We commonly hear in the U.S. that British repair centers are years ahead in terms of repair processes, equipment and business practices.
Waterborne paint and the push for ever-leaner processes, for instance, are old hat in the U.K. Such products and practices aren’t just the result of a supreme savvy, though—they came about through tightening government regulations, increased pressure from insurance companies, and dwindling profit margins caused by fewer accidents, fewer claims, and a host of other reasons.
If you think the shrinking, consolidating collision repair market in the U.S. has it rough, consider this: The number of shops in the U.K. has dropped from around 18,000 in the 1980s to roughly 4,000 today, according to industry estimates. That type of collapse demands innovation for survival, and in recent years some industry professionals have found ways for shops to compete and grow despite the dismal outlook.
“The only way you can overcome it is to work at a greater efficiency than your competitor,” says Jon Parker, managing director of Byteback Group, a U.K.-based information technology company aimed at advancing the collision repair industry.
FenderBender spoke with Parker, whose company runs a groundbreaking new shop in the U.K. called Bodyshop Express, to catch a glimpse of what the future might hold for repairers in the U.S. His insight offers a look into how one U.K. business is meeting the industry's challenges head on, with a mission to forever change the mindset and processes of collision repairers everywhere.
Bodyshop Express, which opened in the spring of 2011, is a fully operational shop that also serves as a showroom and training facility for Byteback Group’s ultra-lean process, Bodyshop Revolution. It allows potential clients to see first-hand how everything functions.
Parker says the 6,400-square-foot facility was built around an efficiency-focused process developed during the last two years. The goal is to work on vehicles continuously from arrival to completion, using new technology and processes to eliminate downtime.
The shop’s staff of eight moves up to 45 vehicles a week and achieves an incredible average cycle time of three days. Average touch time is a remarkable 6.5 hours per vehicle, and overall throughput at Bodyshop Express is roughly 30 percent higher than at a comparable traditional shop, Parker says. Some key strategies:
• Detail First. When a vehicle arrives for a repair, it is first thoroughly washed and vacuumed. Parker says this helps technicians take pride in their work and holds them accountable for performing clean repairs. If a vehicle is dirtied during a repair, the tech working on it has to clean it up. Parker likens the shop’s cleanliness to a hospital.
• Move Constantly. As many shops have begun doing in the U.S., Bodyshop Express tears down all damaged areas of a vehicle to avoid supplements. One supplement is considered a failure, Parker says. And once every component for a repair has arrived, the repair process begins and the vehicle is worked on continuously until it is finished.
Vehicles are assigned to individual technicians, who perform the disassembly, repair and reassembly all in the same booth. Each booth is equipped with the necessary tools and equipment to achieve this, including a quick-pull ramp and Car-O-Liner measuring system. Some equipment, such as an inverter spot welder, is not in each bay, but is available on a trolley track traversing the shop, so each technician has access to it.
The only time a vehicle leaves a bay is for paint. During that time, technicians run through a checklist of items, such as the repair of sub-assemblies, to prepare for the vehicle’s return. If they are fully prepared before a vehicle is out of the booth, they will assist other technicians.
• Embrace Technology. The shop utilizes a robotic paint drying system from Symach (symach.com) that allows the shop to dry 10 to 12 vehicles in one eight-hour day. The Robodry system, as it is named, uses a gas catalytic reaction to release_notes heat as it passes over a vehicle like an automatic car wash. This allows for an average booth cycle of less than 45 minutes.
The down time between cycles is only about six minutes, Parker says, thanks in part to a car dolly system on fixed tracks that allows a fully prepped vehicle to be pushed into the booth from a staging area without ever having to grab the wheel.
Bodyshop Express also uses smaller Symach Flydry drying units attached to a ceiling track to dry body filler and rolled-on primer in minutes, so techs never have to step away from a vehicle during the drying process. No vehicles sit idle at the shop, Parker says.
Symach robots, made in Italy, are available throughout Europe. The machines are not yet certified for use in the U.S., but Parker says it is likely only a matter of time before they arrive, and they could make a big industry impact.
• Use Constraints Management. The management philosophy at Bodyshop Express is based on the theory of constraints. Parker says the shop's repair process is designed to eliminate weak links, conflicts and bottlenecks.
An example of this is the shop's policy of assigning vehicles to individual technicians. If a second technician took over at either end of the job, there would be a greater chance of a mistake, missed part, or question that could slow the process, Parker says.
• Get Paid. Bodyshop Express treats each customer with the utmost courtesy and respect, but the facility will not throw in freebees or goodies. The shop does regularly upsell services, however. Parker says high-quality repairs completed in record time are the shop’s keys to customer satisfaction.
Doing extra work for no compensation only hurts the facility’s efficiency and bottom line.
• Wow Customers. Bodyshop Express does not shy away from showing off its repair process. Customers can view the shop floor through a glass pane in the modern, spotless reception area, so they can actually see their vehicle getting repaired. Tours are also available.
The facility does not offer an online updating service for customers because the turnaround time is so fast.
“Traditional shops use online updating,” Parker says. “But if you have your car in for a short time, you don’t really care where it’s at in the process.”
Byteback Group invested about $500,000 in equipment and training at Bodyshop Express, Parker says. The training was particularly important because the shop requires each of its techs to know how to tear down, repair and rebuild vehicles, and they have to learn how to use the Symach robots.
Matthew Evans, a body technician at Bodyshop Express with roughly 12 years of industry experience, says the training was pretty straightforward. But the shop's repair process was unlike anything he experienced previously.
“It’s opened my eyes to see how fast things could be done,,” Evans says. “I almost didn’t believe it at first. Now that I’m working hands-on, it's very impressive.”
About 15 other repair centers in the U.K. have taken note, and implemented Bodyshop Revolution at their facilities.
“We’re starting to get significant traction from shops and the insurance industry,” Parker says.
A Look at the Industry Across the Pond
FenderBender spoke with Chris Mann, chairman of the International Bodyshop Industry Symposium, about the status of the collision repair industry in the U.K., factors influencing its evolution, and where it’s headed. Here are highlights from the interview.
FenderBender: The U.K. has seen a dramatic decline in collision repair facilities during the last couple of decades. What are some of the factors contributing to that?
Mann: We’ve seen a big revolution take place in the U.K., like the industrialization of body shops. It’s been for a variety of reasons. The numbers have come down not because the market has shrunk; in fact, the market was showing small growth through 2007 and since then, a modest decline.
Things really accelerated with the introduction of approved repair networks [DRPs]. There was a small specialist insurer that had the bright idea that rather than approve any shop, we’re going to create a small national network of repairers who will meet a detailed set of service requirements.
So [the insurance company] could send a significant volume of work, but in return, they wanted things like courtesy cars free of charge for the duration of a repair. Not surprisingly, it worked well. In about 15 minutes, all of the other insurers jumped on board. Suddenly, 80 percent of work was coming from the insurer. You were no longer master of your own destiny and you couldn’t afford to lose that work. ... Some of the smaller shops went out of business or decided to specialize. ...
Another dramatic fall was in the number of franchise dealer shops. Because the labor rate for bodywork was lower than for mechanical, body shops were not seen as a profit center. ...
In the early 1990s, the Environmental Protection Act meant that shops had to have their spray booths meet strict criteria. … Another element that came into play was the introduction of the PAS [Publicly Available Standard] 125 Kitemark standards. A significant level of investment is required to meet it. …
We’ve also seen accident levels fall, safety systems advance, infrastructure improve, and write-off levels increase.
FB: We often hear in the U.S. that shops in the U.K. are about a decade ahead of us. Would you say that’s the case?
Mann: When you look at the productive efficiency of a U.K. body shop compared with the equivalent pretty much anywhere else, everywhere else it’s done at an amble, and in the U.K. it’s done at a run. …
I’d like to say it’s because all U.K. repairers are super forward-thinking, but the reason that it’s happened is because they haven’t had an alternative.
FB: Do you think the Byteback Group’s Bodyshop Revolution concept, as it operates at Bodyshop Express, is the key to future collision repair success both in the U.K. and beyond?
Mann: We’re in the early days, but the concept looks very good. … There are all sorts of initiatives to speed things through and some fantastic technology available to do it, but the barrier has always been getting technicians to get the best out of it and keep moving.
I’d be interested to see whether three-day cycle time can be sustained on a long-term basis. The concept and structure is there, but it requires movement.