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Missing the Mark on Aluminum Readiness

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Paul Massie gets asked the same questions over and over. As the powertrain and collision product marketing manager for Ford, he’s at the forefront of the company’s rollout of the aluminum-intensive 2015 F-150.

And, as these vehicles begin to saturate the market, many want to know: Will shops be ready to work on a mainstream aluminum-bodied vehicle?

FenderBender asked those very questions in its inaugural Tech and Tools Survey, completed by 509 shops in late 2014, and the results were alarming. 

Of those surveyed by FenderBender, 31 percent claimed to “have the capability and equipment to repair aluminum components.” Considering aluminum-intensive bodies make up a miniscule percentage of vehicles on the road today, that number may seem impressive.

Then there’s this: Of those who claim to be capable and equipped, many are missing basic and essential elements to properly and safely complete these repairs. Just 24 percent of those shops have a wet mix dust extraction system; only 30 percent have a designated set of hand tools specifically for aluminum vehicles. Forty-five percent do not have a specialized aluminum self-piercing rivet gun. And, the real kicker, 50 percent of all shops who claim to be able to do aluminum work do not have a clean room.

Each of those items are essential in most OEMs’ certification processes for aluminum work. Meaning, despite their claims of capability, shops missing those elements would not meet certification requirements to do structural work on vehicles such as the 2015 F-150. Yet, they all claim to be aluminum-ready.

Does it come down to a lack of knowledge? A lack of effort to meet requirements? Or does it portray an overarching industry-wide issue of the average shop’s inability to be equipped and trained to properly handle modern vehicles? Massie and Scott Biggs, CEO of Assured Performance Network, say the answers fall somewhere in the middle.

First, the ‘Why’

Biggs doesn’t need to hear the numbers; he sees it every day in the work APN does to certify shops for OEM-standard repair work. By his organization’s research, he says just two out of 10 shops in the country will have the proper training, tooling, equipment and facility to complete structural repairs on aluminum vehicles by the time the F-150 truly floods the market this year. 

“Far less actually have that today,” he says. “However, keep in mind that, if you were to look at the bulk of the industry, only about eight out of 10 shops have the proper requirements to be touching any car, period, beyond simple cosmetic repair.”

If you’re grasping for the reasons why, Biggs says not to overthink it. He points to the Occam’s razor problem-solving principle that, in general terms, says the simplest possible hypothesis is often the right one.

“Every decision a shop makes is driven by ROI,” he says. “And, right now, there’s nothing forcing shops to be properly equipped.” 

Massie is more diplomatic in his assessment. Shops simply prepare for what comes through their doors, he says.

Regardless, both feel the issue can’t be pigeon-holed to aluminum work.

“There’s this habit of everyone trying to isolate aluminum and just look at the collision industry from an aluminum standpoint,” Massie says. “They forget to look back at how they’re prepared for steel right now. People say they can repair steel, but [too many] aren’t equipped at all.”

Looking for Solutions

Roughly 1,500 shops (including 557 Ford dealer shops) are already or in the process of being approved through Ford’s audit program for the F-150, Massie says. The program, which is run by APN, follows a similar format to other OE certification processes, but without the official certification. (The company is building a “recommended repairer” database that Massie says will be available to consumers and insurers in the coming months.) Massie expects to reach the 3,000-shop mark by year’s end. 

Bottom line: There are shops that are ready to repair these vehicles, he says. And by the time Ford reaches its 2015 goals, it should have an aluminum-capable shop within typical driving distance customers are used to with traditional vehicles.

Eighty-seven percent of all work performed on Ford vehicles is done at independent shops, Massie says. So, the company is focused heavily on bringing the industry as a whole up to speed.

Standards for repair need to be at the forefront of the industry’s push into repairing modern vehicles, Biggs says. OEM-based certification (which is based on standards of repair) is a launching point, he says; OEMs back repair methods, insurers pay proper rates for proper work performed, and consumer awareness leads to vehicles only going to properly equipped facilities. It may sound like a pipe dream, but Biggs says the industry is quickly moving this way, as more OEMs are lining up to implement these types of programs. 

Consolidation and attrition are real concerns, Biggs says. The industry does roughly $30 billion in collision work a year, according to the Automotive Service Association. Biggs says to do the math: 5,000 shops doing $6 million per year in sales can cover that entire work volume. Those who invest today will be the ones who survive, he says.

“There’s been this doom and gloom for the industry for a decade now, but I think there’s really a light at the end of the tunnel,” Biggs says. “It’s bright for shops willing to be a part of the future.” 

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