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Technical: Getting in Too Deep

A good customer brings in their aluminum-intensive vehicle with structural damage. Do you take the job because of your pride? This is where a shop can get into trouble.

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Mitch Becker has been a collision industry trainer for 30 years and an I-CAR instructor for more than 25 years. Contact him at (763) 585-6411 or [email protected]

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Shops across the country have trained and prepared to repair aluminum vehicles. The introduction of the F-150 to mainstream manufacturing was a wake-up call to the repair industry as to what’s to come.

Many shops have taken training and purchased equipment. Does this mean you’re ready for all aluminum repairs for all makes and models? This is a pretty serious question for you to ponder. Many shops think all aluminum repairs are the same, but this is where some problems arise. As these same issues arise in vehicles made of newer steels, the aluminum-intensive vehicles are more prone to issues.

OE Procedures

Ford established procedures to repair the F-150. Many of their recommendations are straightforward and fairly simple. We are, as an industry, still learning the quirks and flaws to some of these procedures. Ford essentially gave the industry a good blueprint for repairing the F-150. They also forced us to see the basics of aluminum repair, the tools needed, and the training in correct procedures and why we need to follow procedures. We were not just told we needed to do this, but the FOR06, APR01, STA01 and STA02 courses from I-CAR taught us the why’s of what we needed to do as well. This “why we do what we do” was very important to help us in the decision-making process that occurs when repairing aluminum.

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Aluminum Repair vs. Aluminum Repair

Am I prepared for any aluminum repair? If you followed the lead from Ford, you may very well be equipped for many aluminum repairs – not all, but many. The equipment recommended for aluminum repair and the repair procedures were very good.

Since the introduction of the F-150, some equipment manufacturers have issued multiple manufacturer recommendations that allow for crossover, or one machine for multiple manufacturers. And not just on aluminum, either. This means the welders got even more versatile in that they could weld steel and also do MIG brazing. Shops that purchased these tools gained new abilities needed in the industry.

Do many aluminum-intensive vehicles require more than what Ford recommended? Yes. The F-150 was about repairing the aluminum body on a steel frame. Aluminum-intensive vehicles have an aluminum structure or frame. Frame equipment such as anchoring clamps and pulling equipment are different, as is the type of frame rack required.

Vehicle manufacturers have their reasons for recommending certain equipment and procedures to successfully perform quality repairs. We may not know why, but they’re designed to prevent us from re-engineering a vehicle. Following these recommendations and procedures is a critical step to proper repairs.

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Training

This leads to the other side of the repair issue. You may have the equipment, but do you have the training and know-how? The different series and alloys used in manufacturing aluminum make it absolutely necessary to be trained to not only recognize differences but to do repairs correctly.

Aluminum is not just aluminum. For example, there are differences in the wire required to weld and the mechanical properties. Do you know the differences between a Honda hood and a Mercedes fender? What about the repair of a Tesla frame or Jaguar? Not having the training and experience to correctly do a repair can lead to a shop getting in too deep. Knowing your limitations is a pretty important step in correctly repairing vehicles.

Along with this training, the need for experience also counts. Until you actually work on these vehicles, it all sounds relatively simple. It’s only once you start the repair that you realize it’s different. Practicing welding on samples is not the same as welding on a vehicle. The same is true for making pulls on a frame rack. I know the majority of aluminum-intensive vehicles are not mainstream repairs, but how soon do you think it will be before they are?

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Vehicle Manufacturer Certification

Does this mean every shop should be vehicle manufacturer certified? That’s a loaded question. Is it possible to repair a vehicle without a certification? Absolutely. What happens if it’s a specialty or not a mainstream manufactured vehicle? I will use Tesla as an example. Is it possible for just any shop to repair a structurally damaged Tesla? Let’s be honest. Some could. Can all? No. It’s an honest answer. Some shops may have the tools and ability to do so, but most lack the experienced technician or training to do the job correctly – not to mention equipment. The breakdown of needs would be:

  • Frame and pulling equipment – Any specialty vehicle will have some different clamping and pulling specifications, not to mention measurements. It’s hard enough just to find Jeep or GM specs, let alone a Tesla or Jaguar.
  • Welding – The right equipment with pulse settings or correct wire for welding makes a difference, too, not to mention techniques and where to weld.
  • Attachment methods – Which rivets go where? What adhesive will be used? These questions, and training to do the repair right, are a necessity.
  • Electronics – To scan or not to scan? Recalibrations. This better be established in the beginning of the repair. Who has the capability or software? This is and will become a bigger issue on all cars.

I could add more to the list, but I think we all see the problems, as they’re similar to any new vehicle design. As the list shows, could a shop do repairs on non-structural parts? Yes. The structural repairs create the concerns.

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So, you have a great shop and good techs who have good abilities. A good customer brings in their aluminum-intensive vehicle with structural damage. Do you take the job because of your pride? This is where a shop can get into trouble. I see many shops repairing more aluminum panels than ever. This has brought a good deal of labor to many shops versus just R&I’ing the panel. Insurance companies like the savings of panel replacement, too. When the repairs are structural, things take on a more serious tone. As in steel vehicles, repairs that do not maintain the structural integrity of the vehicle affect us all. Now, it’s not just a matter of reputation but one of liability.

It’s a business decision to repair any vehicle. It’s also a business decision to join any networks or gain some manufacturer certifications. The cost of equipment and return on investment along with the rate of occurrence of these types of vehicles in your area will be a major part of your decision. I just want to urge shops to be cautious before getting in too deep.

The Good Side

All the aluminum training and equipment has taught the industry a great deal and introduced new procedures. Rivet bonding and the use of self-piercing rivets has helped to bring a new light on repair ability in a shop. Hybrid construction on the rise and the fact that these multiple-material vehicles will be used more in manufacturing design has prepped all shops for the future, as rivet bonding of these materials will become more popular.

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Aluminum being used in the manufacture of more and more vehicles and vehicles lasting longer give all shops more opportunity to repair damaged vehicles. How long these vehicles will be on the road is a boom for everyone.

Regarding safety, it has been proven that aluminum vehicles are incredibly safe. In a crash, the size of a vehicle makes a big difference in safety, not necessarily the weight. The ability to make aluminum vehicles bigger without adding weight has led to manufacturers looking even harder at aluminum. Improving fuel economy to meet the new CAFE standards has introduced a new level of safety in vehicle manufacturing. I don’t know how this will relate to repairs in the body shop, but overall it’s a good thing.

I encourage all shops to get involved in aluminum repair. Non-structural aluminum repair is a great way to increase your business. I also encourage shops to only tackle the structural side if you have the equipment and training. Contacting I-CAR for what’s required would be a good first step.

 

 

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