Driving through the streets of Dearborn, Warren and Auburn Hills, Mich., you can’t help but be amazed at the enormity of the automotive center of the universe. Hundreds of thousands of acres under roof, miles of buildings that house research and development labs, experimental power-plant facilities, test tracks and mega manufacturing plants. I’ve driven through the Detroit area many times before, but as I visited this spring to interview representatives from Ford, General Motors and DaimlerChrysler, I was keenly aware of just how big an industry we’re all a part of. If it weren’t for the keen vision and inventiveness of men like Henry Ford, we’d all be doing something other than maintaining and repairing the offspring of their inventions. And it’s apparent by looking at the street and highway names that the city realizes these pioneers’ contributions and has paid homage by memorializing them — a fitting and lasting tribute.
The reason for my trekking to Michigan and interviewing reps from the Big 3 was to learn about their plans, strategies and goals for the future. The bigger purpose of my trip, however, was to learn how their plans will impact collision repairers.
You may or may not know this, but each of the Big 3 has a department that addresses repair and refinish issues. Why? Because they have needs of their own at their production facilities — e.g. end-of-line repairs — and they also have franchised dealer networks that support warranty and other repair issues for vehicle owners. (The car-buying public drives this need for support.) In addition, the large, national, independent repair market serves these same vehicle owners and, in many cases, support dealers who have limited facilities.
One thing I learned while interviewing these key reps is that repairing vehicles won’t be getting easier anytime soon — so get used to the idea of encountering new plastics, aluminum and even more exotic paints. On the other hand, every domestic vehicle manufacturer is aware of the need for repair methods to be in place when new vehicle technologies are introduced. In fact, the Big 3 have devoted considerable resources internally to ensure a ready flow of information to repairers. They’re also ensuring that aftermarket materials and methods are analyzed carefully for their suitability in the repair process.
It was good to hear that design, engineering and manufacturing departments have become more focused on the need to build repairable vehicles. It was also good to hear they’re concerned that there be a flow of information to the repair industry as a whole, not just to dealers. In fact, I sensed a great deal of respect for what technicians accomplish every day in America: restoring vehicles to pre-loss condition. I also sensed that every one of the gentlemen I interviewed has a profound love for the industry he’s a part of.
Note: The following are transcripts of interviews conducted with GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler specialists who are responsible for reviewing methods and materials utilized to repair vehicles. The bulk of the interviews were conducted in March and April in Dearborn and Warren, Mich., while some questions were answered during telephone interviews.
John R. Hughes, Refinish Paint Technical Specialist
Ford Motor Company
BSB: What’s your job description?
JH: "I’m the refinish-paint technical specialist for the Concern Definition Analysis Department of the Ford Product Development Quality Office."
BSB: So they know there are concerns, and there’s a place to address those concerns?
BSB: Specifically concerns for the collision repair industry?
JH: "Any kind of concern, no matter what it is. And as part of that job description, I write all the technical service bulletins that are paint related and sheet-metal related, make procedure improvements for labor-time standards (for warranty repair manuals), and act as the liaison between the paint companies, other material vendors (adhesives, etc.) and the Ford Motor Company on the service side. I also work very closely with the OEM paint people and our own vehicle operations/global paint-engineering facilities. My responsibilities include our European Ford Customer Service Division."
BSB: Has paint performance evened out for Ford as a vehicle manufacturer?
JH: "Yes, very much so. We’ve made many changes in the last few years as far as quality process improvements. Because of this, paint is way down as far as warranty dollars paid out to dealers."
BSB: Does your involvement start when a problem occurs, or do you have pro-active involvement in issues?
JH: "I get involved in the upstream end of things, too. New vehicles, new paint systems, new repair processes that will be needed for new vehicles; I get the upstream and the downstream. Once there’s a concern, it has to be addressed."
BSB: From a manufacturer standpoint, what are the goals and objectives when you make a recommendation?
JH: "When I make a recommendation for a paint repair, as an example, it has to be a quality repair, and it has to be done as quickly as possible — with no sacrifice of customer satisfaction. We’re not going to shortcut anything. [It has to be] a quality repair that satisfies the customer. That’s our goal. The cost at that point is secondary.
"One of the things that we’ve done recently is take a look at approval of paint-repair products. We’ve chosen to test all the major-brand refinish products using the same tests we use with our OEM paint finishes."
BSB: Is that a first?
JH: "Yes, the first time we’ve ever done that. We completed the tests several months ago, and now we’re contemplating doing the low-VOC materials for California and other regulated areas. The only reason it takes a while is because the products used in regulated areas have been in flux, and it seems they’ve finally settled on what materials they’re going to use and in what direction they’re going to go with the exempt solvents and other details."
BSB: In the time you’ve been involved with repair issues, how much have things changed?
JH: "There have been massive changes. In relation to paint, the last seven years have shown us dramatic change. Seven years ago, we were using acrylic enamels and lacquer-based materials. Durability was marginal at best. Now, with the waterborne and urethane materials, we’re bordering on a seven- to 10-year useful life. That’s up from a three-year typical life. That’s an extreme change for the better. And by doing these approvals of the refinish materials and seeing how the materials will stand up to our tests, we’ve triggered a slew of development by the paint companies. They’re using tests for refinish materials they never used before to gauge the durability of their products. It’s a win/win for everybody. If you’re going to do a repair, you need to use an approved system. There’s no sense in mixing different paint-company products to repair a vehicle. Nobody is going to warrant it, and you can’t guarantee the paint is going to stick. We only test complete paint systems."
BSB: Does the use of an approved paint system affect Ford’s willingness to reimburse a dealer for a warranty repair?
JH: Certainly. We send publications to our dealers outlining approved systems. If a dealer’s actions create customer complaints, that would trigger some counseling with the dealer and/or the independent shop that’s doing work for the dealer.
BSB: I think the franchise structure wisely allows for that.
JH: "That’s right. There’s accountability."
BSB: In general, how do you, as an OEM, feel about the state of the collision repair industry today?
JH: "I would say, for the most part, the industry is moving rather slowly. There’s a certain reluctance to change. I think with all the changes in paint in the last several years, you might see the paint situation stable for the next couple of years. When you talk about the collision repair end of the business, I think there will be some serious changes coming — especially given the newer, lighter-weight vehicles coming into play that are using more exotic metals and such vs. the materials we’ve used in the past or that we currently use to a smaller degree."
BSB: I took a group of shop owners to Tech-Cor a few years ago. During the technical class in the afternoon, they showed us a body shell of an all-aluminum Ford test vehicle. Was that project a success?
JH: "To my understanding, yes it was. We learned a number of things from that program. That was called the Aluminum Intensive Vehicle. It was a Sable body with a Taurus SHO engine. That made it all aluminum. It was several hundred pounds lighter than its counterpart. Interesting project. We can certainly expect to see more aluminum in the future."
BSB: Ford took a position in 1998 regarding the use of adhesive bonding materials. Has there been a change in the Ford position regarding their use? (See June 1998 BodyShop Business article, "No Bonding Allowed.")
JH: "No. The basic reason that letter was written was our understanding that there were a lot of repairs being done in the field using adhesive materials without welding. As a company, we’re looking at trying to address some of the concerns people have, but until more testing is completed, until we get more information back from the individual adhesive manufacturers and until we have specifications written for the products, we’re not going to approve anything. We’ve been working with the various adhesive manufacturers, we’ve seen vehicles that have been crash tested — I’ve seen a number of crash tests from a number of suppliers — and the results of the individual repairs done on those vehicles seem to come out as anticipated. There will be other weathering and durability tests done by other testing facilities on portions of those crashed vehicles, and the report and the show-and-tell is proposed for later this year. I don’t know when."
BSB: It seems to be sound technology and it will probably have a place, but we have to get through these tests. I was told by one of the adhesive manufacturers that I needed to keep an open mind. But I don’t believe when safety is an issue that we can have an open mind. We need to have very closed minds.
JH: "That’s correct. And that’s the way Ford Motor Company looks at it, too. We don’t want to have any kind of a safety concern at all. That’s why we’re taking the approach we are. We don’t currently approve those types of repairs except for door skins. We’ve used that process every day for several years in our assembly plants. That’s a typical ‘this is the way you do that repair’ scenario. It’s not the same for roofs, quarter panels and various other things. We may get to that sometime, but we’re not there today."
BSB: The flow of information from the OEM side. It takes the aftermarket some time to generate data such as vehicle dimensions and repair procedures. Is Ford working to improve the flow of information to the collision repair industry?
JH: "Yes, we are. We write technical service bulletins on new vehicles, we write new-model introduction articles that go out to our dealers, we have new-model introduction training every year that outlines major component changes and we update our shop manuals. We also disseminate that information to various magazines and publications. We communicate with ASA, I-CAR, SCRS and whoever else. As much information as we regularly print goes out to those locations."
BSB: Do Ford Motor Company dealers have an edge?
JH: "I would say they probably do — just because of the amount of information that flows directly to the dealer on a daily basis. For instance, we have two-way satellite communication with every dealer. The Fordstar system is used for training and other matters, and we put a lot of training information on there that goes out to the dealers. For example, I did a Fordstar broadcast a few months ago related to adhesive bonding — to door-skin repair specifically. This showed how we want them to do the repair."
BSB: There are a lot of independent repair facilities out there, and some of them are affiliated with a Ford dealership. Is the Ford parts department their best source of information?
JH: "That would be their best relationship, and I think that’s probably where their relationship lies today. They do work for or buy parts from the dealer. That’s where the best relationships are forged."
BSB: The high-end resistance spot welders: Have you evaluated these systems for repair?
JH: "We’ve had some in the company for testing. It takes a lot of time to set up a test. Our engineers define the test criteria. You must use the exact number of spot welds we used in manufacturing because that’s how our vehicles are certified. In fact, our vehicles are certified with only spot welds. Whether it’s an internal or external specification, it still has to meet our approval. If it doesn’t meet our approval, we don’t recommend it. Today, we don’t recommend spot welding procedures at all. We’ve only approved the use of MIG plug welds for repair. No one has really brought to the table a welder that we really like and that we’ve had time to test.
"If we had our choice, we’d like the vehicle put together exactly the way it was manufactured, i.e. weld bonded. Our vehicles are crash tested and certified with only welds. The only reason we use bonding along with the welds during assembly is for noise, vibration, harshness, water leaks and overall stability of the chassis."
BSB: So welding and bonding might merge together down the road?
JH: "At this point, we don’t presently have any ongoing tests to approve this. Things may change in the future."
BSB: What can a body shop owner do now to plan ahead and stay on top of the game?
JH: "The biggest thing that comes to mind is training. The industry is changing so fast. For instance, if bonding comes in, there are people who know how to do this and are up to date on it. Paint manufacturers are coming out with new products every year. They replace old products, and [the new products] may not be applied the same way. [Having gone to] refinishing school five years ago isn’t enough. You’ve got to know when to use it and how to use it — and then you can resolve problems. You need to be aware of all the safety aspects of products and tools.
"Another very important part of the repair industry is learning to understand how your customer perceives your facility. You may do the best work in a three-state area, but if customers perceive your place of business as dirty, their first impression won’t be what it should be vs. a clean facility doing quality work and making the customer confident."
Brian D. Dotterer, Materials and Technologies Development
Collision Repair Tech Center
BSB: When we look at someone who’s the interface between the OEM and the repair industry, what are the basic parameters? What’s the outline of your responsibility?
BD: "My particular piece of this is to look at the vehicle as a complete package. What are the things that influence collision damage repair costs? Of course, design is a big part — we get involved in the early stages to look at those kinds of things. What a lot of people don’t understand are the processes that contribute to creating a new vehicle. The design process, the manufacturing process and the assembly process interrelate. It’s easy to ask a vehicle manufacturer, ‘Why don’t you do this?’ We do all we can to resolve all possible concerns. Our company has never been more conscious of the need to make our vehicles repairable than it is in 1999.
"We’re also working on better communication methods to get that knowledge out to the field when we do develop a repair procedure. One of the things we’re very aware of is the fact that the bar is increasingly getting higher for the technologies out there. Very specific repairs, equipment and training have to be utilized to make successful repairs. We’re trying every day to communicate more successfully. We get involved in the NACE activity to share our information and promote our repair procedures, and the GM4901 paint spec has taken the guesswork away from the collision shop. It says that you, as a paint supplier, don’t have to sell yourself. If you’re in that book, it’s a done deal. What that does is allow the paint company to focus on other value-added services, such as shop layout and management training. I think what we did is create a level playing field for the paint industry. You don’t see products that wouldn’t pass the test even mentioned in the spec.
"When you look at bonding panels on vehicles, once again our intent is to set specifications for performance as well as validation — so, in reality, what we’re saying is that anybody can play as long as he’s willing to come to GM with the data that says it works to our specifications. This business is too complex for opinions anymore. GM’s plan is that we’ll approve material when it meets a specification developed by GM’s engineers."
BSB: From a manufacturer’s position, what are your goals when you make a recommendation?
BD: "Customer satisfaction. One of the things that always comes up, like with paint, is the question, ‘Is that the same as the factory paint?’ We’ve all played that game: ‘Well sort of. It’s close.’ But what the specification does is give that shop the comfort level that the product has been tested and approved. And it gives that customer the satisfaction of knowing he can be confident of the repair. Before, we never knew."
BSB: When you established your paint material baseline that GM is using its OEM material spec as the baseline for refinish material.
BD: "It was actually quite a learning experience for the OEM side. They didn’t realize the performance level of refinish materials. We use aftermarket refinish material at some plants for assembly-line repairs. The other thing we did — and keep in mind that quality is the key — for years we used to blend clear. And you would send the job out with a kiss and a prayer. You knew the durability was questionable, but it was a standard practice. We’ve taken the position that there should be no blending of clear in the middle of an open panel. Long-term durability doesn’t exist. When you examine the warranties of the paint companies, not one of them will stand behind a blend in the middle of a panel. We’ve published that information in our GM labor-time guide, and we tell our dealers not to do it. We also believe it’s important to remove handles and moldings on a to-be-painted panel. A lot of the things we do in our warranty manual are things we can control as a manufacturer. This should send a message that there’s a baseline for a quality refinish repair. It includes removing handles and moldings, it includes no blending of clearcoat in the middle of a panel. Bottom line: If it jeopardizes the integrity of the paint job, then it has to come off. We’re not saying everything has to come off, but we’re saying it boils down to common sense. The customer should get a high-quality repair.
Things like re-painting airbags, we don’t recommend it. We don’t recommend salvage airbags. That’s based on information from development work that we pass on to the repair industry. We’re constantly sending information out in different forms; whether it’s through Tech-Cor or I-CAR, we work with all those organizations to communicate our piece of the business."
BSB: You have franchised dealers all over the country, many of them with body shops, some with huge body shop operations. Is the crux of what you do focused on your dealer network? Are you, as a corporation, concerned with the independent repair facility owner and his access to information?
BD: "If you look at our network, just under half of our dealers have body shops. That truly is the focus of our business, but we realize the collision repair industry is where we need to communicate. We have dealers with sublet shops, so we have to make sure we provide information; in essence, we’re concerned with anyone who’s repairing a GM vehicle. In some capacity, they have access to this information. The system isn’t perfect, but we’re trying constantly to make it better. I’ll use paint as an example. Every approved paint vendor receives every bulletin that has to do with paint. They have the information and do a great job communicating it to the field. We’re trying to arm these guys with information so when they walk in the shop’s door, the people in the shop are asking them for the latest information that affects their businesses. We’re not in the refinish business, but we realize we have information that can help the paint supplier be a better supplier to that independent shop."
BSB: What’s the most positive change you’ve seen in your tenure between OEMs and the collision repair industry?
BD: "The development in refinish material in the last 10 years has been amazing. I do a lot of presentations for car clubs and others, and what we’ve done in our seminars is explain how state-of-the-art materials and application methods have improved refinishing. We’re trying to raise the level of the technician so he has a better understanding of the products and equipment and how they effect job quality and customer satisfaction.
BSB: GM is taking an active role in education?
BD: "We have been and continue to be."
BSB: In general, how does GM feel about the state of the collision repair industry today?
BD: "I think we’re learning a lot. Maybe we aren’t as good as we thought we were when you look at what it takes to do a quality repair today — it’s so much more than a tape measure and a power post. It’s a difficult culture to change. It’s a cut-corners culture. I think the skill level required to do quality body and refinish work has been underestimated. The pro-active people in the collision repair industry who’ve taken the stance that quality is going to be their first objective are the ones leading the field. These are cultural issues confronting the repair industry and are very difficult to change. Today’s customer is driving the changes. He’s more educated, more affluent and is spending a lot of money for that vehicle. The rules have changed."
BSB: Bonding panels: Are you reviewing that process?
BD: There are many other things involved than just bonding panels. We don’t appreciate people out there saying, ‘GM says you can do this or that.’ Right now, the only panels we recommend bonding are the ones that are bonded from the factory, like the G-car roof, Camaro doors, things that are already bonded. There’s still a long-term safety concern for repairs of this nature done in the field. Our intent is to develop a performance specification, a validation program, and communicate with our suppliers to see if they want to do the development work. Those companies that work with us are going to be successful. GM is concerned with its vehicles through their entire life cycle. When we look at bonding, we have to ask how that process fits into the life cycle of the vehicle. We feel the process is worth further investigation."
BSB: What about the flow of information from GM to the collision repair industry?
BD: "We’ve made tremendous strides with information providers to improve that flow. One of our problems is engineering changes. They can occur after the initial release of repair information. We’re working closer with engineering so we can get the information quicker. GM Technical Assistance is a dealer-only program currently, but we use Tech-Cor and I-CAR — and who knows, the Internet might be a factor in the future."
BSB: Nobody expects a five-story building filled with people answering telephones to suddenly appear. But isn’t there something that can be done by vehicle manufacturers to improve the availability of information?
BD: "I think what we’ll see in time is a more effective way to communicate that information. The Internet looks like the future. We realize we need to support the repair side. How can we do that most effectively? How do we get the biggest bang for the buck? I think the Internet is viable. If you don’t have a computer, you have a problem."
BSB: What do you see as key repair issues in the near future?
BD: "It’s tough to look down the road and be able to discuss it. We should certainly look for new materials being used — aluminum, new plastics. The biggest change will be the level of education required for the shops. It’s certain the bar will be raised."
H. Daryl Porter, Paint Platform Service Support Manager
BSB: What’s your job description?
BD: "I’m the paint platform service support manager. I’m responsible for anything to do with service, paint and body structure."
BSB: So you end up reviewing methods and materials that are used in the field and making recommendations from the OEM position?
BSB: From a manufacturer’s position, what are your goals/objectives when you make a recommendation?
BD: "To take the car back to as close to the original form as possible."
BSB: In talking with John and Brian (at Ford and GM), in the last few years the testing for refinish paint-material performance is being done using OEM paint specifications. Is that true at DaimlerChrysler?
BD: "We’re doing the same thing. We have a standard built, but we’re still reviewing how we’ll work with the paint manufacturers. I believe that any paint-material standard should include certification for painters. There should be a training standard tied to the materials. I expect that we’ll have a lifetime warranty requirement for paint used in warranty repairs. It seems reasonable to require the painter to attend training at the paint manufacturer’s facility."
BSB: A training program that meets DaimlerChrysler requirements for knowledge and understanding of the trade?
BSB: I think that’s good. The key tie-in here seems to be that vehicle manufacturers spend millions of dollars every year in warranty reimbursements to their dealers, so if the shop is using approved materials and is well-trained, that minimizes problems.
BSB: How much have you seen things change in your tenure? How long have you been involved in painting and collision repair issues?
BD: "All of my life. And the changes have been dramatic and frequent. I first started doing paint work almost 40 years ago. I came from the field and have practical experience in body and paint."
BSB: I think that’s good for anybody who has to live with what you come up with. You aren’t just reading a book and arbitrarily deciding a repair method.
BD: "You can’t. Theory is one thing, and the real world is another. You can tell a guy — for example, on a Viper hood panel, an SMC product — ‘This is the process you use to refinish this hood panel.’ But [he won’t] know the hood has to be baked at a higher temperature than the paint or he’ll have concerns when he bakes the paint because he’ll open up the SMC again.
BSB: In general, how do vehicle manufacturers feel about the state of the collision repair industry in America today?
BD: "This is a good question. My answer is probably different than some of the other guys. I don’t think it’s too bad."
BSB: There seems to be a good deal of satisfaction with where paint is. Paint materials and training available today are further ahead than body work.
BD: "There’s a lot of opportunity for collision repair as well. In fact, we’re going out with a procedure shortly that’s a two-step process that requires structural adhesive as well as resistance spot welds. We call it weld bonding."
BSB: Can we talk about this in the article?
BD: "A little. The document is soon to be released. We have a procedure for our dealers they can convey to independent shops that do work for them, suggesting that this could very well be a new way to attach cosmetic body panels. It includes structural adhesive around the full perimeter of the part with resistance spot welding done with a high-end spot welder. We explain how the procedure works, how to test for strength and how this could possibly save a collision repair shop money."
BSB: MIG welding isn’t part of this methodology?
BSB: What’s DaimlerChrysler doing to improve the flow of information to repairers? We understand that manufacturers have franchise dealers with large investments and the main flow of information is to your dealers.
BD: "That doesn’t matter; that’s not a factor. Less than half of our dealers have collision repair facilities. The information we put out to the field would go to everybody. Like this weld-bonding procedure. I’m going to put it out to the dealers and, at that point, I expect to put it in some of the publications that serve the industry."
BSB: Are the parts people at your dealerships knowledgeable about repair bulletins that you issue?
BSB: So the best way for an independent shop to stay abreast of developments from your company might be to cultivate his relationship with the parts department he buys from?
BD: "Yes. He should."
BSB: Shop techs tell me that new-model information such as body dimensions are sometimes slow or impossible to get, tying up cars for weeks.
BD: "It’s all in our service manuals. Our service manuals are required to be at a dealer before the cars are there. They’re available to everybody."
BSB: Are they available in electronic form?
BD: "They’re going to be but not yet."
BSB: What do you see as key repair issues in the near future? In the next couple of years?
BD: "Aluminum repairs. It’s not terrible at this point, and it might not be. I’d like to see a superior spot welder for aluminum. I don’t know that it’s possible. You need a lot of amperage (3,500), and it has to be very fast."
BSB: Are we going to have a lot more exotic plastics and lightweight metal alloys?
BD: "I’m sure we will. That’s the name of the game. The reality is that a lot of things we deal with are complex situations. You deal with them as they come, you give the customer the best product possible and you try to make sure repair procedures are in place."
BSB: Any closing thoughts?
BD: "One thing you might be interested in is that the corporation has developed a paint platform. All our vehicles are set up as platforms. We have large car, small car, minivan, truck and Jeep platforms. We now have a paint platform that deals with paint, and everybody within the corporation has representatives on this platform. Manufacturing, engineering, service — everybody is involved in this platform. In the past, we’ve not had this opportunity. Years ago, for example, manufacturing