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Increasing Touch Time in Your Auto Body Shop

Strategies collision repair facilities can employ to decrease wait time and fix and deliver jobs faster.

Carl Wilson has over 30 years in the industry as a painter and technical rep.

How can we increase touch time, or the amount of time in a day we’re actually working on any given vehicle? Not to be a wise guy stating the obvious, but the answer is: work more hours each day on it! Naturally, that means not waiting for things: the estimator, parts, primer to dry, etc.

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Let’s see what we might do to decrease wait time and fix and deliver the jobs a little faster.

Scheduling

Scheduling may well be the most challenging aspect of creating a consistent flow to facilitate touch time. Not enough work; too many train wrecks; techs on vacation; unexpected tow-drops. And the list goes on. What, if anything, can we do to arrest the unpredictability of the workload? Schedule the work according to capacity. However, to do this, we must know our capacity.


Scheduling may well be the most challenging aspect of creating a consistent flow to facilitate touch time.

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What are our average daily billable hours? We need to know that number so we can multiply it by our cycle time goal and then figure out with certainty the sweet spot between too much and too little work to have on the property. It would be even better to break that number down further to total body and paint labor hours a day, and then by tech. This detail allows us to adjust the schedule when one of our three body techs is on vacation. With 30% of our body labor unavailable, doesn’t it make sense to either A) adjust the schedule accordingly, or B) huddle up the remaining body techs and inform them of some temporary OT. If you choose “A”, then it might be wise to also huddle up the paint shop and ensure they’re aware of a temporarily diminished workload. This will allow them to decide if now is right for their own time off or to fill the gap with a week’s worth of progress on the owner’s 1963 Impala project. Either way, communicate.

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Additionally, it’s not enough to know our daily labor hour average. For example, if we can produce 100 hours a day, we can’t schedule all side mirror replacement jobs. It’s not reasonable to expect we’ll punch out 30 of those in a day, even if we had 30 to try. Likewise, we can’t have four 125-hour train wrecks and think we’ve got the week covered. We need balance in the workload, so we need to segregate jobs by severity, perhaps into four classes:

  1. Less than $1,000
  2. $1,000-$4,000
  3. $5,000-$10,000
  4. Greater than $10,000

Of course, this is a bit subjective, but it’s a starting point, and you can adjust as it makes sense to your operation. The goal is to create a daily balance of work through the body techs that steadily feeds the paint shop, while maintaining forward motion on the big hits.

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Naturally, scheduling is not that simple. We know no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, and we have two we cannot control: tow-drops and estimate swell. While the tow-drops may be unpredictable, we can and should anticipate estimate swell by scheduling around 20% less than our capacity to allow for it.

That was a long-winded explanation of, “Plan the Work and Work the Plan.”

The Estimate

We already know that we cannot write a complete sheet at the curb. Fine, we accept that and press on and get the vehicle on the schedule. Once we have the job in the shop, we need to do a complete disassembly and generate a comprehensive parts supplement. This may be done by the body tech who will finish the repair, or perhaps by a “teardown team” depending on your staff levels and setup. Regardless, it’s important that this is thorough so we don’t have to circle back later and order more parts. Every supplement requires additional labor and time to generate, order, receive, inspect and distribute – not to mention breaks the flow and rhythm of the technicians, which ultimately affects touch time. Let’s strive to get it as accurate as possible from the start. Once the parts order has been received and verified, then the vehicle can enter into production.

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Body Shop Idiosyncracies

Presuming the tech can start the process and continue without interruption, it’s not uncommon to see them create their own interruptions, for example, attempting to maximize a particular operation by “batching” them together. We have all seen body techs “batch-mud,” where multiple jobs are roughed out and the body filler is mixed in bulk and applied to each job. The primary problem with this method is loss of focus and over-production. As the body filler dries, only one vehicle at a time can be worked on and proceed through the shop. Furthermore, the time it took to rough out and prep a second and even third job has taken effort away from the first job – a job that could have already been in the paint shop had the tech remained focused on it.

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Every supplement requires additional labor and time to generate, order, receive, inspect and distribute.


Speaking of the paint shop, is the body tech waiting for parts to be jambed or are parts painted off the car? There may be tough colors where it makes sense to jamb and hang the sheet metal prior to painting, but that’s the exception. Not only will touch time and efficiency both increase if the painter visits the parts only once, but a material savings is generally realized too. Obviously, this requires pre-fitting the parts, which many old-time bodymen will object to, but I suspect the increase in overall speed and efficiency will be a change they can embrace.

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Parts are also a source of disrupted workflow for the body tech. One may note that a taillight, for example, is needed at put-together to finish the job, yet it must be available during the repair process for fitting purposes as well. If the tech must halt progress on one job and start another job in an effort to remain productive, touch time is naturally negatively affected. If this is the norm, then it’s easy to see why due dates and production schedules are not taken seriously. It’s only when all parts have been received and properly checked in that we know the body tech can finish what they have started and get the job to the paint shop.

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Likewise, once the job has been painted and sent back to the tech for put-together, having all the parts promotes continued efficiency of the tech. If you want to see happy, productive body techs, help them be more efficient.

Color Library

While not necessarily increasing the amount of touch time we can achieve, a spray-out color library will unequivocally speed up the painter’s process for choosing the best color formula. This allows for a faster flow through the paint shop, which paves the way for one more car a day (OMCAD). Even if you only realize a 50% increase in OMCAD, do the money-math on that productivity benefit!

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Paint Shop

There are several ways to increase touch time in the paint shop. Let’s start with priming a body repair.


Six vehicles getting ready to be primed, a.k.a. batch-priming.

Most of us are familiar with “batch-priming” at the end of the day: taking the three or four jobs that just came over from the body techs and feathering, masking and priming them all so they can dry overnight. The main reason we started doing this decades ago was because 2K urethane primer/surfacer was displacing 1K lacquer primer. We went from a primer gun full of lacquer primer always ready for use to the 2K product that would harden in our guns if it wasn’t cleaned promptly. I assure you, many times across the paint shop landscape, primer hardened in spray guns until new habits formed (i.e. cleaning the primer gun immediately after priming). Thus, batch-priming was born. It limited how many times a day one needed to mix and spray primer and – just as important – how many times one needed to clean their primer gun.


If you want to see happy, productive body techs, help them be more efficient.


One of the nuances of batch-priming at the end of the day was the little understood temperature requirement. If shop conditions fall below around 60 degrees, then the crosslinking of the two-part-primers halts. Essentially, the product “goes to sleep” until awakened by the temperature coming back up. Either we run the shop furnace overnight to maintain at least 60 degrees, or we’re sanding on uncured product that has not stabilized and quit moving. Most everyone now understands the temperature requirement, but not all.

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Another negative is the loss of production required to enable the batch-priming operation. It takes roughly 25 minutes to properly apply three coats of most primer surfacers, with a 10-minute flash after coats one and two. Add to that the time it takes to clean, feather and mask each vehicle to prime, and the time to mix primer and clean up the spray gun, and we have easily lost 35 to 45 minutes of production per man participating in the process. We know 45 minutes is enough time to paint another vehicle. What do you think has a greater positive impact on touch time, painting another car today or priming three? I understand that in the micro, priming three versus one is more efficient for the priming operation, but in the macro, priming as you go and staying on one vehicle is more efficient for increasing touch time and delivering a steady flow of cars daily instead of having a tsunami on Friday.

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We’ve seen 2K primer improperly applied in as little as seven minutes, and that lack of proper flash time between coats creates additional headaches downstream. Primarily, sand scratch swelling showing up later, requiring additional work – usually cutting and buffing repeatedly as the scratches return again and again, until finally cutting through and needing to repaint. Or clearcoat degradation due to continually reducing the film build. We may also see dieback and, in some cases, even delamination; proper flash time is not optional for success here.

If you insist on using 2K primer, then I would seriously consider a refresher course in proper primer application from the jobber or manufacturer and one of the infrared curing technologies to facilitate a prime-as-you-go standard operating procedure. I would further encourage using waterborne primer or UV primer instead for the stability they offer, as well as to maximize touch time.

UV curing technology has advanced to “time-machine” status as it allows more work to be processed in the same time frame.

Waterborne primer has limitations and is reversable, but it does dry very quickly and may be a good option for smaller applications. I’m particularly fond of UV primer and some of the “time-machine” curing systems available; it can literally take longer to spray two coats of primer with proper flash time than curing the UV primer and making it ready to sand. And UV primer will never harden up in your spray gun as long as it is not exposed to UV light (including the sun). This means we can keep a primer gun with an opaque cup loaded with UV primer and only clean it once a day – or even once a week. UV primers are ready-to-spray, so there is no mixing or overmixes. Consider the labor and material savings of that!

Parts Off the Car

We’ve already touched on one benefit to the body tech when we paint parts off the car when we can, but let’s examine a few more. Not only do we realize a time-efficiency benefit when we mix sealer, color and clear once, we also generally see a savings in consumption of material when mixing and spraying one time; nobody mixes the perfect amount every time, so one mix means only one potential overmix.

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Often, we can increase the refinish hours in the booth cycle by putting two cars – or more accurately the parts of two cars – in at the same time. The ultimate advantage of painting parts off the car brings us right back to increased touch time. Rather than painting half the part today (the jamb) and then the other half tomorrow, simply painting the entire part today saved us a day of cycle time. We’re able to start and finish the job in one uninterrupted touch-time rhythm. And all we did was work more hours of the day on it.

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