In my 42 years in the industry, I’ve often spoken with collision shop owners who wish for another building than the one they currently occupy. They say, “If only my building had…” and then fill in the blanks for the missing ingredients of their ideal shop design.
My goal in writing this article was to uncover that ideal, super productive shop layout and relay it to you, the reader. Like any responsible author with more opinions than facts, I set out to find an expert with more facts than opinions.
No Universal Design
I was able to locate and receive the advice of Tom Nicholas, one of the most knowledgeable shop design folks in the business. Nicholas is a business solutions manager for PPG Refinish responsible for facility layout and design, and has 31 years of experience in our industry with stints as a technician, shop owner, jobber salesperson, PPG territory manager and PPG MVP analyst.
Since 1995, PPG has designed about 60 shops a year for customers – more than 1,100 designs. So what does the “right” shop layout look like? Nicholas was adamant that there is no such thing as a universal shop design. In every single case, it’s necessary to understand each individual shop’s goals and site limitations for their new facility.
We were able to identify 13 body shop areas that combine in some order to make the work flow smoothly through the building. Nicholas offered his thoughts on each area and some useful tips about the decisions that every shop must make for its own situation.
One point Nicholas did make was that the cost to construct the facility can be recovered much more quickly if you utilize the building, equipment and technicians in more than one shift per day. As fixed costs to operate a profitable body shop increase steadily, using your invested capital wisely means more production, not more investment. If you now use your shop and equipment for a 40- to 45-hour work week, your expensive assets sit idle two-thirds of the time. Twelve-hour shifts, another crew, teams with overlapping work days or other facility use enhancements would be worth considering.
Our 13 areas for consideration include:
- Site limitations
- Reception area
- Estimating space
- Repair planning area
- Parts department
- Work-in-process lot
- Repair bays
- Paint prep
- Paint cycle
- Final inspection
The size of the lot, access to the roadway, utility routing, elevation, water drainage, curb cuts and numerous local regulations make each building site unique. Environmental considerations like the retention basin for rainwater control and mandated green space meet legal code issues like traffic count, number of parking spaces required and the building’s position on the lot. All of those and many more immediately affect a shop’s layout and design. Once all the fixed constraints are identified, Nicholas can begin to design a productive facility.
Marketing the ideal shop to the driving public includes serious thought about how they’ll enter, interact and depart the business in order for the shop to leave the best impression with the smoothest customer flow. Don’t make them circle the building to see the damaged work in process and backlogged storage vehicles. Nicholas suggests having a customer path that’s as direct as possible and clearly marked at every opportunity, from the street side to the front counter.
Other site issues may include the setback requirements, limiting which side tow-in repairs can enter the building. Parts delivery trucks should travel directly to the shop’s parts department and not along the customer paths, given the space and the budget to do so. Money, for a custom-designed building of any type, residential housing or collision repair, is always a big hurdle.
On the rare body shop building projects I’ve been involved with, dividing your new-shop wishes into three piles has worked well. Pile A is the things your building must have to function, pile B is the things that would be useful to include (like productive shop equipment able to quickly earn back its costs) and pile C is all the cool stuff that would be perfect for your new building if you won the lottery. And yes, I think you would really enjoy a hot tub in your spacious new office, but the money might be better spent on another overhead door or two. It’s like Randy Newman’s song says: “It’s money that matters, in the USA,” particularly if you’re trying to build new, code compliant auto body repair facilities.
Remember that you can also redesign your existing facility. Workflow can markedly improve if your existing space is utilized to the maximum. A fresh set of eyeballs might be able to see that the current walls should be moved or the entrance shifted around the corner to make your current facility shine even brighter.
Staffing requirements are of immediate importance in the perfect shop’s office space. By counting the number of people who must reside and work up front, a basic footprint gets sketched out. Where will the estimators, the receptionist, the book-keepers, other administrative staff and the boss
Nicholas makes a distinction between a shop that writes a technical estimate (all damage and parts uncovered and fully recorded on the estimate) and the shop that writes a sales estimate, their goal being to immediately capture the keys and uncover the hidden damage later. Every shop is trying to sell the customer on their ability to restore the damage to pre-accident condition. Non-drives will be handled differently than drivable vehicles.
The technical estimate disassembly will require more space and longer customer wait times if you haven’t already sold the job, so staff accordingly. Plan to dazzle the customers while they wait.
In my opinion, what happens in the reception area is even more important than what happens in the production spaces. Unless Mrs. Smith agrees (through contractual obligation or as the result of your powers of persuasion) to have your shop fix her car, nothing at all happens. It’s hard to make much money productively repairing the vehicle with the best techs and fastest equipment if the car is in someone else’s shop. This is where you meet, greet and close Mrs. Smith. Impress her with your professional customer interface. The goal is a quick turnaround with little waiting time. Make sure she’s impressed with what you show her in that time.
Common sense says to include basic customer stuff like clean, dusted and vacuumed spaces and furniture. Uncluttered counters and desks say your shop is organized. Provide places to sit comfortably, display current magazines, post big, snazzy signs that explain to Mrs. Smith why your shop is her best choice.
Nicholas suggests that if you can say you would be proud to have your wife or daughter enter the shop and be made welcome, the design is perfect. People like clean window and door glass and a friendly face, and they like all body shops a lot better if they look like doctor’s offices – but with more current magazines.
Provide a customer waiting space with a vending area for coffee, hot water and soda. Keep the customer occupied while the estimate writer is busy. A kid’s play area, Wi-Fi-equipped work stalls, closed loop HD TVs with sales tool videos and super clean restrooms will capture many more Mrs. Smiths. She may not know if your techs are properly trained, your equipment is up-to-date or if your cycle time is stellar. But she knows if the office is clean and your staff was glad to see her.
Designing Around the Spraybooth
In this space, required equipment and stall allocation depend on who is doing what. If priming is taking place here, then closed top, open-front stalls with a curtain will be required. Sanding under a prep station, sanding with vacuum sanders or sanding with just an occasional window open will make the amount of dirt to control vastly different. Tom Nicholas, business solutions manager for PPG Refinish who’s responsible for facility layout and design, would try to design a space that best contains the dust and keeps the work flowing smoothly toward the spraybooths. He suggests that the shop include two flat bays between the prep area and each spraybooth. Use infrared heat lights to rapidly dry primer on the vehicles in line for the booth.
You don’t need a drive-through booth to produce work quickly. Knowing where the next car is coming from, and when, is the key to high paint production. Maximize the booth by using it to paint only – no masking, color matching, disassembly, sanding or polishing in the booth cabin. Identify and get any problems off the line before they’re pulled into the booth. Enough paint shop staff to keep the booth at maximum capacity is often payroll money well spent.
Spraybooths are usually 24- to 31-feet-long in today’s productive collision repair. It will take a
27-foot booth to handle a full-size pickup comfortably. Additional space inside the booth cabin can be used for painting bumper covers or other loose parts at the same time. Common sense things like “don’t block the booth doors” are always important. Moving cars, with a tech in each, is a huge waste of time in many poorly designed shops. Productive shop design eliminates as much moving of vehicles as humanly possible.
While there are several functional designs employed in downdraft spraybooths, both Nicholas and I prefer a center plenum (the intake box of air on the top) and a center exhaust pit in the floor. This forms a neat envelope of moving air around the vehicle. The 10,000 to 12,000 CFM the typical automotive booth exhausts will require a specific width and depth of tunnel for the exhaust air to flow out smoothly. Make sure you get the exact spraybooth specifications early in the building design process to ensure fuel gas, electrical current and clear roof and under-floor space exist where you’ll need them.
If your shop will enjoy the benefits of the latest low-VOC, water-containing finishes, then auxiliary air movement may be desirable. The average shop in the U.S. (about $700,000 to $750,000 in annual sales) only paints two cars per day. If that’s your shop, anyone’s waterborne will dry in a half day without blowing air to drive the water out. High paint production may require moving extra air past the finish to evaporate the water quickly enough to paint six or seven cars per day.
Ideally, Mrs. Smith can pull her car inside your well-lit, warm (or cool) estimating bay in most northern climates. In sunny, warm places, the estimating bay may be outside. Nicholas cautions that while dedicated estimating bays are a key part of a powerful sales close, at $100 per square foot construction cost, a non-production estimating bay is expensive. Plus, you have to heat, cool and insure it 24/7, 365 days a year. It’s not my money, so it’s easy for me to say, but we both think this is capital very well spent. Mrs. Smith’s car on the lift in another shop somewhere else, with a nicer estimating bay, doesn’t help my production output at all.
A 25-foot-long by 16-foot-wide stall would work well – extra wide because the estimator is liable to have doors on both sides open at once. A lift, which may affect the building’s ceiling height, and lots of good lighting (90-foot candles at three feet) are among the perfect estimating bay’s desirable features. Include durable, easily cleaned and attractive floor treatments; tile is cool but expensive, concrete is durable but doesn’t look like a doctor’s office. A working floor drain for water and slush, automatic overhead doors (which also clear the raised car on the lift) and enough glass for some natural lighting might round out your perfect estimate bay. Nicholas suggests no dry wall on the bottom edges of the walls; use concrete block or cover plasterboard with a corrugated steel panel, which will prevent water damage and clean up easily.
Nicholas also tries to get a compatible customer flavor with the design and furnishings in the estimating area. For example, in a Mercedes or BMW shop, utilitarian steel desks won’t look appropriate. In a mid-size shop in the Midwest, antique burled walnut desks also look out of place.
First, identify the shop’s customer base, then build and decorate to capture their business. Further consider the stall’s proximity to the parts person, parts carts, technical estimator, main tech, office staff and the workflow between them. Stock your perfect shop estimating bay with point-of-use hand tools and parts carts for the damaged parts – if you’re disassembling the vehicle at this stage.
Repair Planning Area
Nicholas suggests that this area should have ready access to the work-in-process (WIP) lot and parts department and contain plenty of parts carts. High-production output is the result of eliminating wasted movement at each step of the repair. Capital investments required to move quickly here include tooling to disassemble, basic pulling equipment to better identify the extent of the collision damage, and lift and floor drains.
I’m a huge fan of parts carts at every single opportunity during collision repair. Keeping the technicians at work on the repairs and not looking for the missing parts makes all the difference. Stop wasting movement wandering around hunting for anything: tools, parts, the RO itself. Rolling parts carts easily follow the vehicle through the shop and, once loaded during the meticulous disassembly and pre-repair step, keep everything close at hand. The techs will be there for the required 40 hours; do your best to make sure they spend it repairing damage and not wandering around.
Nicholas tries to keep this space away from the customer spaces. Delivery trucks blocking the driveway leave Mrs. Smith cold. Clear signage should point the way for both the vendor delivery trucks and the customer’s path to the office. The parts space should be accessible (not in a far corner of the production space) and securable. Gates, doors or docks that offer access to the parts department need to be locked as required by shop policies. Nicholas suggests that an area about 10 percent of the total production space be allocated to managing crash parts.
Nicholas and I both believe that the biggest impediment to production speeds is poorly handled replacement parts. A thoughtfully designed parts department will go a long way toward making sure repair work doesn’t begin until the required parts are on-site, unwrapped, inspected and loaded on the parts cart. The cardboard-wrapped haystack that many shops now call a parts department makes cycle times longer and longer the higher it gets.
Nicholas’s ideal shop would have the WIP space staged out by the vehicle’s next stop in the repair. Total losses, paint shop work and cars ready for detail would be visually identifiable from a distance. Using things like colored roof tents, specifically marked parking stalls or numbered magnetic stickers will help make knowing which car goes where next a real time-saver.
Also housed in this space are the hazardous waste storage, oil waste container, cardboard recycling, metal scrap bin and bi-weekly trash – all of which need to be stored safely and easily accessible for pick up and disposal. Arranging the entire WIP vehicle count and the shop waste effluent takes lots of design forethought. Easy-in, easy-out and security are balanced with keeping the customer traffic path clear of the waste hauler’s work path. In areas with snowfall, don’t forget about planning for mountains of snow when the lots are plowed.
Standard collision repair works well with a 60/40 percent space allocation for metal and paint. But don’t forget another 10 percent of the total production area dedicated to the parts department. When building space permits, Nicholas’s designs use a frame stall 25 feet long and 15 to 16 feet wide. A metal stall is 25 feet by 12 feet wide. Pulling racks or bench stalls need to be located close to an overhead door so the car can come in smoothly on the hook. He gives special consideration to any pulling stalls which he’ll protect with half-walls or other containment measures.
Nicholas is careful to include sufficient floor drains, in part because it makes keeping the shop clean easier. Work benches should have wheels so they can be rolled aside, or should be bolted directly to the wall so you don’t have to sweep or wash around their feet. In either case, he suggests keeping the number of benches to a minimum. They can be another place for clutter and dust to collect. In any dusty production area, he prefers using shelving made from grated material – no metal or wood flats to collect dust.
You can do temporary work in the aisles between the work stalls; Nicholas uses a 25-foot minimum aisle width. It takes about 23 feet to turn an average car and about 27 feet to turn a dually pickup. Narrower aisles are possible with angled stalls. Locating the stalls 90 degrees to the center aisle makes the best use of wall space. Angled stalls lose a percentage of the productive bay space at the end of each row. If your unique building requires angled work stalls, use the triangular spaces to store tools or shop equipment and parts carts.
Allocating two work stalls per technician is a good goal. If crash parts management is poor, more may be required. I believe the national average is roughly 2.3 stalls per tech. The tech’s productivity doesn’t suffer with a third bay, but cycle time lengthens dramatically and your parts carrying costs increase when the same tech is working on three repairs at once. And short cycle times make Mrs. Smith happy, who in turn renews her policy with her existing insurance carrier, who now has fresh cash to pay for the repair, and life goes on.
Nicholas would use B- and/or C-level techs to reassemble repaired vehicles in this space, assuming disassembly processes were overseen by the lead tech and proper documentation was collected upon disassembly. Adequate area for the car to cool down and be de-masked is included. The several parts carts that may have followed the repair through the shop or come directly to this space in advance of the car are reunited with the repaired vehicle. Space placement considerations include keeping this space close enough to the main repair bays that the reassembly tech can quickly consult the main tech. Required equipment might include headlight aimers, A/C machines, power tools, lifts and lights. Safe storage for spent masking materials and access to the WIP lot are further considerations in the reassembly process.
The best drain in the building should be in this space. A curtain or block wall to contain the wash water spray would be useful, too. Nicholas’s ideal detail bays would be 16 feet wide like the estimating stall because both sides might have open car doors. As always, an easy way to speed the wash step is to dry the car with a long silicone rubber squeegee and an air blow gun – no towels or chamois to wring out.
Wasted movements to be eliminated in this space include time hunting around for the products and tools required to make the car look its best. Kit out rolling carts with all the sandpaper, polishing products, hand tools, air tools, solvents and adhesive tapes ready to go, clearly marked and easy to find. Restock all carts at regular non-production intervals to keep the wasted labor to a minimum in this important space.
This is where the repair is matched to the RO line by line. When the shop makes sure nothing was missed, Mrs. Smith is a happy customer. Bolt heads are touched up, hard tape edges are smoothed, and scuffed bumper cover bottoms (from when they were set on the floor) are polished out. This well-lit area with a lift makes it easy to fluff the repaired vehicle to its best advantage.
Ideally, this space is not outside subject to weather variables. And if it’s inside, the building has the ready-for-delivery cars covered up. This important step re-sells the repair to Mrs. Smith. Far too many shops simply give the customer the keys and point to the car out on the lot. Make the time to walk the customer out to the vehicle, point out the perfect color match, uniform door gaps and expertly cleaned and detailed auto. This is the time to ask for a referral. “We’re proud of the way your car turned out, Mrs. Smith. Are you happy as well?” When she says yes, ask her to tell her friends. Leave a good last impression; nicely detailed cars do just that.
The key to a great shop design is to understand the customer’s specific situation. The more information you have about the project, the shop’s current sales volume, your technicians’ skill sets and, of course, the financial constraints at the outset, the better the final design fills the bill.
It’s hard to visualize something that isn’t there. Many shops can’t see past their current process. A creative, open-minded viewpoint won’t let an existing wall become an obstacle.
Make sure your ideal, super productive shop layout meets your exact goals and constraints. Start early, gather the facts, ask everyone, visit other shops and always look to minimize wasted efforts in the final version.
Mark R. Clark is a well-known industry speaker and consultant. He is celebrating his 24th year as a contributing editor to BSB.