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Fixing Plastics is Possible – and Profitable

It was 1968 and this shop was successfully repairing plastics. So why is it that shops today aren’t?

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When I walked in the door, the shop owner, Eddy, caught my eye and called me over to see what he was doing. This guy had owned body shops for more than 20 years and at the time owned four in Seattle. He also owned about one-third of the commercial real estate in the neighborhood where I lived.

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So if he wanted to show me something, I wanted to see it – especially since he was so excited.

While I watched, Eddy and one of his body technicians prepared, bonded and finished a plastic grill. Wow! They’d fixed a plastic part from a customer’s car and it looked great.

But how durable was the repair?

I had the same experience with plastic that everyone else had by then. I’d worked on fiberglass boats and Corvette parts and had built all kinds of plastic models: boats, planes, cars, etc. I knew about “glue.” There was no way Eddy’s hard-plastic repair was going to last. My plastic models were broken proof of that.

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But I was wrong. The stuff Eddy was using was tough. It melted and “welded” the parts together as strong as the original. Awesome! Plastic repairs! (Maybe awesome is the wrong expletive. It was 1968, so I think the term was cool.) In all the years Eddy and I did business together (about another 20 years), I never received a complaint from a customer about poor or failed plastic repairs from his shop.

I’m not naive enough to believe problems didn’t happen. It’s just that Eddy and his staff solved them. When new plastics appeared on cars, Eddy was the first to find out what worked and how to do the repairs right the first time. When problems arose, he was the first to find out why something failed – and he took care of the failure and the customer.

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I can’t recount to you all that I learned from Eddy Guarneau, but plastic repairs and a willingness to accept the challenges of change were just a couple of items.

I was an auto adjuster in 1968 when Eddy started fixing plastics. His shops repaired thousands of our customer’s cars over the years.

He’s since retired, but not me. I’m still looking at cars. Not just in Seattle now but across the country. And there are still plastic parts. Lots of them. But what I see today is as disappointing as what I saw in the ’60s. Only a few shops really try to fix plastic – even though there’s more plastic used today than ever before.

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Most estimators seem puzzled, reluctant and generally unwilling to commit to repairing plastic.

Are there new kinds of plastics? Yes. Lots of new stuff coming out every year. Can it be repaired? Yes. And most of it can be repaired easier than ever before.

When Eddy was fixing plastics in 1968, he was the only one in the market doing it. He had no help. The repair products available weren’t all made for cars, but his spirit was there and he made plastic repairs work for his shop, his customers and their insurers.

Today, shops have advantages that weren’t available then. We have multiple companies performing research and conducting training. Hundreds of people in every metropolitan market are doing R&D, marketing and training to help us repair automotive plastics. It should be easier today. It is easier today.

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But for some reason, there’s still resistance to fixing plastics.

As recently as last week, I was reviewing work being done in body shops. Never mind what market. I find the same things all across the country: plastic parts being thrown away or bumper covers going to remanufacturers that should be repaired in the shop.

But let’s just focus on bumper covers and fascias for now, OK?

Every trade show I attend, adhesive manufacturers demonstrate that covers can be repaired. I-CAR and Tech-Cor have proven that plastics are repairable. With all the bumper remanufacturers springing up across the country, they too have discovered that plastic covers can be repaired.

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Yet estimators continue to tell me that when they repair plastics, it doesn’t work – that it’s more economical to replace it, that they’ve had too many failures and that they’re concerned about customer satisfaction.

I’m always curious and I want details, so I ask, “What was the customer’s name who had the last plastic repair failure? What kind of plastic was it that failed? What specific product was used to do the repairs? What were the steps used to prepare the damaged plastic? Is the technician who did the repairs still employed here?”

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Most times, the last failure was so long ago that nobody remembers the customer and the estimators have a difficult time telling me what kind of plastic was involved. And most of them don’t know which product is used to repair the various types of plastics. Many times, the technician who did the failed repairs is no longer at that shop – and often because that technician had too many comebacks. Is that a surprise?

When pushed for answers, the shops find it difficult to identify plastic repair failures. This is probably due to a few issues. The failures were a long time ago and they haven’t done any repairs since. Or the shop repairs some plastics and does it well, but the estimator has no clue what the technicians are able to accomplish. Or, the resistance to repair is a habit the estimator hasn’t been forced to address.

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The end result of most of these conversations is that, when the repairs seem economical to me, I offer to pay for both of us to learn. The shop agrees to try to repair the part and get repair help from their product supplier. If repairs don’t work, then I agree to pay for their time for the attempt and agree to buy an OE part to help expedite the delivery of the car to the customer. The decision to repair or replace with OE is left up to the judgment of the shop. No second-guessing, no need to justify why it didn’t work and no value judgments.

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We’re in this together. They trust that I’ll pay and I trust that they’ll try.

I’m not naive enough to believe that all of the covers wound up being repaired. However, I’ve been making this offer for 12 years and haven’t paid for an OE part yet. Also, many of the shops have informed me that they did repair it and that it worked. Most say they got help from their supplier and now know why they had failures in the past. Those who share information with me say the plastic hadn’t been properly identified or properly prepared or the material used to do the repairs had been the wrong choice.

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In one shop, my local manager and the shop manager were discussing a bumper cover repair. Though the estimate included a remanufactured cover, they both agreed the shop could repair it because the impact was to the corner. The convex curve was now concave, and there was paint damage in the primary impact area. The cover had waves and buckles across the top where it mounted to the reinforcement. The shop manager reluctantly agreed to repair time that made the cover economical to repair. We saved some money, and the shop kept their labor in-house.

The shop owner and I observed these negotiations and after our two managers moved on to other cars, the shop owner pulled me aside to ask why we were so adamant this cover be repaired. His concern was genuine, and he was asking me to help him understand. He wasn’t being difficult; he just didn’t believe it was repairable. And even if they could repair it within the time we agreed to, he still had to satisfy the customer. So he was asking me give him some insight.

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I was pleased he wanted my input. I asked his permission to show him why. He agreed. I pushed the assembly out into the sun, and even though we were both in dress shirts, ties and good slacks, we went looking for tools. We secured a heat gun, a quarter drive ratchet, a 10-mm socket and a screwdriver with a rounded wooden handle.

We went back to the bumper, and the two of us took it apart. Working together we got the cover off. Using the heat gun and some direct pressure from the screwdriver handle, we reversed the damage to the cover. When we were done, there were no distortions in the cover. Other than scuffed paint, it looked like new again. The heat from the sun had warmed the entire surface and allowed it to relax back to its original shape other than the concave corner. The waves across the top were caused by the reinforcement that we replaced, since it was damaged. With the plastic softened by the sun and the heat gun, we were able to reverse the corner so we didn’t disturb any more of the paint.

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It took us 20 minutes to get to this point.

We then found a sander and some two-part epoxy. He sanded and cleaned the damaged area while I mixed some two-part epoxy. Twenty minutes later, we had the cover ready for final sanding and paint.

We washed our hands and caught up with our two managers. The shop owner was amazed and excited. He informed me – in front of his manager – that his technicians and his estimator told him regularly that plastic couldn’t be repaired. He was on the phone to his material supplier before we left, arranging a training session for his whole shop.

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I called the owner of the vehicle, who was a policyholder, and explained the change in the estimate. He was happy with the idea that his own bumper cover was repaired. We discussed the remanufacturing process and how the shop was doing the same general repairs. The repair product brand may be different, but the results would be the same or better and guaranteed by the shop and by us.

I gave the customer my name and phone number and left my business card at the shop for him. I asked him to call me if he had any problems with the cover.

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That was two years ago and no call yet.

What’s the point of this “war story”? Ladies and gentlemen, plastics are repairable. Some can’t be fixed because it isn’t economical. Some can’t be fixed because the repairs would be noticeable to the customer. Some can’t be fixed because the plastic is contaminated (radiators, gas tanks, batteries, etc.). And some can’t be fixed because of the shape of the part. But the rest is repairable and that still leaves a lot of plastic.

The next time you’re in the back of your shop, look at what’s being thrown away. This stuff goes into your landfill and it sometimes costs you money to get rid of.

Some shop estimators/managers advise me that their technicians tell them plastic can’t be repaired, so they don’t write it. Some technicians have told me they’d be happy to repair plastic because they’d make more money repairing it than from the flat rate.

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So why don’t they repair it? Because it’s not on the estimate. Because it wasn’t written for repair by the shop estimator or appraiser.

What’s the industry standard here? If it’s economically repairable, then it should be repaired, right? If not, it should be replaced. The repairs should be done in the shop to maximize profits. And if it can be “remanufactured,” it’s repairable – so those labor hours should go into the shop’s pocket, not some entrepreneur with a hot tank.

I know a couple insurance folks who noticed the lack of in-shop plastic repairs and quit their jobs to open their own bumper cover remanufacturing companies. They’re doing very well. And many of their employees are unskilled, yet turn out good quality work. So why can’t we get at least that same result with body technicians?

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One reason that’s been shared with me is that workers in the remanufacturing process are paid much less than body technicians, so it’s not as economical to repair in the body shop. Let’s accept that as true. It probably is. But why should the remanufacturers hire these people? Why not the body shops? We’re always looking for good employees with good hand skills. We’re always complaining that we can’t find help. Why can’t we start our new, unskilled employees out by having them take apart bumper assemblies and fix plastics?

The adhesive companies would probably do the training for you, since you’d certainly use more of their products. And if the plastic technician turned out to be a talented repair technician, he could move on to spreading body filler, straightening sheet metal, etc. I know one shop owner who hired and trained his own plastic technician, and she works four hours a day, six days a week. She turns out more than 95 billable hours a week at shop rate, is paid $10 per hour and does great work. She comes in at 3:30 p.m. every day – right after high school lets out.

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This shop tried and tried to get plastic repair started in the shop. The owner brought in product distributors to do training – but it didn’t help. It wasn’t until this high school senior – who’d been hired to work in the office – thought it looked like fun and asked to give it a try that it all worked out.

One of the responses I received about my first article that ran in BodyShop Business (Dec. 2000, pg. 80) was that I didn’t say anything. That person was probably right. And it seems that I still haven’t said anything – at least I haven’t said anything that hasn’t been said many times – and probably better – by others.

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So I decided that to flesh out this article, I’d interview a number of people to add weight to the message. Unfortunately, what I discovered was probably the same thing that real journalists know already: Nobody wants to be quoted.

I interviewed two insurance managers who are also staff trainers. I interviewed two recyclers and a bumper remanufacturer. I interviewed four plastic repair product manufacturers and two of their R&D folks. I attended NACE and made it a point to review the new products and procedures.

Here’s what I learned:

  • Insurance managers said plastic costs too much to throw it away. We need to get more shops repairing it.
  • Recyclers said to throw it away – “that way we can sell more of ours to the shops.” And then they tell me all their war stories about how much usable plastic is getting thrown away.
  • Remanufacturers don’t complain, but they also don’t understand why shops don’t do more of their own repairs. At least the easy ones. Leave the really nasty ones to be remanufactured, they said.
  • Adhesive manufacturers obviously want to sell their products. And they have ingenious ways to do this. They have their own tools. You know, the toys we all collect? Bottom line: They can show you how to get it done.

But everyone I talked to agreed on one thing: All plastic can be repaired. Economics, type of plastic, shape of the part and its application all have an effect, but all the plastic we have today is repairable.

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What I concluded is that there are tons of folks who know more about plastic repair than I ever will and there are already more technical articles than we bother to read. So what’s left to say?

Fix plastics!

Writer Larry Hults has been a supervisor for Allstate since 1970. Since 1995, he’s been part of the Centralized PRO Organization, responsible for Washington and Oregon. His seven managers handled Allstate’s relationship with 148 DRP shops. In April 2000, Hult’s responsibilities shifted, and he now oversees Allstate’s relationship with auto repairers across the country.

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