Is High-Tech Worth the Cost? - BodyShop Business

Is High-Tech Worth the Cost?

When computerized measuring systems first became available, most shop owners considered them luxuries that only the biggest, busiest and best shops could afford.

That was then.

As the years passed and as consumer and insurance companies grew
more demanding, shop owners began – and are still – streamlining
processes whenever possible to remain profitable. Instead of being
considered luxuries, computerized measuring systems are now being
viewed by a growing number of shop owners as necessities.

Consider this: One of the most important aspects of repairing
collision-damaged vehicles is measuring. You can’t fix the damage
or even prepare an accurate repair estimate until you’ve identified
the full extent of the damage – and that often means measuring
reference points and checking dimensions against specifications
to determine how badly things have been knocked out of place.

With most cars and trucks now being built to factory tolerances
of plus or minus 3 mm (and some to plus or minus 1 mm), there’s
little margin for error when it comes to measuring and locating
reference points. Dimensional accuracy is an absolute must. Consequently,
more and more insurance companies, as well as consumers, are demanding
a higher level of measuring precision and documentation than ever
before for estimating purposes and for verifying that a vehicle
has been fully restored to its original condition.

Productivity is another factor. As you well know, to be profitable,
a shop has to be productive. Making the best use of available
man- hours is one way to boost productivity – and one way to accomplish
this is to streamline processes wherever possible to save time.

If you’re still measuring things with a tape measure, sticks and
gauges, and writing down numbers on forms, there are faster and
easier ways of getting, recording, processing, storing and reporting
these vital statistics. As we all know, the collision-repair business
has changed a great deal in recent years. Most of the paperwork,
estimating and invoicing has been computerized in many shop offices,
and now, computers are even starting to infiltrate the shop itself.

High-tech computerized measuring systems are beginning to replace
traditional mechanical measuring devices and systems for many
of the same reasons that computers streamlined the transaction
side of the business. Computers are faster, more accurate and
relatively easy to use (once you learn how to use them). That’s
why most of the people who have already made the switch to computerized
measuring say they’d never go back to doing things "the old-fashioned
way."

To determine if computerized measuring is for your shop, you need
to weigh the pros and cons of purchasing one of these systems
– as you would with any big-ticket item. Because your shop has
specific needs, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the
different systems on the market to determine if – and how much
– a specific computerized measuring system would improve your
shop’s productivity.

Computerized Measuring

Because we’re living in an information age, the more data you
can acquire, process and analyze, the better you’ll be able to
identify damage, plan pulls and document repairs. Remember, productivity
and accuracy are key issues here, and so is the ability to print
reports. For these reasons, computerized measuring systems are
coming to be viewed as necessities by a growing number of shop
owners who are looking for a competitive edge. With insurance
companies and consumers demanding more and more, computerized
measuring makes more and more sense.

So what’s available in high-tech measuring equipment these days?
Plenty. Most of the equipment that’s currently available is now
second generation. The earlier DOS-based software has been upgraded
to Windows software, which makes it more familiar and user friendly
to those who have other Windows-based business or estimating software.

Computing power is also up. Most of the 486 machines have been
replaced by more powerful Pentium microprocessors, and CD-ROMs
have replaced floppy disks for storing and reading vehicle-reference
data. Most companies that provide dimensional data and reference
charts now do so on CD-ROM because the disks are more durable
and cost efficient than magnetic diskettes. A single CD-ROM can
store as much read-only data as several hundred floppy disks (500
megabytes versus 1.44 megabytes for a high-density 3.5-inch diskette).

Some of the new computerized measuring systems are also equipped
with a modem so you can contact the equipment supplier for technical
support if you run into a problem. Let’s say you’re measuring
a vehicle, but the numbers don’t seem to jive with the reference
specs. With a few clicks of your mouse or by simply pointing your
light pen, you can dial up the tech-support line and upload the
vehicle data you’ve recorded directly from your computer to the
support staff for analysis – which can get your problem resolved
and get you back to work.

The use of color monitors and optional color printers has pushed
the graphics envelope to new heights, too. The nice thing about
color is that different colors can be used to compare specs and
to illustrate "before" and "after" measurements.
A picture is worth a thousand words – or in the case of a collision-repair
estimate, maybe a thousand bucks or more if you can show an insurance
adjuster "hidden" damage that may not be obvious to
the unaided eye. A color printer is by no means mandatory for
printing such reports, but more and more shop owners are buying
them because of the power that color has to convey and convince.

System Specifics

The computerized measuring equipment that’s available today falls
into three main categories based on how measurements are taken:
laser, sonar and probe. To give you a better idea of how each
of them work, let’s examine some specific systems:

One laser-based system mounts a laser projector and motorized
measuring head on a beam that’s placed parallel to an anchored
vehicle. The rail can be placed up to 10 feet away, says the manufacturer,
so it doesn’t get in the way. Reflective laser targets are then
positioned on the vehicle. The motorized head moves automatically
along the rail, illuminating the targets from multiple angles
so the exact position of each can be determined. The measured
data is then fed into the computer, which calculates and compares
the vehicle data against the manufacturer’s reference specifications
– all within minutes. The system updates information every two
seconds, so it can also be used while pulls are being made to
monitor progress.

With point-and-click ease, the information is displayed in color
on the monitor to show the measurements on a drawing of the chassis.
Variances are clearly shown between the measured data points and
factory reference points, making it easy to document collision
damage, as well as before and after results.

Another laser-based system also uses a rotating hub to reflect
a laser beam off multiple targets simultaneously, but the "scanner"
is located in an aluminum beam that’s positioned sideways under
the vehicle. By using triangulation, the location of the targets
are automatically calculated with the same degree of accuracy
as the factory control points. This eliminates the need to take
multiple measurements or to set up cumbersome fixtures.

To use this system, you enter the make, model, type and year of
vehicle that’s being measured. The computer then provides the
corresponding data base for that vehicle, along with an illustration
showing the vehicle reference points and instructions on where
you must place the laser targets. The system tells you if the
targets are properly positioned, then it scans the vehicle, records
the data and displays the information on the screen, showing you
exactly where corrections are needed.

A somewhat different approach is used by the manufacturer of
another computerized measuring system. Instead of lasers and light
beams, ultrasound is used to measure and plot reference points.
Ultrasonic sound waves beyond the range of human hearing are projected
from probes mounted on the vehicle’s reference points. You need
at least four points in an undamaged area, such as the torque
boxes at the front or rear of the passenger cage. The sound probes
are then attached to these points and plugged into a large box
beam that sits lengthwise under the vehicle. The beam contains
the receiving sensors and detects the ultrasonic sound waves emitted
by the probes. The sensors then transform the signals into data,
which is fed into the computer so the dimensions can be displayed
on the screen – essentially the same technology that many automatic-focus
cameras and camcorders use to adjust the lens. The time it takes
the sound wave to reach and reflect off a surface is measured
to calculate and triangulate exact distances and locations.

A neat feature about this system is that the angle of the probes
and beam have no effect on the accuracy of the measurements, nor
does the angle of the vehicle. The vehicle can be anchored to
a bench, sitting on an ordinary lift or even sitting on the ground.
The system can pinpoint the location of up to 12 points simultaneously
for a comparison to factory reference specs.

A totally different approach is used by another manufacturer
of computerized measuring equipment. This particular technology,
which has its origins in Europe, uses a probe arm to locate and
enter data points on a vehicle. Designed to provide fast and accurate
measurements, the probe transmits data to the computer via an
infrared beam that functions like a television remote-control
unit. This eliminates the need for cables.

The measuring arm can be mounted on a standard measuring bridge
and moved along the entire length and width of the vehicle to
measure any point on the underbody. It can also be fitted to collision-repair
equipment that has a flat surface capable of supporting the measuring
bridge/probe assembly. Data points are recorded with an accuracy
of plus or minus .05 mm.

Why (or Why Not)

Computerized Measuring?

Regardless of the method that’s used to input vehicle data into
a computer, the real power of computerized measuring systems is
their ability to show you information graphically on a screen.
Seeing collision damage is a lot easier this way than by comparing
numbers on a sheet of paper against a reference book.

Another thing you can do with computerized measuring that you
can’t do with mechanical systems or gauges is share data with
other computers. Software is available for some systems to allow
the vehicle data to be plugged into other estimating software
to simplify paperwork.

The only drawback to computerized measuring is the high initial
cost of the equipment. Prices range from about $26,000 up to $30,000
or more, which makes this technology seem awfully expensive in
comparison to other types of available measuring systems.

It’ll be worth the upfront investment, though, if in the long
run, the system puts money back in your pocket.

Measuring Without Computers

Measuring can be a time-consuming process, depending on how it’s
done, how many points have to be measured and who does it. You
don’t have all day to measure each and every data point that may
need to be plotted to prepare an estimate, to plan a pull or to
confirm that the metal has been massaged back into the proper
configuration.

The quicker the measurements can be taken, the sooner the technician
can move on to the next vehicle or proceed with the actual repair
process. Computerization can help speed things along by automating
the measuring process in various ways and/or by processing the
data once it’s been acquired. Logically, then, the speed and accuracy
with which measurements can be taken is going to be limited by
the type of measuring equipment being used.

Measuring tapes and tram gauges – Using a tape to measure
the distance between two points, for example, seems like a pretty
simple job. All you need is a tape measure and two hands, provided
the distance isn’t more than about 3 or 4 feet. If it is, you
need a helping hand to hold the other end of the tape, which must
be held steady and read carefully to get an accurate measurement.

If you don’t have a straight line between two points, however,
you can’t measure it directly with a tape; you have to measure
it indirectly, which complicates things and increases the chance
for error. You can use a tram gauge with pointers to measure the
distance, but if the pointers aren’t set at equal lengths (one
pointer is longer than the other), the measurement won’t be accurate.

Things can also get confusing if you try to use a tape or tram
gauge to measure things other than point-to-point, such as dimensions
that are specified as being parallel or perpendicular to the vehicle
centerline (three- dimensional X-Y-Z measurements). The shortest
distance between any two control points is a straight line. It
makes no difference if the line itself is level or slanted because
all you’re measuring is the distance between the points. But,
if you try to use reference dimensions that are specified as being
parallel or perpendicular to the vehicle centerline for point-to-point
measurements, you’ll often get an inaccurate measurement because
height differences between the points affect the distance between
them. When one control point is located higher than the other,
measuring point to point will give you a longer distance than
if you drop a line vertically through both points and measure
the level distance between them.

There’s also a chance of mismeasuring the distance between two
control points if you’re not sure where the measurement is supposed
to be taken. Bolts are always measured center to center. Holes,
however, are another matter. Some measurements are taken center
to center, while others are edge to edge.

Universal measuring systems and mechanical measuring devices
– Universal measuring systems are great for working in three dimensions
and for visualizing where things are and where they need to be
moved, but they also take time to set up and a certain amount
of know-how to use correctly. Alignment of the system is also
critical for accuracy. And once it’s aligned, you don’t want to
knock it out of alignment – which may mean partially removing
it if the beams block access to a part of the body that’s being
worked on (laser systems are better in this respect because beams
of light don’t get in your way).

As for accuracy, mechanical measuring devices and universal measuring
systems can be as accurate as anything else that’s available today.
Even so, manufacturing tolerances in beams, brackets, tapes and
gauges can sometimes stack up, affecting the accuracy of the measurements.
A few fractions of a millimeter here and there can add up, throwing
the whole measurement off. Naturally, if the measuring equipment
isn’t accurate, the readings you get won’t be accurate either,
which can lead to discoveries of "hidden" damage that
doesn’t really exist or cause you to over- or under-correct conditions,
resulting in further alignment problems.

Regardless of how accurate mechanical measuring systems (even
laser systems) may be, they’re just not in the same league as
a fully computerized measuring system, which can plot reference
points electronically in two or three dimensions and print out
a detailed color map of the vehicle in question.

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