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Inside an F-150 Structural Repair

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A quick lesson about Ford’s 2015 F-150 King Ranch Crew Cab edition: It doesn’t fit in every car wash.

A customer of Waikem Auto Body Repair Center in Massillon, Ohio, found that out the hard way in early April, and it led to collision center director Jim Shreve and his team completing one of the most extensive F-150 structural repairs the industry has seen since the aluminum-intensive vehicle hit the market earlier this year.

Since Ford announced that the top-selling vehicle in America would be the first mainstream, aluminum-bodied vehicle, the industry has been in scramble mode. Ford created a recommended repair network, set up through Assured Performance Network, an organization that runs numerous certification programs. I-CAR developed an aluminum-repair course focused on the new F-150. And shops have been left with the difficult choice of whether or not to invest potentially tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars in becoming capable of performing aluminum structural repairs.

On top of it all, there are lingering questions: Will the repair process run as smoothly as Ford has suggested? Will shops be properly reimbursed for these jobs? Will shops see the proper returns on their extensive investments?

Well, Shreve has some initial answers after completing what turned out to be a $17,000 job, one that took nearly 30 days to complete—and one in which very little went exactly as Shreve expected.

The Damage

The culprit in this crash? The topside of your run-of-the-mill gas station car wash. 

“He just didn’t fit,” Shreve says with a bit of disbelief at what happened. “The roof, the rear of the uniside, the inner-structure all peeled off. It only had 4,000 miles on it.”

It’s a roughly $70,000, upscale model, one with all “the toys,” Shreve says. At the time, Waikem had seen very little aluminum work since completing Ford’s program in January. The King Ranch truck came in through one of the shop’s large DRPs (Shreve declined to name the insurance carrier to maintain the relationship), and Shreve says he was excited at the chance to test its training. They would need to replace the roof, the rear uniside and its inner-structure.

“This was a big, expensive repair,” he says, “and we knew there’d be a big learning curve, as even Ford hadn’t seen anything like it yet.”

The Repair

Once the Waikem team started the repair-planning process, red flags began popping up left and right. In some cases, the information in the Ford repair manuals was incomplete or inaccurate. 

There were some smaller issues, such as the welder not coming preloaded with the correct aluminum settings. Another: The vehicle’s wiring and connectors for its airbag harnesses—normally visibly yellow—were covered in green tape and couldn’t be seen by the technicians. 

Then, there were two large issues Shreve’s team had to map out:

1. Rivet Organization. The amount of rivets in the vehicle’s body can be overwhelming, Shreve says. 

“There are areas where there might be 14 different rivets that need to be used—13 of these, 22 of those—and it can be very complex,” he says. 

The repair manual has it color-coded, but Shreve says the amount of time it would take to look up each color and find the correct rivet made a quick repair impossible. Each type of rivet requires a different setting on the gun, as well, so changing in between rivets wasn’t a viable option.

The solution: Shreve’s team used cardboard to make templates of the vehicle components with spots to store the rivets where they were intended to go. 

“Set up would be quicker, and then they could just rifle through one type of rivet, switch settings and move on to the next type,” Shreve says.

The job required roughly $1,500 worth of rivets.

2. Seam Sealer Misinformation. To seam seal over the rivets on both sides of the roof, Shreve says you must use two different types of seam sealer—one to “build up” the area around the rivets to create a flat plane (the area is tilted in), and then another to go back over it to give it a proper seal. (In all, the shop needed to use six tubes of seam sealer to complete that portion of the job.)

Not a big issue, Shreve says, except that Ford wasn’t aware of that process, having recommended just one sealer in its manuals. That’s since been corrected.

In all, Shreve says the job was delayed nearly two weeks from dropoff for information gathering. He spent hours on the phone with Ford representatives, including an engineer at the automaker’s body factory for the seam sealer issue. 

The Results

Aluminum repair isn’t more difficult, Shreve says, as long as you have the right processes in place. Once his team sorted through the myriad issues early on, the vehicle “rolled through the shop.”

Parts were available at the shop within three to five days. Shreve had all seven of his aluminum-trained technicians take part in the job, rotating turns with the rivet gun and mapping out the repair together. Of the final 30-day cycle of the repair, Shreve estimates that it went from disassembly to detail in a week when taking out all the “stops and starts.” 

The final bill came in just above $17,000, and did not include a higher aluminum-specific labor rate. The DRP agreement doesn’t allow for one, Shreve says. Instead, he was paid for four hours of “setup” time. Moving forward, he says setup time payment will be a focus, as he fears a higher labor rate could cause some of the less expensive trucks to total out.

He worked closely with the insurer throughout the repair, giving regular updates and explaining the intricacies of certain processes. The shop received no pushback from the insurer on its charges.

Shreve says the early delays pushed margins way down (just under 5 percent for an overall gross profit on the job), but he feels the next time they see a similar hit, that number should be above 15 percent. His shop’s typical GP for a similar job on a traditional vehicle would be between 23 and 25 percent, Shreve says, and he hopes that as his team gets more familiar with aluminum vehicles, the results will be in that range.

“It’s all about being prepared and doing your due diligence,” he says. “If I’d make a recommendation to anyone it’s that, if it’s a drivable repair, let the owner keep driving it until you are 100 percent ready.”  

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