By Jeff Sanford
Toronto, Ontario -- February 15, 2016 -- Guild 21 held its latest conference call recently, hosting guest Larry Hults, Chief Operating Officer of DOXA Enterprises. Hults offered up advice for collision facility owners pondering aluminum repair. Hosted by collision repair consultancy Verifacts Automotive, the Guild 21 Conference Call has become an important source of collision industry-centric learning and development. Hults discussed what modern collision centre owners need to know about developing aluminum work as a profit centre.
Hults spent 36 years with Allstate, working in the Home Office where he was responsible for national DRP repairs. He is an ASE Master Auto Body & Refinish Technician and an I-CAR instructor. He was also involved in writing the Aluminium Repair and Aluminium Replacement classes. His presentation provided practical advice for aluminum repair, while discussing the way the industry has evolved in North America.
“When we grew up in the industry we worked with dad or our uncle. We swept floors and grew into the role of being collision repair technicians. Many might have taken classes at high school or college, or had a mentor who took us under our wing and showed us how to get it done. We grew into steel. That's what we know. And now someone is saying you’ve got to repair aluminum tomorrow,” says Hults. “It's brand new. And that can be scary.”
There are all kinds of conflicting rumours and claims floating about as to what is, or is not, involved into adopting aluminum repair into a business. It can be hard to know just what is involved in the shift. Hults reassured the audience, noting, “There are differences, but is not all that different from steel.”
Aluminum is still just a metal. Getting a shop up to speed on repairing aluminum is really just a matter of marginally trimming and readjusting already existing practices. Hults went on to detail the differences. A major difference between steel and aluminum: when it comes to cast parts, if an aluminum cast part is damaged, it has to be replaced. It is likely not going to be repairable.
“Cast aluminum is just not very repairable. We have a lot of cast aluminum parts in cars now, so cast aluminum is in our world. But if it's damaged there's not a lot that can be done,” says Hults. Some re-threading of cast aluminum is possible. “If you can use a bit of heat, with no cracking, that's fine. You can do that,” he says.
Typically, damaged cast aluminum parts will have to be replaced. When it comes to aluminum sheet, the metal is much like steel. The same basic principles apply.
“We still pound down the high spots and pull up the low spots,” says Hults. “We still use heat to make it easier to work with. There are huge commonalities between steel repair and aluminium repair.”
That is, the metal is not that exotic. It is important to understand, however, the nature of how aluminum corrodes. With aluminum an oxide layer—a layer of the metal that reacts with oxygen (rust)—begins to form right away on the surface, which is a different property than with steel.
“With steel we don't expect it to corrode for eight or nine years,” says Hults. “Aluminum will begin to form an oxide layer on its surface right away.” This basic fact of physics has consequences for repair procedures. When replacing aluminum parts they have to be replaced in the same manner and with the exact same type of fasteners as used in original assembly.
“The fasteners have to match exactly. If you drop an original piece on the floor, you can't just fish around in your box and get a standard bolt. You have to make sure the fastener matches the manufacturers specifications,” says Hults. He goes on to tell the story of an aluminum bumper repair. The part was replaced, but the tech didn't use the fasteners appropriate for aluminum when the bumper when back on. “They didn't do it exactly as it should have been done. The aluminum started to corrode. Just a year later, the bumper fell off,” says Hults.” Even if you are just swapping out parts you have to put it back just as it was assembled or else you are going to be creating diminished value.”
Keep in mind the different manner in which aluminum “rusts.” This is true as well when it comes to Paintless Dent Repair (PDR). The good news: “You can do PDR. Aluminum is more difficult to repair as a PDR than steel is. But if you want to do that, it's available to you. It's tough, but you can have success with PDR,” says Hults. “Just like with steel, the back side is the problem. You have to get around to the back side of the repair area and put a water proof coating on the aluminum so the oxides (rust) don't begin to come.”
Moving on to conventional repair, similar ideas apply. “We can do all that conventional repair. We can sand the paint off, pull out the dents and put some paint on. Conventional repair is very useable on aluminum panels. It's different, but you can do it,” says Hults. “In the case of, say, a buckle, you have to look to see if the metal is cracked. If it is, 'replace rather than repair' comes into play. Manufactures will say if it's cracked, it has to be replaced.”
The unique oxidation properties of aluminum also lead to new processes for painting. The basic idea at play here: Bare aluminum must be clean of all oxides before it is painted.
“Wash it with soap and water. You have to make sure the oxides are gone off the surface. You can use a chemical cleaner as well just before you put down the primer. That way there is no worry of the paint lifting in the future. Remember, when you take the oxides off, they begin to replace immediately. Anytime you are coating the surface, or welding ... you have to make sure the oxides are gone just before you do the repair,” says Hults.
Hults believes that it is not repair techniques, but the industry itself that will have to change at a fundamental level.
“We have techs that are so skilled in repairing steel that they can cut corners and still do a good job. We often push techs to be faster and faster. Whether they're pushing because of management or commission structure, there is a pressure to go faster,” says Hults. “But with aluminum and the attention to detail required, faster may not be possible for a while. Hopefully you can speed up after a few jobs. But if you miss one step in the process for repairing aluminum, that can be deadly to the durability of the repair. All the things that keep us in business might be affected. The other thing with this: If you are an owner and are going to be dealing with a DRP, you are going to have people auditing your work. There are going to be some additional strong conversations with your insurance representatives. People don't get information at same time. You might get an insurance rep who doesn't know anything about aluminum. They won't know why it takes longer, why you can't use that bolt, or why you have wait for right one and gave to wait for parts. There might be some strong conversations that have to happen.”
All in, Hults warns these changes are going to result in a generally higher rate of repair. “Some shops have raised labour rates as a result of aluminum. A rise in rates might be in the future. You have to satisfy the customer, but you still have to generate a profit. You'll have to look at how you price your business. A flat rate might be something you have to look at,” says Hults. “You have to negotiate pricing. You have to ask, 'How fast can you push your staff?'”
The repairs are a bit different, but aluminum also impacts other shop operations. This includes even seemingly simple things like storage. “All the supplies you purchase for aluminium have to be acquired, and kept separate,” says Hults. There are also going to be new products, like dyes that show if aluminum is cracked. “You're going to have to get familiar with those. You may not have experience with this product. But if aluminum is microscopically cracked, you have to know that. This product helps you find that.”
There will also be temperature monitors. You can heat aluminum, but it can only be heated to between 400 and 700 degrees, which is much less than is the case with steel. And there are tools to help with that, as well as many other new pieces of gear. Be careful with the new acquisitions, says Hults, “You're going to have everyone and their brother trying to sell you tools.” But such is the new world dawning in collision repair.
According to Hults, in the near future aluminum repair could be 40 percent of gross sales at the average shop. “If you're going to be in the business for another five years you have to think about this,” he says. If you're going to sell out this year, you don't have to worry. Sell, enjoy the fruits of your labour. But if you're going to keep your shop another five years, aluminum is coming at you like a ton of bricks,” he says. “If you don't know how to fix it right ... your business could fail.”