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Reserved for Aluminum

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Shop operators should know by now that aluminum is appearing more often in vehicle designs. Boosted fuel-efficiency standards have driven an influx of lighter-weight vehicles, which auto manufacturers are producing with aluminum. The material has found its way into luxury vehicle structural components and even body panels for several common brands.

And aluminum is probably already showing up at your repair facility. The question is whether you’re equipped to take those jobs on.

As you probably know, aluminum has several unique characteristics compared with other vehicle materials such as steel. Repairing the heat-sensitive material requires use of advanced repair techniques and methods. For shops, that means updated training and key equipment. But in addition to knowledge, your shop floor must have the space to make the repair. Aluminum repairs can’t be treated like any other, and definitely require updates to your facility—most notably, installation of a clean room.

The Need for Clean

An aluminum clean room is a quarantined area of your shop dedicated for aluminum work. It’s fully separated from all other types of work, where technicians must perform all welding, bonding, riveting, sanding, grinding and structural procedures on aluminum components.

Why is it necessary? Mark Allen, collision programs and workshop specialist for Audi of America, says it’s imperative for two reasons.

First, other types of vehicle metals, such as steel, contain elements that contaminate aluminum. Iron oxide flies into the air when technicians grind and sand steel components, which causes corrosion. That leads to adhesion and paint failures. Shops end up replacing those ruined components, and eat the part cost of the repair bill because they made a mistake.

Second, Allen says the combination of contaminants with aluminum can cause thermite reactions—iron oxide and aluminum are the two main components of thermite bombs.

“If you mix magnesium with that, which is present in many luxury vehicles, you could end up with an explosive incendiary mixture in your work environment,” Allen says, noting that puts you at risk for severe liability issues. “The explosive repercussions of [not having a clean room] are certainly a risk to both the vehicle repair and the repair facility.”

It’s also a risk to people. But Allen adds that it’s a risk some shops across the country are taking right now.

“Some shops in the industry are making repairs that they would be better off walking away from,” he says. “They’re making repairs without the knowledge and equipment that should be used.”

What It Looks Like

Aluminum clean rooms must have total separation from the rest of the shop floor. Allen says there are two ways to do it:

Curtain Structure

A super structure with curtains can be installed to quarantine an area of your shop. The curtains run from floor to ceiling and have skirts that seal against the floor to prevent the flow of contaminants. The curtains, which can be cleaned and washed, are made of plastic and fireproof materials and include tinting to shield against welding light.

Cost: $40,000–$60,000 for a 520-square-foot structure that’s 12 feet high. Allen says the cost typically includes a package of basic equipment for aluminum repair, such as hand tools and trolleys, to make the option more financially attractive. Belford, N.J.–based Reliable Automotive Equipment Inc. is one U.S. provider of clean rooms. 

Separate Room or Building

Shops can build an expansion onto the facility, or reserve an existing room for aluminum repairs. Allen says several shops have used that strategy, which works if the room is fully enclosed.

Art Garcia, shop manager of Collision Body Specialists in North Hollywood, says they opted to build a $15,000, 600-square-foot room to use for aluminum work.

“Technicians are constantly grinding things and blowing stuff around with the air hose. Contaminants are all around; there’s no way to avoid that,” Garcia says. “Having an actual room makes it 100 percent clean.”

Cost: Varies based on construction and permitting fees

Basic Components

Allen says each auto manufacturer has slightly varied requirements for clean rooms. But overall, there are several similarities. These are the basic components that all clean rooms need, regardless of the type of vehicle, for nonstructural work:

Tool Set: Shops need an entirely separate set of tools that are used solely for aluminum. All tools necessary for steel work must be duplicated for the clean room. That prevents contaminant materials from sticking to tools and mixing with aluminum on the next use.

Collision Body Specialists purchased a separate tool set for both body and glass work, including grinders, wrenches, sockets, ratchets, files, hammers and dollies. The tools have been polished and specially made for aluminum work.

Cost: $8,000

Explosion-Proof Vacuum: Allen says an explosion-proof vacuum is necessary to clean excess dust from the room. It sucks all hazardous particles into a water bath to prevent thermite reactions and explosions.

Cost: $8,000–$13,000

Gas Evacuation System: Allen says this is necessary to remove welding gases and dust.

Cost: Varies based on facility specifications and local OSHA regulations

Parts Cart: Garcia says anything that aluminum components touch need to be 100 percent dedicated for permanent aluminum use. That includes parts carts, stands, workbenches and jacks. Cross-using those items between different materials causes a risk of contamination.

Cost: $500

30 LB Class D Fire Extinguisher: Garcia says a special fire extinguisher is required in the event of a thermite reaction, because typical extinguishers actually spread those types of fires.

Cost: $40

Safety Equipment: Garcia says technicians need a separate set of safety equipment to use in the aluminum room, including eye goggles and gloves.

Advanced Clean Room Components

Although the basic clean room requirements will allow your shop to take on nonstructural aluminum repairs, they certainly don’t equip you for all types of aluminum work. If you wish to take on structural repair capabilities, or join an OEM aluminum certification program, there are several pieces of advanced equipment to add to the area.

Allen says the specific brands of equipment vary between OEMs, so the exact equipment you buy should be determined based on the makes of vehicles you tend to repair. But, overall, the manufacturers do have similarities:

MIG Welder: Allen says the characteristics of aluminum require shops to use MIG welders. Audi, for example, requires Migatronic or Fronius MIG welders.

Cost: $20,000–$30,000

Riveting Tools: Allen says aluminum requires the use of high-tech riveting tools. Audi requires shops to use high-strength tools that the have the same clamping abilities as ones used by the aerospace industry.

Cost: $7,000–$13,000

Frame Bench: Garcia says certain frame equipment is required for measuring and jigging structural aluminum components. Audi requires shops to use a Celette bench.

Cost: $40,000–$50,000

Bonding Agents and Guns: Automotive aluminum is the same as aircraft-grade aluminum, Allen says. So shops also need aircraft-grade bonding glue, which typically costs $300 to $400 per repair. Shops also need a pneumatically driven two-part gun to apply those bonding agents.

Cost: Varies based on package.

Clean Room Considerations

Before moving ahead with a clean room installation, there are a couple of considerations to think about first. You have to make sure your room is designed and placed in the shop to prevent possible contaminants and bottlenecks during the repair process.

Placement: Collision Body Specialists’ clean room is directly next to the paint prep area. Garcia says that’s the cleanest area of the shop, and helps to prevent cross-contamination when aluminum vehicles exit the clean room. Aluminum jobs are able to head right into the paint department for priming so they don’t sit at the other end of the shop where technicians are performing steel work.

“We figured that would be the best way to avoid contaminants,” Garcia says. “You can’t just have it sitting in the shop.”

Size: Shops have to consider size needs before constructing the room. You don’t want to make it too big and consume precious space on the shop floor, but you also don’t want it to be too small because that leads to bottlenecks.

Garcia says shops should analyze the number of aluminum vehicles they expect to repair per week, and design the room to accommodate that capacity accordingly. Collision Body Specialists repairs roughly two aluminum vehicles a week, so the room was built to accommodate up to two vehicles simultaneously.

Shop Impact

Installing a clean room and outfitting it with all the necessary tools and equipment is not cheap. In fact, Allen says the overall cost can exceed $100,000. Although you might want to put it off, Allen says it’s an investment that all shops will eventually need to make to maintain work volume and revenue.

“Without one, shops will see an increase in the number of jobs they can’t take on because they’re not properly equipped,” he says. “Profitability is affected any time you watch business walk away from you.”

That’s exactly why Collision Body Specialists installed a clean room 14 months ago. Garcia says that investment needed to happen sooner or later. “It’s not like the old days when you could open up shop with a hammer, spray gun and can of Bondo,” he says.

“This is a significant need for our shop to get certain amounts of work and to diversify our capabilities,” Garcia says. “Without it, we’d have to turn those jobs away, which would have obvious negative impact on our potential revenue.” 

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