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What’s the Buzz in the Collision Industry?

What I heard out in the real world was that things are pretty good on the collision repair front these days. If we could just get the insurance companies to send the work to our shop and pay us for all the necessary repairs…

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Mark R. Clark is owner of Professional PBE Systems in Waterloo, Iowa. He’s a popular industry speaker and consultant and is celebrating his 32nd year as a contributing editor to BodyShop Business.

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It’s my contention that to continue to understand our collision repair industry, it’s necessary to physically visit the front lines from time to time. (I know, most of you spend your lives on the front line.) To actually go out where it smells like solvent and the pressure is on to deliver today’s repairs right now. We can all do body shop math calculations and percentages till our heads explode, but someone has to be doing the actual repair work. These shop visits always remind me again that this is a flat-rate labor time business.

Innovative Technologies

The year 2019 marks my 31st year in these pages, and I’ve had the unique opportunity to write about lots of innovative technologies – back when they were brand new and actually innovative. “Clark’s Corner” is my second BodyShop Business column; I started writing the “Paint Shop” column in 1988 and progressed to writing feature stories. The difference is that a column is mostly the author’s opinion (and I have plenty), but a feature story means interviewing people who have actual facts about the article’s subject.

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I’ve found lots of knowledgeable folks across our industry who were willing to share with me their hard-won information. One interview I’ve told about before was the guy from X-Rite, the spectrophotometer folks. Measuring refinish automotive color with such a device was brand new to collision repair in 1994, but not to several other industries. He explained that among those other industries were the companies that made apple juice. Say what?  His example of measuring color for uniform control went like this: there are three clear glass bottles of the same brand of apple juice on the shelf in the grocery store.  Two jars are the same but a lighter color than the third bottle. Which one would you buy, the light one or the dark one? The answer was neither of them because you wouldn’t know which shade of gold was the “right” one. (He also shared that one way to beat the problem was to package the apple juice in brown glass bottles!)

Color Match

I set out recently to seek some wisdom from actual painters, painting actual repairs. I was interested in their use of today’s ever more sophisticated spectrophotometer color-reading devices. These things can identify 20 (20!) times more color variations than the best human eyeballs. I have good news. The shops I spoke with were actually only tinting a tough color match about once a week – and generally spent less than an hour fooling with those mismatches. (Of course, it’s the one zippy extra-cost OEM color that has to go yesterday and is impossible to pin down that chews up more than half the painter’s day every
few months.)

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The shops with their own spectrophotometers looked to me like they were taking pretty good care of the expensive, fragile equipment. The internal plane where measurement takes place, the optical bench, must be aligned exactly for the light sources to meet the receivers. Bumps and knocks will throw off the bench and, as a result, all the extrapolation math will make it much harder to get an accurate reading. A good reading then has to be matched to the known color plotting in the paint manufacturer’s formula database. Those factory readings were all done on clean, polished test panels. At least some painters I saw were careful to machine polish the panels they were reading and to hold the unit in the same orientation for all shots (don’t swivel horizontal to vertical). Dull, dirty or curved surfaces will cause a poor outcome.

All in all, I was considerably cheered that a blendable match for most colors could be had without using the camera. Most days, just a current variant color deck and good lighting could locate a suitable match quickly. Remember that no artificial light source, color corrected or Kelvin-specified bulbs, can truly duplicate sunlight. Move the problem colors near some, was what I observed the best painters doing.

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Parts Problems

Regular readers will recall that I’m convinced the greatest impediment to productive collision repair – the reason it takes our industry 11 days to fix a $2,500 repair – is poor crash parts management. BodyShop Business surveys suggest that less than 10 percent of the ROs through a typical shop are hit hard enough to warrant mounting them on a structural repair rack or bench, yet most shops I visit have at least two frame machines. Why? The car on the first one was clamped down and the wheels and damaged panels were removed long ago, while the shop waits and waits for the necessary parts. Solution? Buy another frame machine, evidently.

One of my queries out in the real world during my recent visit was about parts issues these days. I was surprised to hear so many complaints about mismarked boxes. The correct part was ordered, the box had the right part number on it and yet, surprise, the part inside the box wasn’t the right one. Shops showed me examples of both OEM and aftermarket parts boxes that didn’t contain that part. But as always, physical damage to the sheet metal during shipment was everywhere. Shipping single-thickness stamped steel or aluminum parts is tough. Big flat parts are susceptible to all sorts of hazards during transport. In part, this is why many imported spraybooth cabins are insulated double-wall construction. You can personally see that it’s hard to ship a big quarter panel from the local Ford dealer to your shop. Imagine shipping 20-some single-wall steel booth panels from somewhere in Europe to your shop. Put some insulation in between two sheets of steel and the panels are much sturdier.

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There was some debate about whether the shop was better off getting some additional labor time to fix the damaged new part from the vendor or just ordering another one. We mostly agreed it was situational.  If there was another undamaged part nearby, that seemed like the best plan. If the replacement part was far away, the chances it would arrive undamaged was slim, and an hour or two of additional labor time looked like a better plan.

Equipment Intentions

Because BodyShop Business is supported by advertisers (thank you!), I’m always interested in a shop’s plan to acquire new tools and equipment. What I heard on the street during my last trip was that vacuum sanders have finally hit their stride.

I recall writing many years ago about both “dust-free” sanders,  which had holes in the sanding pad and spun the collected swarf into a cloth bag attached to the tool, and “vacuum-assist” sanders, which were connected by an additional hose directly to a vacuum cleaner through a cumbersome plastic housing around the sanding pads. Technicians complained that they couldn’t see where the edge of the sander was on those early vacuum units and that the swirling pad full of holes didn’t catch all the dust on the centrifugal units. Back in the day, some progressive shops plumbed their whole facility with hard vacuum lines back to a big central vac. Sadly, I see many of those systems abandoned on the walls. It was really easy to clog the pipes with a ball of masking tape sucked into the end of the hose (once someone knocked out the filter screen), and the umpteenth time they had to cut the vacuum pipe open to remove the obstruction, they gave up. Today’s portable sanding/dust collection systems do a great job, mount to the sanders unobtrusively and finally have the acceptance of many productive technicians.

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Summary

What I heard out in the real world was that things are pretty good on the repair front these days. If we could just get the insurance companies to send the work to our shop and pay us for all the necessary repairs… But while we wait for that to happen:

  • Take good care of your fragile and expensive spectrophotometer and recalibrate it regularly.
  • Find a crash parts vendor who will go the extra mile to make sure you receive what you ordered undamaged.
  • Ask your PBE jobber to demonstrate one of the new sander/vacuum systems; the whole shop and all the paint work will both be noticeably cleaner within a week.

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