Using Computers to Produce and Profit - BodyShop Business

Using Computers to Produce and Profit

Just about every aspect of a repair - from the moment a customer makes a decision about which shop to use to the time a car exits the shop - can involve computerization. What's the point? Besides speeding up cycle time, computers can make your techs better at what they do and your shop easier to manage.

As we progress into the new millennium, many of us are still hesitant about computerization. A lot of unanswered questions remain. Are my technicians ready to adapt to new technology? Can my current office staff quickly adjust to new software? Is there a need for computers within my small operation? How can computers increase my profit? Can the Internet help my operation?

While the Y2K bug had no real sting, that doesn’t mean all the bases are covered. A lot of offices have become paperless over the past few years. And since such offices rely on hard drives to store information with no hard copy to back it up, ensuring your computer systems and operations are bulletproof is a big concern. (This article is actually the second version because the first wasn’t backed up electronically or in hard copy form. When the hard drive crashed, it was a very miserable experience!)

Let’s look at what can be computerized in a body shop from the time the customer first interacts with your company.

Mr. Y is involved in a collision and has previously never needed a repair shop, so he’s not sure where to take his car. He has Internet access and enters a “search engine” site (finding information by performing a key word search) and types in his city, state and the words “collision repair shop.” The search engine then finds the most popular sites – or “hits”- that contain those words. Since the words “collision repair shop” are listed on your Web site, your shop information will be displayed, and Mr. Y can obtain it with a couple clicks of the mouse.

Your shop, “ABC Collision,” has a Web page with contact information, information regarding the services you offer, hours of operation, the how’s and why’s of collision repair, and other items necessary to customer needs. Mr. Y can then e-mail you his service requirements or call for an appointment.

Upon the vehicle’s arrival to your shop, you start the estimating process using a digital camera that visually records the damage, and a computerized estimating system supplies the numbers necessary to bid for the repair. A growing trend among progressive body shops has been to measure all vehicles, regardless of damage, at this point so the structural repairs can be accurately diagnosed, documented and estimated. This is accomplished with a computerized measuring system that connects the documented information to the estimate. The information is then transmitted electronically to the insurance company that approves the repairs.

Hopefully, Mr. Y decides to leave his vehicle with your shop. The estimate is then converted electronically to a repair order, parts are ordered and the repair begins. Meanwhile, the technicians clock in and out on the repair order using a time management feature to track labor operations.

The structural repairs on Mr. Y’s car are performed using a computerized measuring system that documents before, during and after the repair. This computerized system has digital photos of the referenced measuring points to make equipment operation easy. Windows-based software allows a technician to use today’s computers with little computer knowledge or background. This also removes the guesswork from finding a particular point, making for more efficient, better quality repairs.

Precise measurements are obtained – without error – by reading the gauges, trams or scales. Information is provided on-screen and with print-outs to the technician to help him diagnose and make proper structural corrections. Added features in some measuring systems include upper body dimensions or point-to-point measuring capabilities, along with comparison measuring to work beyond supplied data. These features give technicians more versatility and allow for greater productivity.

A technician with questions on certain procedures uses a computer to access how-to information from I-CAR, information providers and vehicle manufacturers. He retrieves this information from your database or online through the Internet. Once the parts are received and tagged to the vehicle repair order, they’re connected electronically to the repair order.

As the vehicle progresses through the repair process, it’ll make contact with more computers along the way:

  • The resistance spot welder used to attach the panels has an inboard computer that closely monitors its operation by checking the quality of the welds being performed.
  • The paint match is analyzed by a computerized spectrophotometer to obtain the closest color match possible. The paint is mixed on a “smart scale,” which uses a computer to calculate the formula and re-calculate the occasional over-pour.
  • The spraybooth uses a computer to calculate spray temperature and monitor baking.
  • The wheel alignment is performed using a computerized system that gives a printout of the final information.

The progress of this vehicle’s repair is followed by your tracking system as it moves through the shop. Everything that comes in contact with this repair is connected through a computer. Parts, materials, labor operations and sublet repairs are all accounted for by computer. This is also true for the management system that tracks accounts receivable/payable that allow your company to function.

As we follow this typical repair through the virtual shop, two questions remain: Do all of these operations need computers? Is computerization actually adding to profitability and productivity?

The answer to both questions is yes. The Internet is a way to attract new business in a society that’s becoming more reliant on “surfing” for information. It shows the customer your facility and operation before the key is put in the ignition to drive anywhere. I’ve seen some sites that offer a facility tour online. Another popular item is the “customer’s rights” section that answers typical questions posed during a claim or repair process.

Does your shop use digital photographs and a computerized estimate? Most insurance companies now require this. Handwritten estimates are a thing of the past. The more information you document, the better the claim can be handled. Pictures can also document previous damage found that’s not connected to the repair. Your presentation and organization show professionalism.

Is computerized structural analysis necessary? Absolutely. Performing this operation before the vehicle estimate is completed adds to the repair total. Some shops have discovered this information adds to the total ticket up front by detecting damage that isn’t noted during a visual inspection. It also prevents some unwanted supplements or re-inspections that add to the repair cost. The shop can be more productive by moving onto the repair quicker instead of finding the damage during teardown or even later. This is forwarded to the computer in the structural area via your computer network and it helps technicians formulate their repairs.

A number of shops have added twin-post lifts to the estimating area with a computerized measuring system nearby to perform this task. This section can also be a moneymaker for the used vehicle inspection market, when used to document previous repairs or when it comes to certifying used or auction vehicles.

The need for database or information access can be quite an asset. Ever-changing vehicle designs and repair processes create a large need for information at our fingertips. To purchase a hard copy of every available manual necessary to conduct proper repairs would mean piles that could fill a couple of rooms in your office or even take away a shop stall!

All the information providers supply computer-based information. Not only does using a computer to source information require less space than paper, but information can be found faster by search functions found in the software. Computer-based training is also being explored and implemented by many manufacturers within the industry. CD-ROM interactive programs as well as Internet broadcasts of training programs are now being offered or will be available shortly. Both vehicle manufacturers and equipment suppliers see the need to train and make information communication to a larger audience easier than the typical classroom training programs.

For example, computerized welders help enable the technician to make a positive identification of a proper welding process. And for technicians who may not yet be good welders, computerized systems can improve their skills.

In the paint area, computers can add to productivity and decrease waste. Paint analyzers pick the closest match possible, while the formula system gives alternative match information for certain vehicles.

All material safety and data sheets (MSDS) and product information is stored, so it’s just a mouse click or two away. Hunting down manuals and perusing formula books or microfiche is a thing of the past. The ability to re-calculate a paint formula caused by over-pours of one or more tints saves valuable time and money while reducing recycling. All of these features can make your paint crew more productive while saving money. And when it comes to computerized spraybooths and drying systems, the features speak for themselves with shorter drying times and improved finishes that require less finish corrections.

Finally, computerized wheel alignment is not a new item but is sometimes forgotten, as is the structural repair printout. Not only are these printouts a selling feature, but they improve quality control for shop management while supplying the customer with piece of mind that the repair has been properly performed.

These are some of the present and future benefits of computerization. Even though some aspects are more common and accessible than others, all are fast becoming a part of the repair process – at least in the industry’s most progressive shops.

“My shop’s not progressive,” you say? Unfortunately for you, the way computers speed up the repair process and make jobs easier indicates that they may be less of a luxury and more of a necessity for all collision repair shops in the coming years.

Writer Timothy Morgan is director of Technical Services and Training at the Car-O-Liner Company.

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