Is it as obvious to you as it is to me that too many techs aren’t using measuring systems these days? I see cars with previous collision damage that still have structural damage after the repair. Some trucks even have two bald tires at the front right and rear left or vice versa. Obviously, these vehicles weren’t returned to factory specs.
But why are so many techs skipping this part of the repair process? One reason is the lack of proper compensation throughout the collision industry. Fifteen years ago, most shops got double the setup time they get now. This leaves many of us wondering why so few shop owners have stood up to insurance companies over the years. Your grocer doesn’t have to sell you milk for the same price as every other store in town, so why do so many shop owners settle for the same standard price on this procedure (as well as many others)?
As we all know, many techs simply will not perform some procedures if they can get by without them and get the car out the door faster. This is especially true if the procedure has minimal noticeable effect on safety, appearance or vehicle function. If a car with front-bumper and grille damage has just a 5 mm side sway in the front structure, why fool around with the measuring system when you can give it a quick tug, check it with the tram gauge and be done? This is the philosophy in most body shops these days (and the rationalization of shortcuts certainly doesn’t stop with the measuring system).
The measuring system, however, helps techs to accurately return vehicles to the correct OEM specification. The best argument I’ve heard for the use of the measuring system comes from Mark, a Pennsylvania tech, who says, “The time spent measuring to determine damage is saved in the repair process. Anybody who doesn’t measure before repairing is not repairing.”
Still, the question remains: How can the collision industry or the insurance industry expect techs to perform all procedures – including measuring – and to do top quality repairs on every vehicle when there are so many procedures that pay close to minimum wage after all time spent is considered? How?
By charging for the procedures – and by making sure techs perform them.
Setup and Measure: Not One Lump Sum
Many techs I contacted about this issue say setup and measure is lumped into one procedure and includes the setup of the vehicle in the frame machine’s holding system. Very few shops charge additional diagnostic time or access time to remove panels or shields on the underside of the vehicle. Upper body measurements also are included in the setup and measure time.
For 1.5-2.5 labor hours, depending on where you live, techs are expected to drive, push, pull or drag a vehicle onto the bench, set it up in the holding system, set up the measuring system with the upper body measuring equipment and determine the extent of the damage to the vehicle. This usually takes every bit of two hours, depending on the equipment, and you haven’t started making pulls yet.
Any measurements taken during the repair process are included, and if some portion of the measuring system has to be moved or removed to avoid damage while pulling and repairing of the structure takes place, this is also included in the measuring time. Of course, then you have to reinstall the removed equipment to re-measure. And let’s not forget that everything has to be taken back apart and put away and the vehicle has to be removed from the holding system when you’re finished. Also keep in mind that among the frame equipment manufacturers whose equipment I’ve used, most specified that their hardware be tightened by hand and not with an impact wrench. With 16 bolts on the unibody pinch weld clamps alone, this single procedure called “setup and measure” turns out to be a lot of work when done properly. Many techs just impact the bolts because it’s not their equipment anyway, and then they leave the measuring system in the corner to collect dust and measure everything with a tram gauge (if that).
Techs Take Shortcuts to Beat the Clock
There still are a lot of techs who don’t thoroughly measure vehicles. And whether or not cars are measured doesn’t necessarily depend on which shop you’re in. As a shop owner, you might think every car gets measured, but if you’re not watching your crew closely, some vehicles are probably slipping through without seeing the measuring system. On an Internet discussion board, Paul Demers, a Florida tech, explained: “It appears to depend on the tech. Some who I’ve worked with never set up a measuring system. Others set up the measuring system about 50 percent of the time (usually after a request from the boss). If I put a vehicle on the rack, I always set up a measuring system.”
But Paul isn’t your common Joe.
Let’s look at this from another angle. How many techs do you think would actually start using the measuring system on every bench job if it paid more to do so? Some. But even if the setup and measure time were tripled, some techs would still keep beating the clock with the quick tug and tram method. And as long as shop owners are making money and customers aren’t complaining, no one seems to care whether techs measured the cars or not.
Bodymen aren’t stupid. If the sheet says “Setup – Measure … 2.0 hrs,” a lot of techs will “set up” the car on the frame machine, “measure” it with a tram gauge and then smile when they say, “I did what the paperwork says.” I also see a lot of sheets that are written, “Pull and Square Unibody – includes setup … 6.0 hrs.” Am I supposed to measure this car at all? I apologize for any toes I step on here, but a sloppily written sheet is an invitation to a sloppy repair. What exactly do you do when you “pull and square”?
Should techs do what they know needs to be done? I don’t know. I think that really depends on the situation. Different people have different ideas about what needs to be done sometimes. For instance, if I have a job with minor damage to the front, and the front frame rails are swayed 5 mm. It isn’t much, but it’s more than the generally recommended 3 mm maximum tolerance. There are a lot of vehicles that can be assembled, the wheels can be aligned and the customer can drive around for years never knowing that his frame rails are slightly swayed. A lot of techs won’t even put a car like this on the frame machine. Granted, it’s not right, but it happens even in shops with the best reputations.
Now suppose this vehicle comes to me with the 5 mm sway in the front end. I check the paper work to find, “Pull and Square Unibody – incl. setup….. 3.0 hrs.” Now I know what needs to be done. The car needs to be locked into the pinchweld clamps, the measuring system needs to be set up – including the upper body measuring equipment – and the frame rails need to be pulled to within 3 mm of the OEM-recommended specifications.
But what if I do this: Instead of driving the car onto a frame machine, I keep the car in my work stall. I put a clamp on the front of the pinchweld on the side of the vehicle to which the front end is swayed. I put another clamp at the back of the other pinchweld. With the clamps chained to anchors in the floor of the shop, the car isn’t firmly secured like it would be on the frame machine, but it won’t slide around while you make a quick 1,500-2,000-pound pull on the front end. After I pull the front end, I check with a tram gauge or a measuring tape by measuring from the rear bolt of one fender to the front bolt of the other fender. Then I measure from the other rear bolt to front bolt. The two measurements are within 3 mm – so I’m finished.
Now my question is this: If my instructions are simply “Pull and Square Unibody” and it pays three hours labor, should I spend four hours or more on the frame machine doing what needs to be done? Or should I spend two hours on the floor, beating the clock by an hour and still turning out a better job than at least half the industry is willing to do with the same car? Still, it wasn’t properly measured. And now I’m back to the previous questions. Am I supposed to measure this car at all? What exactly do you do to a vehicle that you “pull and square”?
Another Reason Techs Don’t Measure
Some techs don’t measure simply because they don’t know how. Many haven’t had enough training to understand the system. This is particularly true with digital measuring systems. An afternoon demo or one day in the shop working with a tech just doesn’t cut it for training.
A former employer of mine purchased a $30,000 measuring system when digital measuring first hit the market. The salesman from the frame equipment company came out, dropped off the measuring system and demonstrated it by measuring a few cars in the shop.
The computer had Windows 3.1, which meant absolutely nothing to me at the time since I’d never used a computer before in my life. But the program seemed simple enough, and the salesman walked us through a basic eight-point measurement. Then we set up the upper body equipment. We then took it all down, shut down the computer and moved across the shop to another frame machine where we measured another car. When we finished, the salesman explained that he and another instructor would return the following week to spend a few days in the shop, working with all of us on the measuring system. They didn’t come back for four weeks, and then they only spent one day in the shop with the techs.
By then, I’d spent three Saturdays with the computer. I fooled around with the measuring system a few hours in the morning on my day off, when the shop was quiet. I remembered the salesman telling me to use the “help” feature like an instruction manual, so if I got stuck, I just checked there for information. That’s also where I found the Windows tutorial.
After three Saturday mornings of measuring and three Saturday afternoons of drawing and printing pictures with the light pen in the Windows paintbrush program, I’d learned to set up the measuring system and to use it to thoroughly measure and diagnose damage. I also had grown addicted to the computer and decided to make my own contribution to Bill’s billions. Yep, I bought a computer of my own.
But how many techs take the same interest I did and learn to use digital measuring systems … on their own?
At first, very few techs where I worked wanted anything to do with the system. Of the six body techs who worked in that shop, two including me took an interest in it. The remaining four never learned to use the system.
So what’s a shop owner to do? Shop owners could refuse payment for frame repairs until a manager has verified that the vehicle has been properly measured and returned to factory specifications. A lot of techs won’t take time to learn to use new equipment if they can make the money without using it.
So how much should it pay to perform the aforementioned procedures? I checked the front pages of the estimating guide used where I work. Under the heading “Additions to Labor Times,” the guide said, “Due to the wide range of collision damage and vehicle conditions, labor times for the following operations are not included in the guide.” Among these operations were “Measure and Identify: Structural Damage to Unibody Vehicles” and “Frame Setup,” which was followed by a reference to the definitions section. I noticed they were listed separately as two operations.
In the definitions section, under “Frame Setup,” I found this: “This procedure includes the following: Disconnect battery or remove as necessary. Lift or jack up vehicle. Remove wheels as needed. Attach mounting brackets – includes detaching or moving necessary lines, brackets or bolted-on parts for access. Lower vehicle onto machine as per manufacturer’s direction. Remove vehicle from machine.”
There’s nothing in the definition of frame setup about measuring. The measuring process is listed as a separate procedure. So why are so many shops so willing to lump these two procedures into one and sell them for the price of one?
Go Ahead. Add That Separate Line Item …
Instead of losing money on one procedure and making up the loss with a shortcut or by overcharging for another procedure, wouldn’t it be better to make a profit on every procedure?
If a separate line were added to your estimate for the setup of the measuring system in addition to the setup of the vehicle on the frame machine, some of your techs might be more willing to knock the dust off the old UMS once and awhile. Get techs additional pay for diagnosis of structural damage, and you’ll definitely get their attention.
If you’ve got a digital measuring system, I can’t think of a better way to cover the high price tag than to start making money on measuring. And if you don’t have digital, there’s no time like the present to start charging realistic prices for measuring so you can save up for a down payment. Also, with the additional monetary motivation, you can get your techs in the habit of measuring every vehicle that goes onto the frame machine so when the digital system arrives, they’ll have less to learn.
What You Can Do to Get Paid
The measuring system saves the time you’d spend fighting parts to get them to fit properly. And how often do you have to put a car on the machine a second time if it was measured the first time? Wouldn’t it be easier to use the measuring system than to slot holes, install shims and bend or otherwise modify parts to fit together? Apparently not, by the looks of some of the repairs I’ve seen over the years.
On the other hand, I’m wondering if it’s a good idea to admit in print that time spent measuring is saved in repair. After all, wouldn’t the insurance industry just love to justify their refusal to pay for something? “Why should we pay you to do something that saves you time?” would be the question asked in body shops across the country. Trouble is, if the compensation for measuring goes any lower, you can forget about encouraging more techs to use your measuring system.
Something needs to give.
If the collision industry wants to see the dust knocked off the measuring systems, I’d say three things need to change:
1. Shop owners need to stand up to insurance companies and go to bat for their techs.
If frame setup pays two hours, measuring system setup pays two hours, and diagnostic time and access time are determined by the severity of the damage, your tech will be more willing to take the time to thoroughly inspect the damage. As Mark, the Pennsylvania tech, says, “What most of you must understand is that diagnosis of the damage is not part of set-up. It must be charged accordingly.”
Granted, this may seem a bit oversimplified, but to really address it would take another whole article. Still, some shops are getting paid for all P-page procedures. The secret is to thoroughly educate your customer about the repairs that will be done to the car. Most shop owners are afraid to tell the customer too much. Some are afraid to make waves with the insurance company. Others don’t want customers to know too much because the repairs aren’t right.
2. Techs need to perform the procedures, and shops need to stop paying techs for procedures they don’t perform.
It should be clear to all of your techs that after you fight to get paid for all procedures, they must perform all procedures. Sure, it’s pure profit for any procedure that the insurance company pays for that isn’t performed. It’s money for nothing. And a lot of shop owners don’t care about the procedures that were skipped as long as the customer takes the car. But we may be experiencing the beginning of the end of the days of shortcuts and cost shifting as more consumers learn their rights. Many collision customers are requesting copies of every document they’re entitled to so they can keep records of what was done (or what was supposed to have been done) to the vehicle. And companies like Wreck Check are following up on repairs. Diminished value assessments and proper documentation can be used to hold shops and techs responsible for their shortcuts. A good tech shouldn’t need a baby sitter. If you regularly catch a tech cutting corners, replace him.
3. Shops and equipment manufacturers need to provide better training.
When I attended a four-day training seminar, my employer paid for my plane ticket, and the equipment manufacturer supplied hotel accommodations, all meals, transportation back and forth to the airport and to classes from the hotel where I and about 15 fellow students stayed. The training facility had a large classroom with 20 computers and a half dozen frame machines, each with its own digital measuring system just like the one my employer had. For the money that goes into training facilities and accommodations for 15-20 people per week, I would think the equipment manufacturer could put a few more people in the field so their sales rep, or maybe somebody else, could spend more time in the shop with the guys.
As for what went on in the shop …
Our shop manager wouldn’t agree to pay me 20 hours to take a light workload for one week so I could spend time teaching the other techs what I’d learned. So, I helped the guys as much as could when I could, but most lost interest in digital measuring pretty quick.
Shop owners can make the difference. Start by charging realistic fees for the work. Techs would be more eager to learn a procedure they can make good money performing. There has to be an incentive or a lot of techs these days just won’t spend time furthering their knowledge of the process. You can teach an old dog new tricks if you show the old dog the right incentive.
Fifteen years ago, the average flat rate in this area was $9.50 to $10 and setup time was four hours. Now the average rate is $13 at two hours. In 15 years, we went from $40 to $26 for the same procedure. That’s why techs are leaving the industry. That’s why so few of the remaining techs show little interest in learning anything new.
Make It a Pleasure to Measure
A lot of modern vehicles have little or no mercy on the tech who never uses the measuring system. Yet many techs still won’t use the system because they aren’t paid enough. And if all of your techs are setting up the measuring system on every car they put on the frame machine, it needs to be a profitable procedure for all. At two hours on the average for setup and measure, I’d say the only repairers making a profit on the procedure are the ones not doing it.
Writer Paul Bailey, a contributing editor to BodyShop Business, has been a collision repairman for 17 years and is an avid photographer and writer who maintains a consumer-awareness Web page in his spare time. He resides in Florida with his wife, Cathy.