The Necessary Equipment - BodyShop Business
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The Necessary Equipment

If your shop were simply painting used cars,
you could do an adequate job with a bare minimum of equipment.
A paint gun, a random orbit sander and a masking machine would
get most of the work done. If you intend to do productive collision
repair, however, much more equipment is necessary.

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But how much is too much?

To make your shop as productive and profitable
as possible, let’s start in the office, work out to the metal
shop, through the paint shop and finally into the detail area,
examining the equipment that will make your business run smoothly
and quickly.

In the Office

To be part of most insurance company direct
repair programs, you’ll need to have a computer estimating system
because the insurers want to make sure your shop is writing estimates
from the same parts and labor data base they use in their home
office. Also, an estimating computer won’t make any math errors
in totaling up the sheet and, maybe most importantly, the computer-generated
estimate is legible and easy to read. One of the biggest problems
insurance companies have with collision repair estimates is trying
to decipher the chicken scratch some body shop estimator made
when writing the original sheet outside in the weather.

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Although some shop owners look at the purchase
of an estimating computer as an expenditure they had to make to
get in the insurance company’s good graces, most discover soon
after they install the computer that it makes their lives much
easier. The labor-time calculations and the multidigit part numbers
both lend themselves readily to computerization. No more hunting
through dog-eared crash books and then transposing two numbers;
it’s much faster to just let the computer do the work. Newer systems
that allow the creation of an estimate with a mouse are even faster
and easier to use than the bar-code versions.

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In addition, the customer (the fictional "Mrs.
Smith") is favorably impressed with the professional estimate.
Remember that Mrs. Smith will judge your shop on several nontechnical
issues while deciding on collision repair. Before she asks about
the training of your technicians or the suitability of your unibody
measuring, she’ll notice if the grounds and office are clean,
if you’re neatly attired and how she felt about the whole sales
experience so far. Estimating computers and their neat and tidy
hard copy send the best possible message about your shop’s professionalism.

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Other necessary office equipment includes
a fax machine, a photocopier and a reliable system to manage technician
time cards. And don’t overlook the telephone – the life blood
of most businesses. To send the very best message to your potential
customers, a message-on-hold system and an answering machine for
off hours are a must. Listen to the next few message-on-hold recordings
you get when you make a call; if you like the message style and
content, adopt something similar on your phone. This hold time
is a great opportunity to tell a waiting caller the two or three
best things about your shop. But don’t try to tell your life story,
and don’t forget to thank the caller for holding every 20-30 seconds.

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In the Metal Shop

Equipment necessary to do profitable collision
repair begins with structural restoration. And when it comes to
the unibody car, three problems must be accommodated to do a good
job quickly. A handy acronym for these constraints is MPH.

"M" is for measure. The strength
of the sheet-metal-box automobile (unibody) depends on returning
all the specifications back to OEM placement, and a productive
measurement system will establish the correct dimensions rapidly.
The faster your technicians can diagnose the damage, the faster
they can fix it.

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The choices for measurement include a dedicated
measuring system, which has a separate set of jigs and fixtures
for each body style; a universal measuring system, which uses
variously sized components to construct and assemble a jig to
factory specifications; and a laser measuring system, which mounts
the laser at datum and shines the light beam on a remote target.
When the laser beam hits the center of the cross hairs on the
target, the body should be straight.

Each style of unibody measurement has some
advantages, and all are capable of accurate measurements. Talk
to the various equipment vendors to hear what their systems can
do to improve your production

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The "P" part of the acronym stands
for pull. While body-on-frame cars could require as much as 20
tons of hydraulic force to restore severe collision damage, a
unibody car is just bent sheet metal and can be tugged around
at much less tonnage.

Multiple pulling arms will make the crushed
metal come back to precise tolerances more easily. Six separate
pulling towers aren’t necessary to do a good job, but at least
two pulling arms will uncrumple the damage more quickly than just
one.

Finally, the "H" stands for hold.
Firmly holding a metal box (the car body) without a perimeter
frame is difficult. Good unibody repair equipment has a set of
four sturdy clamps that grip the metal box at the bottom edge
of the pinch weld, keeping the box stationary as the damage is
pulled out.

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Once the vehicle is anchored, measured and
pulled back into shape, new parts will have to be welded on. A
wire welder is the most popular method to reconstruct unibody
cars, and a large variety of these welders are available.

If your shop has only one wire welder and
technicians wait around for the unit while others use it, you’re
a great candidate for a second welder. The work the technicians
can do with the additional welder will return your investment
in short order.

You’ll need at least one wire welder with
enough amperage "oomph" to join frame rails; the exterior
sheet metal is easily joined with less amperage. In fact, the
ability to turn down the heat far enough to avoid blowing holes
in light gauge metal is the mark of a welder designed specifically
for autobody work.

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Besides owning a wire welder, several Japanese
auto manufacturers recommend that their vehicles be repaired using
squeeze-type resistance spot welding (S-TRSW) – a welding style
that has several advantages, such as no consumables (wire or gas).
Weld cleanup is also minimal, and the right repair can be completed
much faster with S-TRSW. However, not every repair can be reached
from both sides, so metal-inert-gas (MIG) welders will still be
necessary to do some collision repair welding.

The metal shop will also run more smoothly
if all the shop’s equipment is stored in a central location and
maintained regularly. Keeping the floor jacks, the Porto Power,
the vacuum cleaners, the frame chains and the sheet-metal clamps
where all the technicians can find them on the first try will
translate into more work completed at the end of the day.

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In the Paint Shop

Mixing your own color in house is still the
best way to save money on the shop’s material bill. No other equipment
or negotiated discount will save more than doing your own color
mixing.

But it’s not a free ride! Someone on your
staff will now have to religiously agitate the tint colors, locate
the correct formula and accurately mix the color. And you’ll need
to make sure they’re mixing the absolute minimum amount of color
to complete the job. If your painters throw out a single pint
(16 ounces) of unused mixed paint each day, they will have thrown
away $4,000 at the end of the year!

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You’ll also need to locate the paint mixing
equipment away from the worst of the dust and dirt in the paint
shop. Two things I’ve seen many successful paint shops do to ensure
success when mixing their own color is have one person in charge
of paint mixing and place the scale and agitator bank behind a
lockable door out of the worst shop dust.

Having a clean, well-lit place to paint also
is necessary to profitable collision repair. You don’t need the
latest $60,000 booth to get the painting done, but you do need
an enclosure that will keep most of the dirt out of the paint
work.

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Changing filters and arrestors more often
in your existing booth is generally a quick and easy solution
to cleaner paint jobs for every shop. And recaulking the seams
and squaring up the sagging doors every few months will help keep
the dust out, too.

Having enough light to see what you’re doing
is helpful anywhere in the body shop, but it’s an absolute must
in the paint booth. Your present booth will do a better job if
you replace burned out bulbs and frequently clean off the overspray
from the glass covers on the lights. If your lights are located
behind wired safety glass, you can get much more light from the
same fixture if you replace that glass with suitable unwired safety
glass.

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The booth needs to be dust tight and well-lit,
and it must move enough air past the car to dry the paint quickly.
You can move more air through your booth if you clean the overspray
off the fan blades, and you can speed up the fan by changing the
pulley sizes. But make sure you have enough filtered intake area
to supply the faster fan.

If your booth is producing dirty jobs, the
solution may be as simple as increasing the intake filtered area.
Shops that blocked off part of the intake filters in the hope
of getting cleaner jobs were disappointed. More filters, not less,
will keep the fan supplied with clean air.

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Besides the spraybooth, other productive equipment
in the paint shop should include an enormous variety of power
sanders. Having exactly the right sander for every job and every
contour will speed the paint work dramatically.

The typical painter spends almost one third
of his time sanding something. Mechanizing that task will save
a lot of labor time. Even if the painter must sand the styling
lines by hand, using a power sander on the other 95 percent of
the car works great. There are tiny sanders to sand inside grille
louvers or underhood areas, super smooth sanders to block down
flat areas and fast sanders that will chew off the body filler
in seconds.

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Help your painters buy more sanders if they
can’t swing it alone. The additional work they can produce will
pay for the extra tools quickly.

Applying the primer, the primer-surfacer,
the sealer, the color and the clear with a high volume/low pressure
(HVLP) spray gun also saves money – as well as the environment.
And changing spray guns is about as simple a way to make money
as there is in a paint shop.

Some paint shops are using HVLP guns for the
topcoats but continue to use conventional spray guns for the undercoats.
And while saving some of the $100 clear is a good deal, so is
saving some of the $50 primer. Not only do you use less paint
material, you also don’t blow the overspray as far into the door
jambs with HVLP primer guns. A strict policy to mix the absolute
minimum amount of color and spray everything with HVLP guns will
save money in materials and add profit to your bottom line.

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You don’t need the $500 HVLP gun for primer
application either; higher transfer efficiency is available in
a spray gun without all the bells and whistles for less than $200.

Another productive piece of equipment for
the paint shop is an infrared heat light. Once the painter gets
his time well-organized and has chased down the color match days
before the car arrives in the booth, the next best way to increase
paint production is to heat it.

Heating paint drives off the solvent into
the air, making for faster, dust-free times, and heating catalyzed
paints promotes a quick cross link of the catalyst and the enamel
resin, making for a more fully cured finish.

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The length of the infrared wave emitted by
the light isn’t as important as simply using the light regularly.
In many paint shops, the heat light collects dust in the corner
until that first freezing cold winter morning. Once the weather
warms up, the heat light is rolled back into the corner till next
year. But the benefit of heating paint products is to deliver
more work at the end of the week – and this holds equally true
in July or August!

Other productive paint department equipment
includes plenty of masking machines so no one waits for more masking
paper. Also, various folding stands that will hold a flimsy bumper
cover steady or a fender flat for edging save nothing but time.
Rather than look at a new style stand with the idea that you could
make one if you had the time, just buy the one you see and make
back the money by using it!

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In the Detail Shop

Once the estimate is sold, the metal shop
can repair the damage; and once the new panels are welded on and
the fixtures line up, the painters can restore the corrosion protection
and refinish the panels. But once the paint is dry, many shops
think the job is over.

It’s not.

Perhaps the best way for a body shop to increase
its customer satisfaction index (CSI) is to overprep the car.
Mrs. Smith doesn’t know that your techs are I-CAR Gold, that you
have the latest digital electronic measuring, that your painter
has been to color match school for a week and that you used all
2K undercoats. She only knows if her car is clean and shiny when
she gets it back.

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To get high initial CSI numbers, overclean
Mrs. Smith’s car. Vacuum the trunk, clean the ashtrays, dry the
door jambs, polish the chrome and dress the tires. The customer
figures that if you went to that much trouble to clean up before
delivery, you also must have done the repair correctly.

If your shop doesn’t have a written checklist
to detail the repaired cars, I’ll bet you’re not doing the same
detail every time. Writing down what must be done to prepare the
car for delivery serves two purposes: The checklist gives the
detail technician a specific set of tasks to complete – a great
way to make sure the cars are fully prepped and all cars receive
the same detail. The checklist can then be left on the front seat
– with all the various tasks checked off and a tech’s signature
at the bottom. As Mrs. Smith arrives, she’s suitably impressed
by the clean condition of her precious auto. And as she drives
away and reads the list of extra touches you completed in cleaning
her car, she arrives home reassured that your shop did a good
job repairing her collision damage as well.

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Just like the rest of collision repair, making
the job easy to do right is the secret. Having a dedicated wash
bay makes it much more convenient than dragging out the hoses
and buckets and washing the car in the aisle.

High pressure washers are a great way to
clean the incoming cars before collision repair begins – but they
may not be the best solution for freshly painted parts. If you
must blast off the dried rubbing compound with high pressure to
get the car clean, you might be better off with just a garden
hose and another brand of compound. Fresh paint doesn’t much like
1000 PSI of water pressure.

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Variable speed polishers also are very helpful
in quickly polishing clearcoats. Wet sanding the imperfections
out instead of trying to rub them off with compound will generally
complete the job faster. Keep your wet sandpaper wet by letting
it soak in a bucket of clean water (taking the sandpaper from
the shelf and wetting the surface with a splash of water isn’t
wet sanding).

Make the entire detail easy to do by keeping
everything needed on a cart in the wash stall. Just like restocking
the masking machines with paper and tape each morning will keep
the painter from having to hike around the shop, keeping the compounds,
polishes, pads, sponges and towels stocked in the wash stall gets
the car clean and out the door in short order.

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Just What You Need

While some equipment is necessary to modern
collision repair, there’s a huge disparity in the equipment actually
in use in body shops. In some ways, it’s a vicious circle: "If
I had the money, I’d buy more and better equipment. If I had more
equipment, I’d make more money," says the frustrated shop
owner.

In my almost 30 years in this business, I’ve
seen one element repeated again and again among successful, well-equipped
body shops. Before they plunked down the cash for another frame
machine or a second paint booth, they were already organized and
methodical in making use of their existing equipment.

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For most body shops, the paint department
bottleneck could be helped a bunch by better scheduling. Rather
than trying to paint five cars in the one booth every Friday morning,
painting one each day would solve a lot of problems. Also look
for paperwork and procedural changes that will make the collision
repair easier for the technicians to complete.

Once you’re making the most of what you already
have and have collision repair work piled up in your parking lot,
more equipment won’t cost you anything – it will pay for itself.

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Mark Clark, owner of Clark Supply Corporation
in Waterloo, Iowa, is a contributing editor to BodyShop Business.

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