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Is Your Collision Repair Facility Equipped for Aluminum Repair Demand?

With more aluminum vehicles on the road, the opportunity to perform repairs on this metal has increased substantially. What’s pulling into your lot these days? And are you prepared to service aluminum vehicles?

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Now, after more of the aluminum-paneled Ford F-150s have clocked miles on the road and are rolling into body shops for repairs, collision repairers must decide: Will we outfit our facility to repair aluminum, and to what extent? Or, will we subcontract and even turn away work rather than spend for necessary tools, systems and education?

Aluminum is nothing new. But prior to the F-150, the material was found on vehicles such as Audi and Jaguar, which for years contained aluminum panels. “But structural repairs on aluminum vehicles in massive quantities really started with the Ford F-150,” says Bob Holland, director of strategic relationships at Chief Automotive Technologies. “We think shops are finally starting to see the volume in their parking lots of vehicles that contain aluminum, and what they need to decide is if they’ll spend money [on repair equipment] to make sure they don’t have to turn work away.”

Collision repairers that ramped up for aluminum work in the past several years are now seeing a return on investment, says Holland.

“Shops need to be prepared for the future,” says Timothy Morgan, managing director, Spanesi Americas. “One way to prepare is to look at equipment that will address more than just one model vehicle,” he says, relating that shops could over-tool, so taking time to do their due diligence when investing in equipment is critical. An example of the over-tooling is a collision center could have five different rivet guns for aluminum repair if the shop regularly services a range of vehicles that include aluminum panels. “One manufacturer suggests a certain rivet gun, another manufacturer suggests a certain MIG welder,” says Morgan.

The Key: Consider ways to buy smart when choosing aluminum repair equipment and systems so you can maximize your investment.

“A body shop needs to decide: What am I actually going to repair?” Morgan says. “Then, start to outfit their shops that way and do the research to find out what products overlap between manufacturers or are approved by multiple manufacturers so they are only making a purchase once.”

While some suppliers are seeing more movement in aluminum repair, others have noticed that independent body shops are still slow to adopt equipment and processes to repair this metal. “We thought, especially with the Ford, that more shops would start moving to clean rooms, but they are not,” says Carl Seaboldt, senior product manager, Evercoat US. “I think it’s going to be a slow progression.”

That said, there has been more movement among suppliers – particularly of tools – to be sure equipment accommodates aluminum repair requirements. This gives body shops more choice, and potentially opportunities to score volume discounts if they’re buying an entire package. Here, BodyShop Business takes a look at how the aluminum repair market has evolved and what tools and systems collision repairers will find to support their efforts in this space.

Tooled for Success: Aligning Aluminum Tools with Repair Demand

Does a shop owner go all-in or start simple with aluminum repair? That depends on what’s pulling into the lot, says John Brill, president of Steck Manufacturing.

For shops considering how to manage the investment in equipment to handle aluminum repairs, considering “easy entry points” is important, Brill says.

Steck has been working to expand its specialty tool niche to accommodate aluminum repair of non-structural areas such as door skins and quarter panels. “We offer technicians a Ford-approved solution for replacing door skins,” says Brill. “With our SPR tools, the technicians use existing impact guns to install and repair those parts without having to wait in line for expensive hydraulic presses that are usually used for frame repair.”

Also, Steck’s Aluminum Skin Zippers can create a rope hem while crimping aluminum door skins in about 15 minutes versus one hour of hand crimping, says Brill. Time savings is always a consideration for collision repair centers. And, he explains, a rope hem is important for aluminum repair because most power tools create a flat edge that could crack aluminum. (Brill notes these tools have been on the market for about two years now.)

An aluminum tool bundle released last year (no. 21899) includes SPR insertion and extraction tools, two Aluminum Skin Zippers and seven dolly and hammer covers. A soft-strike aluminum hammer and dolly cover allows technicians to use existing steel hammers on aluminum, and the cover prevents cross-contamination and resulting galvanic corrosion, Brill says.

All of this aligns with a theme of providing versatility so shops can do more with less equipment. “We want to provide tools for technicians so they don’t have to buy redundant equipment,” says Brill. “I tell technicians this is a great entry point so you can get in and do the repairs on door skins and quarter panels. Then, decide whether you want to sub out the frame repair until you are ready to make a larger investment in equipment.”

Hand tools for aluminum repair give shops an ability to do some repairs without making a significant investment, says David Barleen, CEO of Motor Guard. Isolated aluminum repair stations can take up revenue-generating room in shops, and some aren’t prepared to commit to that level just yet.

“However, on the hand tool side, you don’t need to spend that much money to get some specialty tools for small repairs,” says Barleen. Motor Guard’s Spot Repair System and Aluminum Cut-Off Wheel have been well- received by collision repairers, he says.

Indeed, there is a focus on giving shops the versatility to do aluminum repairs, while recognizing that some collision repairers will not want to fully invest in costly equipment to do involved body work. For example, with some welding systems selling for $10,000, the ROI can be tough to justify if 5 to 10 percent of cars repaired contain aluminum. A way to address that is to consider hybrid systems, says Michael Cooper, president, H&S Autoshot. He’s referring to the Uni-9850 dent repair station that welds aluminum and steel.

“There is a real hesitation among many body shops, and particularly smaller ones, to sink thousands of dollars into a system that only does aluminum,” Cooper says. H&S Autoshot’s answer to this is the Uni-9850 complete aluminum repair system that comes with aluminum and steel stud pullers and a glue dent pulling system.

Also, a hybrid aluminum stud capacitor discharge gun will set aluminum studs with the Uni-9700 handheld gun at a $2,000 price point, says Cooper. “In the future, we’ll see aluminum continue to grow – and steel will always be out there.”

Morgan agrees. “I don’t see the steel manufacturing business giving up on steel [for vehicles],” he says.

But repairers need to be careful when selecting equipment. Not all manufacturers are convinced that dual/hybrid tools are a versatile solution for shops. Geoff Preston of Dent Fix Equipment says the only sure way to prevent contamination is to use separate aluminum tools.

“It is essential for shops to use aluminum-specific tools for aluminum use only,” Preston says. “Dual units can dramatically increase the chance of contaminating aluminum work, and vice versa. Galvanic corrosion and ‘redo’ vehicles are too risky for profitability to justify the minimal price savings of dual units. Using aluminum-specific tools only, on aluminum cars, will ensure the job is completed.”

Dent Fix introduced the DF-900DX/E AluSpot Extended dent repair station last year, and now it offers SPR rivets in multiple sizes. “Since early 2004, Dent Fix has been conducting aluminum repair research so we could introduce the AluSpot aluminum dent pulling station in 2006,” says Preston, adding that the company has improved the system and introduced its most complete version last year.

Healthy Separation: Containing Aluminum Dust

A focus on segregating aluminum and steel repair has prompted suppliers to provide containment and vacuum systems to mitigate the risk of intermingling the two metals. Galvanic corrosion can be a problem if shops overlook proper isolation and ventilation.

Goff’s Enterprises introduced a vinyl, moveable curtain stall with a clear tented roof and floor sweeps to create a full seal. The 12-by-24-foot aluminum repair bay has a single point of entry (sliding curtain) to minimize exposure.

“This gives shops a flexible area where they can keep their aluminum repair equipment fully separate from the rest of the shop,” says Tony Goff, president.

Because many shops are seeing limited demand for aluminum repair at this time, a versatile repair stall gives collision centers the option to use the space for steel as well. “They can tie back the curtains and use the area for whatever they’d like, and then when that aluminum car comes in, technicians can pressure wash the stall, roll in the aluminum repair equipment, pull the curtains and now they have a dedicated bay,” says Goff.

Goff says one advantage of the vinyl product with a clear roof is the cost-effectiveness compared to enclosed bays with steel tops. “This gives you the ultimate flexibility,” he says, adding that dedicating a full-time stall to aluminum can tie up important space that could be used to generate revenue from steel vehicles too. “This is the lowest cost of entry to doing aluminum repair properly, yet it still gives you the scalability and flexibility in your shop to do what you need with the space.”

Garmat USA makes the AlumaSafe 50 Isolation Station for aluminum repair that is available in two-, three- or four-sided units. It offers a weld or clear view, and the Plus model provides built-in lighting. Roll-up curtains are available, which reduces the likelihood of stirring up shop dust, points out Debbie Teter, marketing director and national sales manager for Garmat USA. “Some shops prefer the cleaner look and aesthetic of the roll-up curtain, and for a cleaner environment, we recommend that,” she says.

“Our goal is to provide a safe, bright work environment with enough room for tools,” says Teter, adding that the dark weld view curtain protects the vision of technicians working outside of the booth. With a clear view, the spark view can be distracting and even damaging.

Garmat also offers the AlumaSafe 100 non-pressurized isolation module for grinding aluminum. It includes a motor, fan, filters and spark arrestor panels to prevent possible fires from hot aluminum debris. Filters should be cleaned out daily to eliminate the risk of cross contamination, Teter says.

Teter emphasizes that Garmat never recommends painting inside these isolation stations. Sparks from welding could interact with dried paint and create a dangerous reaction, she says. “If you are going to weld aluminum, we like to keep that area separate from painting. You should not do both [in the same stall].”

Removing contaminants from the air is critical during aluminum repair, and there are specialized vacuum systems designed to do just that. Addressing the need for shop versatility, Eurovac offers a new unit that can be retrofitted to an existing central vacuum system or incorporated into a new one. Its Inline Wet Mix Dust Collector Interceptor for aluminum repair uses the central vacuum as the suction source. Aluminum dust is filtered through the wet mix interceptor, and dry air continues through the unit.

“Shops can save money by utilizing this inline wet mix interceptor for their existing equipment to repair aluminum,” says Rob Retter, sales manager at Eurovac.

At Pro Spot, a dust-free sanding system extracts dust from sanding aluminum and does not contain electrical motors or parts. This eliminates the risk of inducing dangerous sparks. A patented air improvement module allows the vacuum to operate at an extremely low airflow of 5 to 7 cfm versus the typical 40 to 50 cfm.

In addition, the SP5-3 Smart MIG is an advanced version of the SP-5 with three-phase operation depending on the application, says Ashley Olsson, director of communications at Pro Spot.

Body shops might want to consider the accessibility of suppliers and where products are made, Olsson adds, noting that Pro Spot is based in Carlsbad, Calif., and products are made in the U.S. “Not only does it make our equipment stronger by designing spot welders on the U.S. grid, it gives us accessibility and it’s a great source or pride for us,” she says.

A Surface Issue: Fillers for Aluminum Repair

Because aluminum has been involved in vehicle production for decades – Ford’s F-150 introduction basically brought the metal into the mainstream – companies supplying body fillers have needed to ensure efficacy on aluminum surfaces for a long time, Seaboldt points out. Evercoat US’s Rage Ultra sand and body filler is safe for aluminum panels, which tend to warp more easily than steel, he explains.

Seaboldt is seeing more movement in the supplier arena when it comes to introducing new aluminum repair tools. “For us body filler companies on this side of the business, we have been dealing with [aluminum] for a long time, so the changes are related to technology evolving and product improvements that come with time regardless of aluminum,” he says.

At Valspar Automotive, AG47 Lightweight Grip Filler and Icing Lite Gold Finishing Glaze are standards for aluminum repair, says Brian Lewis, product manager for the U.S. Chemical & Plastics brand. “We have been testing them against everything in the market, and they still grip 37 percent better than others and up to 43 percent better, depending on what products we put them up against,” he says. Lewis adds, “Why reinvent the wheel?” in terms of rolling out aluminum-specific products.

As Seaboldt noted, the fillers and putties are already designed to perform on a range of metal surfaces. “We are always looking to improve performance within our product lines and looking into new avenues as far as making body shops’ experiences easier,” he adds.

That said, Lewis notes that eight-ounce packages of body filler are now available and perfect for shops with smaller repairs.

Skip Roch von Rochsburg, regional sales manager at Valspar Automotive, says the idea with undercoats is to be sure products adhere to all substrates. “That way, body shops do not have to change products during their repair process,” he says.

Looking Ahead: Training & Equipping Shops for the Future

Acquiring appropriate tools and products for aluminum repair is one aspect of ensuring safety and upholding standard operating procedures (SOPs). The other important and often overlooked part of moving into aluminum repair is training, says Bryan Robaina, general manager, Robaina Direct LLC.

Robaina is an official supplier for the BMW-certified collision repair program for collision tools. That includes providing training. Also, Robaina recently opened a 20,000-square-foot training facility dedicated to teaching its clients how to best use the equipment. Robaina also works with OEMs and MSOs to help them cultivate new SOP processes or to integrate aluminum repair procedures into their existing operations.

“It’s not just technicians that require training – estimators and managers need it, too,” Robaina says. “If a shop buys aluminum repair equipment and sends the technician to training but the shop writes up a replacement rather than a repair, that doesn’t do anything for the shop.”

Meanwhile, any collision repair center can participate in the “paper course classes” available through Robaina Direct. “The idea is that they are coming into the class because they are ready to make the investment [in aluminum repair],” says Robaina.

In 2017, Robaina Direct will introduce the new 3750 aluminum version of its popular T-Hotbox electronic PDR tool. The “tremendously viable device” is currently available as an electronic dent reduction device for steel paintless dent repair. “It also does push-to-paint dent repairs,” says Robaina, relating that the tool provides an easy fix for hailstorm damage.

Chief’s Holland echoes the importance of safety and training for aluminum repair. Local distributors provide in-shop training upon delivering equipment; and Chief University offers independent training, including overall aluminum repair instruction. “For many technicians, they learn best with their own two hands, and on-site training gives them an opportunity to get a feel for equipment and try it before they spend the money.”

Chief continues to expand its aluminum repair product lines, Holland says. “We stay on the cutting edge of technology with our products and certainly hope we can come out and do demos at any shop that wants to see it.”

Moving forward, the key for body shops is to seriously take stock of the vehicles coming in for repair. Identify the current and future demand in the shop’s market for aluminum repair. Determine how to ensure safety of technicians and of the vehicles, says Morgan. “So, a breathing apparatus for working with aluminum material, dust collection system, fume collection – these systems are paramount,” he says.

Does every shop need to repair aluminum to be sustainable?

“I don’t think so,” says Spanesi’s Morgan, adding that aluminum dent repair tools should already be in place because aluminum hoods have been around since the 1980s. “But shops do need to have the ability to do some cosmetic aluminum repair. Depending on what the manufacturer requires for structural repairs, the investment [in equipment] could be large.”

Shops should determine a repair strategy so they can decide what training, systems and tools they’ll need to prepare for incoming vehicles while maximizing their revenue potential today. Morgan advises, “Look at what vehicles you’ll work on, and then from there, look at how to outfit the shop.”

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