Use It - Or Lose It: New Technology - BodyShop Business
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Use It – Or Lose It: New Technology

If you’re not fully utilizing today’s technology — if your shop’s full of “toys” that no one uses — then you’re not fully utilizing your shop’s potential for profits.

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When comparing collision repair facilities that have positioned themselves as a market presence in their city or region, you’ll find some basic similarities that exist between them. One such similarity is their utilization of current technology.

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Are the tools and technology needed today different than 20 years ago? You bet they are. But this really shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering that vehicles have changed, customer expectations have changed, competition has raised the bar and, of course, insurance relationships have changed.

So why is it we still hear how tough it is today and how business used to be? Because we all love to reminisce about the past. But that’s exactly what it is — the past. We need to take advantage of what’s out there today instead of complaining that the industry was so much easier yesterday.

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Let’s face it, the rules of our business model are changing and technology is driving some of these changes. These changes, in turn, forces us to constantly look for better ways of doing business because we know our competition is looking, too.

In the past, well-equipped shops had only acetylene torches, pull dozers and hand tools. Today, however, computers and new software are in every department, and lots of new equipment and materials are available to improve efficiency — which can increase profitability.

But are we taking advantage of all these things?

Some of you may be saying, "I already have a ton of ‘toys’ that aren’t being used in my shop. Why would I want more?" Good question. But a better question would be, "Why aren’t these things being used in my shop like I planned?"

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Is it training? Then get the vendor there. Is it a misunderstanding of its potential? I see often that equipment is viewed very one dimensionally, and its real potential is never achieved. Whatever the reason, figure it out. Having all the technology in the world won’t do you any good if you’re not using it as it was intended to be used.

With that said, let’s take a look at some equipment and technology you might want to consider.

Regarding Welding
Since the late 1970s, MIG welders have been around. (They should’ve been called Gas Metal Arc Welding (GMAW), but since our primary use was a carbon-dioxide mixture and not 100 percent inert gas, MIG caught on.) Back then, units were very large and sometimes too wide to fit between stalls, but the technology wasn’t new — it was only new to our application. The welders were large because of the industrial applications they came from, but they quickly downsized to adapt to our industry’s needs.

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Today, welders are much different than they were then, but going into shops today we can still find — unfortunately a high percentage of the time — welders that are in no condition to be used and technicians who still have no formal training or certification.

Why? Why aren’t we taking advantage of technology, and why have we lost track of the importance of proper maintenance, training and certification?

Every welder should operate as it did when it was first plugged in. But is it the technician’s responsibility? You may be struggling with why no one ever seems to take ownership of the equipment and why it always seems to be broken — but no one broke it. This, however, is old thinking. Production management must understand that to improve efficiency to the highest level, it — management — must ensure production can operate efficiently.

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Doing this, which allows you to take advantage of technology, will not only improve quality, but reduce repair cycle time by eliminating re-doing something already done once. How can this be used to set yourself apart from the competition? Welding certification is marketable not only to the customer but the insurer. To be certified, however, one must be qualified to complete the test, which requires a commitment from all of us to continue to improve our knowledge and skills.

Spraybooth Smarts
Spraybooths have come a long way from the "spray rooms" with fans in the windows to today’s sophisticated, electronically controlled systems. The newest systems can even raise the temperature of the booth past the old accepted norms and accelerate the curing process of the paint system without damaging plastics and electronics.

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How does taking advantage of this newest technology benefit you? First, it can cut booth cycle time in half.

But does it reduce overall cycle time of the operation if the vehicle still requires nib sanding and buffing? Does it improve shop efficiency if another vehicle isn’t ready immediately when the vehicle in the booth is completed?

New technology may not improve profitability if all operations aren’t improved. In other words, taking advantage of this technology requires more than purchasing it. It requires training and coaching to implement systems that allow equipment cost to demonstrate additional profitability unattainable with older technology.

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Look at the math: If you currently average five cars per day (single shift) sprayed in a booth, how much more profit is made if you do 10 cars in the same time frame less the additional overhead cost of the newer technology? If your average repair ticket was $1,850 and your net profit was just 10 percent, it would produce an additional potential of $925 per day. If you use 20 work days per month, it would produce $18,500 per month or $222,000 per year.

So is a lease payment on a $80,000 investment a good business decision? Probably. But your decision shouldn’t be solely based on this. Why? Because leasing a booth will also require additional systems and possible overhead to ensure it’s maintained to its optimum level. It’s important not to have an increase of nib sanding and buffing and other time factors that will hinder production.

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Do It and Dry
Another technology that’s often under-utilized is infrared radiation technology (IRT). I’m sure the expression, "Watching paint dry" can only mean inefficiency to you as it relates to our daily operations. In our case, it more accurately relates to primers. This one area of the refinishing operation is a tremendous waste of time — but one in which technology can greatly improve. In most cases, the only time IRT is being used is when there’s a rush job or when the customer is waiting for the vehicle in the office and someone forgot to paint the door jamb.

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Short-wave infrared technology can be used to create a preparation system in which jobs can be ready every time the booth becomes available. This technology changes drying and curing times from hours to minutes, and with the emphasis on reducing cycle times, it can provide additional improvements on many operations that require long drying and curing times.

Speedy Color Matching
Still in the paint department, the spectrophotometer and/or color maps are very under-utilized technologies that can easily save hours in a day for color matching. But the real under-utilization is in sales and marketing. The technical savings are great, but the promotion and use to "close the sale" is often overlooked. Keep in mind, the top concerns and complaints from customers are generally related to color match, so be sure to use this technology to convince the customer that your shop will provide the best service.

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The use of this technology should start at the estimating process — not the repair process. When a vehicle is estimated taking readings of "its color" or matching color-map panels, keeping the formula in the file will allow for parts to be properly jambed and ready when the vehicle arrives. It will also allow for a faster cycle time for the vehicle as well as an impressive sales tool.

Computers for Measuring
Computerized measuring systems have been in the industry for a number of years but are very often used only one dimensionally. Initially, our industry thought by accurately identifying "all the damage," it would change the negotiation rules with insurers. It didn’t in most cases. (The ability to change market value isn’t normally accomplished with facts, but by what competition is doing.)

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In many cases, we missed utilizing this technology in a way that could’ve increased our profitability. These systems can easily begin segmenting the structural work into different operations internally. It doesn’t take a high-paid technician to mount a vehicle on a pulling system, set up a computerized measuring system and run the diagnosis program, but it may take one to analyze the printout and make or direct the proper repairs. This division can produce increased profitability and still maintain fair compensation to high-skilled staff, while utilizing their skills for jobs requiring their expertise.

This equipment can also be used in the sales and marketing area. Printouts are very important for documentation and diagnosis, but they also can be great sales and marketing tools during the estimating process. Whether actual readings are taken during the estimating process or laminated samples are available to show the customer, either way is normally an effective tool for sales.

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Aligning with Computers
Computerized printouts for wheel alignments offer the same potential as computerized measuring systems. Even if you sublet wheel alignments, getting an accurate printout of the "before" conditions for all angles can greatly assist in diagnosis of damage. In all cases, vendors should be instructed to check all angles, including steering axis inclination (SAI), included angle (IA), thrust angle and turning radius (referred to by many systems as toe out on turns or TOOT). This will greatly enhance the ability to repair or replace what’s actually wrong with the vehicle and not just get into the "musical replacement game."

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Computerized Bar Coding
In the last year, a number of companies have introduced a computerized bar coding system for nuts, bolts, clips and shop supplies. The system is simple to use and normally managed by the vendor. Each item entered into the system can be inventoried, tracked and invoiced to a specific repair order. Since, in most areas, the insurer will pay for these items as long as they’re invoiced, it’s put profitability back into an area that, in the past, has been just a "cost of doing business" expense.

Many shops have taken advantage of this technology, but a majority of them don’t even realize this technology’s potential and often under-utilize it. Not only can hardware items be inventoried, but so can any item you’d like to track and invoice. Weld-through primers, adhesives, seam sealers … you name it. In addition, you can inventory bumper covers that have been repaired for future use, stripe kits that may have all but one panel in the kit or sections of panels you have left over that you never seem to remember you have. The list is endless, and the profitability of these systems is real.

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Estimating and Management Systems
Also under-utilized in facilities are the estimating and management systems. It’s unfortunate that our industry is forced in many areas to have all three of the major vendors systems due to specific insurer relationships, which require additional training and support expenses. Also, today’s direct-repair relationships dictate that our industry have very qualified staff writing estimates — not because of the difficulty of the systems, but to understand P-page logic and what operations are billable in what system. This one area is so often overlooked and seldom audited by our management that it may be likely that what’s not being written on each estimate (within the accepted guidelines) could pay a large portion of an estimator’s salary.

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As for management systems, they’ve improved dramatically since the original Autobody Repair Management System (ARMS), even though this system is still being used by many shops. Why is it still being used? I believe it’s just plain fear. They remember the days when they implemented their original system, and they don’t want to go through that again. I’m not going to say there won’t be a learning curve to go through (that would be ridiculous), but I will say the benefits will greatly outweigh the negatives if you have the proper support and training.

The first thing to keep in mind is that many of the original systems used today aren’t Y2K compliant. In other words, after Dec. 31, they won’t function properly or, possibly, not function at all. This requires an immediate plan. You can’t wait until next June to deal with it. First off, if you wait, you may find that no one’s available to assist you because everyone will be booked through the year. You’ll also find pricing for these services dramatically increased (supply and demand will thrive in this environment). Secondly, it will require a training and implementation period that’s right down to the wire. Ideally, you’ll run both systems parallel for months to ensure a solid switch over.

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For those who’ve made the leap into the latest management systems, the bad news is that most are utilizing only 20-30 percent of the system’s potential, according to the vendors. This is unfortunate since these systems can do so many things if properly set up and administered. I don’t mean becoming slaves to the computer but, rather, learning to use it as a tool — as most of us have learned to use estimating systems. Management systems can easily save hours a day on processes we’ve accepted as normal daily operations. They also provide improvement in an area that’s usually in great need of improvement in most facilities: communication.

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Time-clock modules and radio-frequency production updating will dramatically improve production flow but also improve the communication between all departments of the operation. The front office will have an up-to-date status report for vehicles when customers inquire, not to mention a better method of scheduling in vehicles. The parts modules order, track and identify profitability problems and also allow everyone to know the status of all parts.

Putting Technology to Work for You
What does it take to reap the benefits of technology? First, it takes a dedicated effort to analyze your options. This must be done either by you, the owner, or by someone you pay internally or externally.

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Second, make sure to get training and support to implement your systems. This will not only include seminars and training classes, but using consultants and specialty trainers. You’ll find the return on investment can be very profitable with the right program.

Keep in mind that the equipment or program itself is only part of the equation for success. Training, re-training, support and maximizing potential are vital to realizing the advantages of technology.

And, finally, accept that technology will continue to change. You may make some changes next year only to find you’ll need to make more in six months. Should you have waited? No. Waiting will only do one thing: not allow you to reap the benefits and profitability built into today’s products. It’s much easier to take constant small steps than having to make giant leaps. Giant leaps open you up to giant mistakes. Small steps, on the other hand, ensure that you’re constantly moving in the same direction — the right direction — as the top shops in the industry.

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Contributing editor Tony Passwater is a long-time industry educator and consultant who’s been a collision repair facility owner, vocational educator and I-CAR international instructor; has taught seminars across the United States, Korea and China; and is currently an industry consultant. He can be contacted at (317) 290-0611 or [email protected]

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