enabled tram gauge that will “talk” with the system, which is helpful when a shop estimator is generating a damage report.
Some basic wheel alignment angles can also be read, including camber, which is commonly altered in a side collision. The Velocity will tell you if that particular angle is correct, and you can then overhaul the suspension components on that corner of the vehicle with confidence. It won’t, however, measure toe-in and toe-out angles, which will have to be done when the car goes for a wheel alignment. But that shouldn’t pose an issue as wheel alignments have become standard operating procedures for body shops when performing structural repairs on vehicles.

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Salespeople tell me that one can get into a system for approximately $28,000, which is actually lower than the price it was in the mid-1990s when I first reviewed the Velocity’s predecessor, the Genesis. This price includes the scanner, targets, a stand-alone PC, technician training, cabinet and attachments.  

As with any measuring system on the market today, the Velocity will allow a tech to do comparative measuring, such as comparing the right side measurements of a structure to those of the same structure on the opposite side. This is helpful when data isn’t published for the area you’re measuring or repairing. In addition, online tech support is available with Chief’s E-Access, where factory experts with access to users’ systems provide advice on how to proceed with the repair or interpret reports.

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Spansei Touch Measuring System

In the automotive universe, Italy is best known for its exotic super cars such as those made by Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati. And for the two-wheel fans, the names Ducati and Bimota conjure up images of blinding speeds and more horsepower than any sane person could possibly want or need.

All of these Italian names are evocative of legendary achievements in their respective worlds of racing. The old adage of race on Sunday and sell on Monday may not apply with these brands as the entry fees (for the cars, at least) are beyond most people’s reality. However, the opportunities for branding and the commercialization of racing are well-known phenomena.  

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The fact remains that Italian engineering has earned its props among those with an appreciation for machinery, precision and performance. It’s in that country that Orazio Spanesi established a reputation as a manufacturer of high-quality body shop repair equipment. Spanesi still operates a shop in Italy, where his company develops welding, measuring and laser cutting machines that are sold to high-end shops in Europe and around the world.

Spanesi makes the Touch Measuring System, which is sold by Collision Equipment Group (CEG), its exclusive distributor in the U.S. Rob Kaltenbacher of Maryland Automotive Equipment demonstrated the Touch system for me in a shop in Finksburg, Md., that’s no longer in full operation but is now used to rebuild total losses and showcase demo equipment.

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Spanesi

Year Founded: 1989

President/CEO: Orazio Spanesi

Equipment: Measuring systems, repair benches, jigs, and spray equipment

Other Info: Orazio Spanezi began as a panel beater in his body shop in the early ’60s. By 1989, his company, based in Italy in a purpose-built factory adjoined to his body shop, had established production of crash repair systems for sale to shops worldwide.


The system uses a generic laptop (a Dell, in this case) with an XP, Vista or Windows 7 operating system and an HP DeskJet. Any printer can be used, however, and customers can also source their own computer or use the system’s. Spanesi, however, doesn’t provide computers as it is not in the computer-selling business.

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The Spanesi Touch system accesses the Mitchell Vehicle Dimension Manual, a generic database used by thousands of body shops in the U.S. that has become the standard in the collision business. You have to purchase and maintain a subscription to the Mitchell data, however, in order to operate the system. The system will, however, function without the proprietary database if the operator desires to simply measure a car to see its state of being.
The Touch system can be used on or in conjunction with any frame machine or unibody repair equipment, or as a stand-alone unit on the shop floor or under an above-ground lift. The unit can measure parts off the car, such as a salvage lower control arm where you can’t tell if it’s good just by looking at it. 

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Ideally, the Touch system is located on a rolling platform firmly secured to the floor under an above-ground lift, but it can be in front of, beside or behind a vehicle. From that point, the tech establishes the vehicle’s position in space by measuring four points on the vehicle, all of which are shown in the Mitchell database. Touch can then orient itself to the vehicle and begin measuring using the logic that, in technician speak, goes, “Well, if the car is here and the pointer is on the bolt head there, it’s this far from where it’s supposed to be.”

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The system is operated by touching points on the vehicle with an articulating, flexible, precise robotic arm, which can be manipulated into any position or angle. The system will automatically read and recognize an extension or accessory attached to the arm as required. The arm will measure anything within 6 feet of its central unit. The operator simply touches the location on a car, presses the button on the end of the arm (which will emit an audible “beep” to let the tech know he has successfully measured that point), and moves to the next position.

One unique option of the Touch system is its ability to perform a wheel alignment (without wheel clamps) and calculate the toe, castor and camber angles. It can also reveal a specific suspension component that might be the reason a tech can’t get a vehicle’s steering aligned to spec. Being able to perform alignments at the body shop saves a lot of time and resources from having to otherwise shag cars to and from alignment shops.

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One of the neatest features of the Touch system, in my opinion, is its ability to measure upper body points. Specifically, the upper tie bar, which is arguably the most commonly damaged structural piece of a car as well as one of the most critical in terms of the final fit and finish of the repair. The Touch system will do that part with no special setup. Want to see where the hood latch is? Touch it and you’re done.

Car-O-Liner

When I think of the Netherlands, I think of blondes, Volvos and Saabs. The first of these items is more of a “Man Show” reaction, but the automobiles are benchmarks for global standards of automotive safety. Swiss Army knives, quality edged steel, sophisticated weaponry and things built for the long-term all come from Sweden…including Car-O-Liners.

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Car-O-Liner

Year Founded: 1979 (Car-O-Liner AB Sweden founded in 1973)

President/CEO: Jeff Kern

Equipment: Benches, mechanical measuring systems, computer measuring systems and spot welding equipment

Other Info: Parent company headquartered in Gothenburg, Sweden and manufactures equipment in Kungsor, Sweden. Runs operations in Sweden, Norway, USA, UK, France, Germany, Thailand and China and sells through local distributors in more than 60 countries.


Car-O-Liner is a company with an unrivaled reputation for high quality collision repair equipment, its legendary mechanical measuring system being the machine that brought precision collision repairs to the world. In fact, vintage Car-O-Liners made and sold in the late ’70s are being sold and traded as valuable business assets worldwide. The people who use Car-O-Liner equipment have almost a religious relationship with the company. Anyone who has experience in the trade and knows such people understands what I mean.

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I visited the warehouse and showroom of the oldest and most successful Car-O-Liner dealer in the U.S., Metropolitan Car-O-Liner, which is owned and operated by former body man Dave Demarest. Demarest is a familiar face at most trade events held in the Northeast. Randy Profeta, Car-O-Liner’s director of technical services and industry relations who comes from Toyota’s technical center in California and is also a fixture at collision repair industry events, was there as well to show me the Car-O-Liner Vision system.

Vision is the current name of the Car-O-Liner computerized measuring system, formerly known as Car-O-Tronic. It’s a slick-operating, machined apparatus that glides on the familiar bridge, a double-railed track that resides under the car being measured. The system is made for the Car-O-Liner frame machine but can be used on virtually any repair system in use today, including floor systems using old-fashioned pots.

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The heart of Vision is the “guitar” (a nickname for the device based on its shape), which glides on the aforementioned bridge while the operator points its robotic arm to any point on the vehicle he or she wishes to measure. The robotic arm can contact any part or point on the vehicle (similar to the Touch system) and record its position in the three spatial planes.

Unlike the Spanesi system, which uses Mitchell data for comparing what is to what it should be, the Car-O-Liner came up with its own data by physically measuring cars in seven locations in Europe, Asia and in its U.S. facility in Wixom, Mich. So what a repairer is getting is not based on an automotive engineer’s concepts but real world information based on cars that have actually gone down the road.

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Car-O-Liner’s database applies to its mechanical measuring system as well as the electronic version, so the panel beater in Malaysia uses the same data sheet or computerized information as the collision repair technician pulling the front structure of a Rolls Royce in Beverly Hills.

Anyone familiar with the Car-O-Liner systems can read the data sheets, as there are few (if any) words on the page or screen. It’s all done with numbers and pictograms, which are universally understood in terms of which attachment is used and where the part of the car one is measuring is located. In fact, there are actually photos of the undercar views to guide the user of the Vision system in case of doubt or confusion.

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In addition to providing training to technicians and front-office personnel on how to use the system, Car-O-Liner teaches damage analysis and ways to sell a shop’s services. These operations may include tasks that were previously overlooked or ignored. It’s something of a cultural lesson in body shop economics, so to speak.

The Vision system will generate a multitude of reports that will tell a claims adjuster, or the customer who just walked in from the parking lot, what condition their car is in now, as opposed to what condition it’s supposed to be in. This task is accomplished with a multitude of reports generated by the Vision system in various graphical formats and diagrams.

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A Necessary Tool

In order to be competitive in collision repair today, you must not only be able to show customers that you recognize the structural damage present in their cars, but also prove that the vehicles were repaired accurately after you get the jobs. A computer measuring system that can create documents and backup reports to include in customers’ files is the only way you can accomplish this. But the value of these systems doesn’t end there – they open up worlds of possibility from doing re-repairs and used car and post-repair inspections to providing the opportunity to sell services and perform operations with newfound skill and accuracy.

Writer Charlie Barone has been working in and around the body shop business for the past 35 years, having owned and managed several collision repair shops. He’s an ASE Master Certified technician and a licensed damage appraiser, and has been writing technical, management and opinion pieces since 1993. Barone can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].the upper body measuring bridge used with the chief velocity measuring system. note the sliding pointers on the horizontal bar above the headlamps and radiator support.   the touch system utilizes a precision pointer, which the technician simply touches on an area of a vehicle to get a measurement.Using the extensions provided with the Vision system, one can easily measure any upper body point, such as the left end of the tie bar on this Toyota.

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