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Technical: Aluminum – Just Another Change

The collision industry has faced and adapted to many changes over the years, and aluminum is just the latest one.

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AL_f150Aluminum isn’t difficult, just different. That has been the resounding mantra spread throughout the collision repair industry by instructors ever since a minor panic attack was set off by Ford’s introduction of the all-aluminum F-150 pickup truck.

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The fact is, this is not the first time the industry has seen aluminum-bodied vehicles. Jaguar, BMW, Mercedes and Audi have had aluminum vehicles for years. But it goes even further back, to 1899 when the Berlin Motor Show showcased two aluminum-constructed show cars. And, from the 20s through the 90s, many foreign OEMs produced aluminum-intensive sports cars.

Aluminum has different properties than steel and thus requires training and a different skill set to repair or work with, but it’s not difficult.

Steel and Aluminum

Part of that training involves being aware that an explosion can occur when steel and aluminum particles are mixed in the correct ratio and an ignition is introduced. This is why it’s important to have a clean room for aluminum repair separate from where you do steel repair. But there has been a lot of confusion about clean rooms. Vehicle manufacturers had rigid requirements to be a qualified shop, one of which was that a separate room or clean room was needed. Although it’s the best way to prevent contamination, it’s costly or impossible for shops to comply. The recommendations of curtain walls or similar is a more cost effective way to achieve a clean room recommendation. The recommendation of air extraction procedures makes some prep decks a viable solution. Entry-level systems from curtain isolation up to a fully enclosed pressurized unit are available on the market. For the F-150, Ford says a shop can have either a separate room or a curtain system.

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Another reason for this is to avoid galvanic corrosion, which occurs when aluminum particles come in contact with steel particles. This is why a portable vacuum system for grinding, welding and sanding is also needed.

Certification

Do you have to be certified to repair the 2015 F-150? Nope. Ford is not restricting parts and is providing repair procedures with those parts involving sectioning guidelines and either welding or rivet bonding, depending on the technician’s skill. The vehicle was made with repairability in mind, which will save a lot of time. But they are offering a certification program for anyone hoping to gain peace of mind that they can do the repair right and also gain additional business by hanging that sign out in front of their shop. Ford’s hope was to have 1,000 shops certified by the beginning of this year. Most shops are playing a wait-and-see game as they feel they cannot commit to the investment without being certain they can get a profitable return.

Investment

There will be a significant investment required by most shops, in the $70,000 to $100,000 range when you add up the tools, equipment and training. In addition, there is construction costs for the clean room, electric and exhaust. Being on multiple OEM programs will drive that investment up even higher. Many of the OEMs have outlined the equipment required to be certified, so checking with them can clear that up. A lot of shops are skeptical that they can get a decent return on that investment presently, but aluminum is not going away, and more and more automakers will be unveiling aluminum models. Chevrolet is targeting an aluminum Silverado in 2018. When this happens, we may see more shops take the plunge.

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Doug Richman, who is employed by Kaiser Aluminum and is chairman of the Aluminum Association’s Technical Committee, currently believes the market is appropriately scaled right now in terms of the number of aluminum vehicles and the number of shops capable of repairing aluminum.

“Today, Audi and Jaguar dealers are certified and equipped by company standards, and Ford is training its field organizations right now and is in the same mode of having minimum requirements of equipment and training and auditing that,” he says. “We don’t want a situation where consumers have a need and there is no one to service that need. I believe in a free market system, and the market has stayed nicely in balance with that need.”

One particular note on equipment is that welders required for automotive-grade aluminum welding are preprogrammed, computer-controlled machines, so most shops will have to buy one like this to properly weld aluminum.

Separate tools are also required for aluminum. Some hand tools like ratchets, sockets and screwdrivers can simply be wiped off when going from steel to aluminum or vice versa, but sanders, cutting saws, sandpaper, cutting blades, drill bits, hammers and dollies will need to be purchased to exclusively work on aluminum. If these are used on both steel and aluminum, cross contamination can occur, which will lead to galvanic corrosion.

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Training

Many techs feel as though their 20 or 30 years of experience exempt them from aluminum training, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Some industry experts claim the industry still hasn’t mastered repairs on steel, so what does that say about aluminum? Furthermore, the extensive reporting on subpar repairs throughout the industry would lead one to believe that there is plenty of room for training and retraining. I-CAR has taken the lead on training, offering new courses on aluminum and other exotic substrates. The NACE | CARS and SEMA shows are also great places to get training. Some industry experts proclaim that no repairer today should be putting their hands on a vehicle without first referencing the OEM repair recommendations, someone who has the “I have plenty of experience” attitude might not think is important.

Aluminum will largely be replace versus repair, more so than steel. There is almost no repair to aluminum structural components except full component replacement or sectioning. Outer panels are generally replaced.

Aluminum is not going to go away. The Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards require vehicle manufacturers to comply with the gas mileage, or fuel economy, standards set by the Department of Transportation (DOT). By 2025, cars and light-duty trucks will have to achieve 54.5 miles per gallon. As a result, more and more automakers will follow Ford and build vehicles from aluminum. GM is now stating that the 2018 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra will feature aluminum-intensive bodies with high-strength steel frames. Experts say that 80 percent of all vehicles rolling off assembly lines today have some sort of aluminum component in them.

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Aluminum is just another change, and the industry has seen plenty of them. From changes in paint chemistries, car structures (full-on frame to unibody), estimates (hand-written to electronic), and more, the industry somehow adjusted. So too will the industry adapt to the exotic substrates turning up in more and more vehicles.

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