Bracing for the Advanced Vehicle Design Shift
The front office at Knockout Collision Repair often resembles a bustling college library.
Intense study sessions have become the norm there, as most of the shop’s 10 employees study OEM repair procedures to address evolving vehicle technology.
“The technology is so incredible that we’ve really had to invest a ton of time to learn it,” notes Kareem Abouzeid, owner of the Chico, Calif., facility, which produces $1.6 million in annual revenue. “We’ve got twice as many people in the office processing paperwork, creating repair plans, and researching procedures. We’re spending a lot more time and money doing administrative work for fixing vehicles properly.
“There’s a balance between gathering information, making a proper plan, and then the pressure that we have from both the customer and insurance company to get vehicles back on the road.”
The staff at Knockout Collision isn’t alone in its endless study of OEM repair procedures. In the era of advanced vehicle design, much of the industry is trying to wrap its collective mind around how to best go about repairing functions like advanced driver-assistance systems.
Many collision repairers have come to the same conclusion: Thanks to the growing complexity of today’s vehicles, body shops need to rethink how they approach repair work. After all, automakers are debuting new technologies frequently, for example, accompanied by new repair procedures.
As an industry, “We’ve started to push things out—in this technology race—faster,” says Michael Flink, a national trainer for Autel. “ … Faster than even the OE manufacturer can understand what the consequences are.”
FenderBender recently performed an extensive study of the industry, to gauge how shop operators can prepare themselves for the oncoming torrent of new vehicle technology and materials.
In his travels throughout the collision repair landscape, Jake Rodenroth often notices stress etched on the faces of shop owners. After all, right now, it’s a daunting challenge to stay abreast of evolving vehicle technology.
The days of relying on A-technicians to know all necessary repair procedures have long since passed.
“If you’re just winging it and using what your employees know to repair vehicles you’re setting yourself up for failure,” says Rodenroth, asTech’s director of OEM and industry technical relations. “And, at a minimum, you’re going to have a customer complaint.
“At a maximum, you could have a legal problem.”
In the past, Rodenroth ran a Jaguar-certified collision repair facility for 14 years. In the span of less than two decades, he has witnessed seismic changes with regard to automotive advancements.
“Basic things that we did historically in the industry have changed,” Rodenroth notes. “Like removing a windshield; it used to be a pretty straightforward, sublet operation for many shops. But now, with the emergence of systems [like] automatic emergency braking and collision cameras, you’ve got additional steps, additional severity, and additional length of rental that now complicates very simple repair operations from the past.”
Rodenroth feels body shops face a tremendous challenge, moving forward, with regard to maintaining a high standard of repair work. Because of that, he feels collision repairers need to quit assuming that they know the best way to address every repair. If they hope to truly return vehicles to their pre-accident condition, repairers need to start viewing OEM specifications as procedures and not simply recommendations. And, they need to start training more intensely than ever before.
Consider: According to the 2019 FenderBender Industry Survey, 82 percent of respondents take part in training from their shop’s paint company on an annual basis. However, only 41 percent of respondents take part in OEM-specific training.
And OEM-specific training is a virtual necessity to adequately address complex, evolving repair work like carbon fiber repairs, since that type of work—which typically involves high-end, luxury vehicles—comes with safety issues repairers must take precautions against, like electrical shorts.
Abouzeid’s shop in California takes part in a mix of online training, in-house training from vendors, consultation from trainers at Drive, and traditional I-CAR courses.
In the Columbus, Ohio area, Darrell Patterson helps oversee three successful, high-volume shops that combine to produce nearly $13 million in annual revenue. Patterson, Auto Body North Inc.’s chief operating officer, feels shops need to invest at least $10,000 per year these days on training.
And, he feels shop operators could rationalize spending as much as $25,000 per year, because, with rapidly evolving technology, many technicians need to take part in training each quarter of the year to keep pace. Shop operators that FenderBender spoke to for this article seemed to agree: In order to build an ideal budget for training, shop staff need to make more than 60 percent gross profit on labor.
Patterson’s company has one key element working in its favor: experienced technicians who embrace training because they have a healthy respect for how complex repair procedures have become in modern vehicles.
Automakers have “started putting in intelligent cruise control and cameras,” Patterson notes, “and you’ve got to make sure all that safety equipment is returned to pre-accident operation. And that’s a challenge—but you can’t sacrifice the repair.”
Rodenroth feels shop operators need to make sure their staff is immersed in manufacturers’ service manuals, more than anything.
Training “has got to start with what the engineers of that vehicle suggest was the proper repair path for that car,” he says. “If you’ve got an aluminum vehicle that’s held together with rivets and bonding adhesives, how many rivets do you need? What kind of bonding pieces do you need? How long does it take to dry? If you’re not researching those items, you’re 100 percent wrong.
“As an industry, we’re getting better [in that regard], but we’ve got to get much better, much faster.”
Michael Flink has been immersed in the world of automotive parts, equipment, and technology for nearly four decades now. Now, more than ever, he feels like the industry has shifted into overdrive.
“By 2025,” he notes, researchers “believe that diagnostics repairs will actually be a larger percentage of the overall vehicle repair cost than either paint or parts replacement. So, it’s going to be the biggest part that you’re billing for.”
Flink currently serves as a national trainer for Autel, and much of his focus is on helping shop operators equip their facility to handle complex procedures like ADAS calibration.
“The systems are more and more common on vehicles,” he notes.
Beyond training, shops need to take a few critical steps to prepare for increasingly complex vehicle repairs.
Invest in hiring. The 2019 FenderBender Industry Survey indicates that 43 percent of shops currently allot at least 6 percent of their annual budgets for technology, tools and equipment purchases. But Flink feels they need to invest in another key area: staffing on the shop floor.
Specifically, he feels collision repair facilities need to add new types of technicians.
Shops need to “bring along somebody to be a diagnostics technician,” Flink says. “That’s the first step. They’re going to have to go beyond just having body repair guys in a shop.”
Similarly, a growing contingent feels the industry needs to add roles like that of a repair planning technician who spends much of their day pulling OEM repair procedures. An increasing number of shop owners are seeing the need to have specific employees devote a large portion of the day solely to doing scanning, or calibrations, due to the increasing complexity of repair work.
While investing in such previously unused positions might not yield an immediate return aside from limiting comebacks, apprentices and motivated estimators that are detailed in nature and have a thirst for knowledge could be groomed to eventually handle roles like that of diagnostics technician. And some in the industry, like Rodenroth, feel such positions could thrive within a team pay system in which each team member has a role based on their individual skill set and talent.
Budget craftily. A shop owner could easily spend over $50,000 to equip their facility to handle advanced vehicle designs. Diagnostic scan tools often cost $3,000–$6,000. ADAS calibration systems can cost $25,000. Pulsed MIG welders for aluminum repairs often cost around $4,000. And, wheel alignment systems often run $15,000–$20,000.
As such, Flink suggests shop owners either budget incrementally, over time, or seek consultation for ways to save money on equipping their facilities. Many shop operators also save a specified amount from each repair—often around 1 percent of each job, less parts costs—which they set aside in a dedicated bank account for equipment upgrades.
Flink suggests shop owners “get with their accountants and look into the idea of leases, versus financing equipment.”
Thoroughly research tools and equipment. When modern equipment and tools cost five figures, shop owners can’t afford to make ill-advised purchases. As a result, all options must be exhausted before pulling the trigger on such a purchase.
Shop staff need to study what OEM specifications dictate with regard to model names for equipment like diagnostic tools, welders, or rivet guns. Ideally, shop operators would also consult with their paint companies to research the registered vehicles in their area, to learn what the most popular brands are.
And, Flink suggests, “There are some services doing diagnostics for shops. That can give [shops] a Band-Aid. It gives them an answer for today. … But, I think they’re going to quickly find that, in order to find that return on investment and make money, they’re going to need to have that service in-house.”
While bracing for the next wave of complex vehicle features requires a steep
investment—well over $30,000 when a shop becomes outfitted for carbon fiber repair, for example—Flink feels it’s worth it.
“While there’s a lot of liability concerns in the collision repair industry,” he says, “the reality is it’s a worse incident of liability to not properly calibrate or repair a system.
“If you’ve sent that car out and the system’s not functioning, or hasn’t been returned to full functionality, you’re far more liable.”
Much of the industry is in the dark about automotive technology like ADAS. Paul Stern has made it his mission to shine a light on that.
“With ADAS, the factory procedures are very, very specific,” notes Stern, the founder of equipment distributor LIFTNOW. “If anything having to do with suspension changes, or any part of the ADAS system is disrupted—a lane-departure sensor or something—you need to perform an alignment and then reset the ADAS.
“Most people don’t understand that. Most [collision repairers] are just sort of like, ‘Well, a light didn’t come on; we’re good.’ … Right now it’s kind of the Wild West in terms of ADAS resets. That’s why most [shops] avoid it.”
“Hopefully we don’t have some sort of catastrophe before people get more aware.”
According to Stern, a company CEO with nearly 40 years of experience in the industry, body shop owners need to be more proactive with regard to handling complex repair issues like ADAS. They need to stop falling into the mindset of simply trying to keep cars’ warning lights from illuminating.
Because, he notes, such advanced technology is no longer reserved for luxury vehicles. It has become standard even in entry-level, low-cost vehicles. And drivers have come to rely on features like blind spot monitors.
“People are going to count on, for instance, lane-departure working,” Stern says. “It had better work.”
Of course, in order to address today’s most complex repair work, shop owners need to dedicate space on their shop floors. In order to address ADAS resets, for example, Stern says shops need to designate a fairly large area for the work—at least 30x16 feet.
“It’s a little challenging,” he acknowledges. “You’re going to have to repair that in a certain environment, and you’re going to have to have the space to do that—either have a multi-use space, or clear out an area.
“In terms of the ADAS resets, you need enough room in front of the vehicle to set the radar sensors, and the lane-departure cameras. Then, there has to be a designated place for an alignment system; because an alignment is going to become part of that procedure truly every time.”
And, as California shop owner Abouzeid notes, different automakers have different requirements for how shop stalls are laid out to handle ADAS calibrations, with targets set up in specific spots.
Additionally, performing mixed materials repairs involving aluminum, or structural composites or carbon fiber components (which only 13 percent 2019 FenderBender Industry Survey respondents perform), are likely to require more dedicated shop bays in the years ahead, as those materials are used more frequently, Stern notes. Already, shops doing aluminum repair work require a dedicated stall for addressing such work, to avoid cross contamination.
Fortunately, when a shop is equipped to handle repair work like ADAS resets and wheel alignments, they’re likely to be able to turn vehicles quicker than ever, which appeals to insurance companies.
“The good news,” Stern says, “is that, currently, there’s a fairly good return on investment. In Anytown, U.S.A., some [shop owner] is going to be set up for this first. And they’re going to be the ADAS shop in town. And, other people are going to have to send work to them.”