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Laser in on Measuring

Would you construct a new home on a foundation built on a fault line? What about a foundation made from recycled milk cartons or popsicle sticks? If you answered “no” to these questions (and hopefully you did), then ask yourself why a technician would repair a damaged vehicle without first knowing that the frame was structurally sound and in proper alignment?

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Randolph hangs a reflective target at a strategic location on the frame of a vehicle. The target will bounce laser beams back to a scanner and allow a computer to determine the distance between it and other targets and compare it with the correct vehicle specifications.Randolph adjusts the laser scanner on this measuring system, which projects laser beams outward in a 360-degree radius to various reflective targets.Any rookie tech will tell you the frame is the structural foundation of every vehicle. But today more than ever, the frame is also the linchpin that controls and activates a host of electronic and operational  systems that affect not only the vehicle’s driveability but how it will react in a subsequent collision. And how it reacts has a great deal to do with whether occupants walk away with minor scratches after a collision…or whether they walk away at all.  

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Space Age Technology

Vehicles today are technological marvels. They’re totally integrated and autonomous packages that include high-tech materials and electronics that would have been viewed as science fiction just a few years ago. Consider that the new Cadillac CTS has no fewer than 21 on-board computers – more than twice the number on the Apollo spacecraft that went to the moon! And all of these 21 systems are linked and constantly communicating with each other to control such vital functions as the powertrain, ABS passenger re-straint systems, door zone modules, electronic suspension, StabiliTrack and much more.  

Think that’s something? Then also consider that no two vehicle models are designed alike or include the same electronics or structural components in the same places. As a result, technicians must know and understand before they ever turn a wrench what materials and systems a vehicle has, where they’re located, the correct OEM procedures for repair or replacement, and how to test and verify that these systems will operate as designed once repairs are completed.     

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But it all starts with the frame, which technicians must accurately measure and return to pre-collision condition before attempting to rebuild the vehicle on top of it.

Up to the Task?

There are many types of measuring systems in use today with varying levels of sophistication, and all claim to be up to the task of diagnosing a vehicle’s structural misalignment. However, newer vehicles can’t be properly measured using outdated measuring technology. Believe it or not, there are still a few shops that swear by tape measures and mechanical gauges. But using such antiquated tools to repair newer vehicles is akin to sending a blacksmith to fix the space shuttle. So many vehicle systems now depend on the integrity of the frame that computerized measuring is a must for any shop that wants to stay in business.

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One of the latest and most effective innovations in computerized measuring has been the development of laser technology. First introduced in the 1990s, laser measuring systems have distinct advantages over other technologies because they’re incredibly and consistently accurate and possess the ability to measure the entire vehicle during the repair process. This allows technicians to make highly accurate repairs and be certain that repairs to one section of the vehicle don’t negatively affect other areas of the vehicle.

While laser measuring systems have benefited from improvements over the years to enhance speed and ease of use, the basic technology has remained the same. Reflective targets are hung at strategic locations on the frame, and a laser scanner is placed under the vehicle. The scanner consists of multiple high-grade lasers and mirrors that revolve at very high and extremely precise speeds. As these mirrors rotate, they project the laser beams outward in a 360-degree radius. When a beam strikes a reflective target, it’s immediately bounced back to the scanner, which transmits this data to the system’s computer. Thanks to its sophisticated software, the computer knows exactly which target has been “pinged” and, in the blink of an eye, computes the distance and compares it with the correct vehicle specifications for that point. That information is then displayed on a graphic of the vehicle frame that can be seen on the system’s monitor screen, which tells the technician exactly how far out of alignment that particular point is and in which direction.

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Technicians can leave the system in place during repairs and it will actually monitor and display changes in frame dimensions as repairs are made. This feature virtually guarantees a quality job, and most systems can generate color printouts before and after repairs to show customers and  insurance companies the extent of damage before repair as well as the quality of the completed repair.

Quality laser measuring systems today are typically priced in the low- to mid-$20,000 range. Some manufacturers offer training on the intricacies of this technology. Also, on-board software tutorials provide step-by-step instructions on set-up and measuring procedures, and some even include photos of specific target locations. So, with just a little practice, technicians can complete the entire vehicle measuring set-up process in as little as 15 minutes.

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Only the Beginning    

As recently as five or 10 years ago, once the frame was straightened, shops simply hung the sheet metal, painted the vehicle pretty and shoved it out the door. However, with the increased sophistication of new vehicles, getting the frame measured and straightened is now just the beginning.  

Once the frame is aligned, techs must verify the structural integrity of the upper body and passenger safety cage to ensure that all measurements are within spec. Any deviation may impair the performance of operational systems and impact the activation of the vehicle’s multiple safety systems during a subsequent collision. Tram gauges can be used, but they can be inaccurate and may not be able to measure in tight areas. Plus, this technique can be time- consuming because it requires techs to stop and record data after each measurement is taken. Fortunately, some laser measuring systems today offer accurate and compact wireless devices that can quickly measure and transmit this crucial data directly to the measuring system computer.

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If any portion of the passenger safety cage or upper body is misaligned, it needs to be repaired. But, with so many different high-strength materials used in passenger cages these days, technicians have to know what material they’re working with in order to do the job right. OEM repair information must be at the ready so technicians know if they need to pull, section or replace. This information will also warn them about any electronic systems, wiring or other hidden components before initiating repairs.       

After the frame and upper body is in proper alignment, a vehicle’s electronic and safety systems need to be tested. There are a number of scan tools on the market that can perform this job, and it’s best to do this while the vehicle is disassembled for quick and easy access to any damaged electrical components the scan reveals. Once again, OEM data is vital so that technicians can verify that they’ve checked all systems for that particular vehicle, know where those systems are located and how to access them as well as how to reset them. It’s only then that the vehicle is ready for sheet metal and paint.

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More Steps = More Profit

As you can see, simply measuring the vehicle frame no longer guarantees a quality repair. Computerized laser measuring will continue to be the frame measuring technology of choice for the foreseeable future. But what has changed and will continue to change is the extent of measuring and verification that must be done in order for quality repairs to be made. And smart shops that understand how vehicle components work in harmony with each other are realizing that these additional steps mean greater profitability on every vehicle they repair, especially if those steps are included in the OEM recommended repair procedures.

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Let’s face it, the customer wants his or her car fixed right. The OEM wants its vehicles to work as designed after repairs. And the customer’s insurance company doesn’t need or want the potential liability headaches improper repairs could generate. So shops can see an immediate and positive impact on their per-vehicle profitability and the repair quality of every vehicle they see if they arm themselves with the OEM repair procedures at the time the estimate is developed and then follow the measuring, repairing and verifying steps new vehicles now require using computerized laser measuring systems and other tools specifically designed for today’s complex vehicles.

Steve Frisbie is the vice president of strategic planning and marketing for Chief Automotive Technologies. He can be reached at (308) 398-6135 or [email protected]

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