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Breaking Paint Department Bottlenecks

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The way Rob Sotak sees it, bottlenecks are inevitable in any paint department. And as the sole painter (with no prepper or helper to boot) at Tom and Ed’s Autobody in Crown Point, Ind., Sotak’s days could easily devolve into a mess of chaos.

Instead, nearly the opposite is true: In 2014, Sotak worked 2,340 hours and booked 7,587 hours, meaning he’s consistently 297 percent efficient.

Vice president Andy Tylka knows that seems unbelievable. 

“I know skeptics are going to say that with that efficiency his paint jobs must be dirty, he is skipping steps, must have help, or assume he has a prepper,” he says. “This is far from the truth as Rob’s success is in his preparation and hard work. When observing the cameras it always looks like it is sped up with the speed he moves throughout the day.”

Sotak is just one of many painters in the industry to have developed strategies—both simple and more overarching—for breaking the most common bottlenecks and increasing paint department throughput.    

Bottleneck #1: Paint booth flow

Doug Kaltenberger, owner of CARSTAR Fort Collins North in Fort Collins, Colo., says that when designing his latest paint department—for a staff with an efficiency average of 250 percent—proper car flow was one of the most pressing concerns.

“We couldn’t figure out how to make the cars flow correctly,” he says.

The problem, he says, was that every time a car needed to come out of the paint booth, all of the other cars in line needed to be moved, causing a huge bottleneck in the shop.

“You’d pull in to prep your car, get it all prepped and then you’d have to move all your other cars that were behind the paint booth to get yours out and bring the other one in,” he says.

Kaltenberger says he spent a significant amount of time narrowing in on the cause of the bottleneck before coming up with a solution for his shop. In his case, Kaltenberger invested in two drive-through paint booths. Now, the painter simply drives the completed car through and immediately pulls in the next vehicle. 

“Now they’re just in a line and one comes in after the other one goes out,” he says. “It’s huge as far as cycle time.”

While investing in new paint booths might not be realistic for all shops, Kaltenberger says the bigger lesson is to find ways to organize your shop to maintain constant workflow so vehicles move seamlessly. Look for physical limitations causing backups and evaluate how to reconfigure to maximize your facility’s potential. 

Bottleneck #2: Inefficient painting of parts

According to Kaltenberger, his shop’s number-one key to paint booth efficiency is painting parts off cars. The shop does it whenever possible, allowing the team to paint up to three or four jobs at a time in one booth. 

The strategy has paid off: Kaltenberger says the shop’s record is flagging 43 hours in two hours.

Kaltenberger says the key is to make sure that every part for a particular job is in the paint department at the same time. The goal is to only paint the car once, he says, rather than continuing to bring over additional parts to the paint booth.

“A lot of shops will paint a car and a door, and then later bring some parts from the parts department and stop the painter to have him paint that,” he says. “That creates a bottleneck. So we don’t paint anything unless we have all the parts.”

“If I’m clearing, I try to clear everything all at one time. That way I’m not mixing up a bunch of different clear for now and then an hour later, doing it again.”
—Rob Sotak, painter, Tom and Ed’s Auto Body

Bottleneck #3: Poor scheduling

The way Sotak sees it, the biggest reason bottlenecks occur in the paint department comes down to scheduling.

“Three days out of the week, I have an average pace, but then I get hit with a bunch of jobs all at once,” he says. “They pretty much have to go the same day or the next day, so it’s a mad rush to get everything finished in one or two days.”

The key to handling that mad rush with efficiency and precision comes down to one strategy: preparation. 

Sotak says he tries to prep as many cars as he can ahead of time that he knows will be coming to the paint booth later. He looks for parts, such as bumpers, that he can easily prep ahead of time to speed up the pace later.

“Once they come over to me, they’re almost ready to go into the booth,” he says.

He also tries to prime every car as soon as the bodymen are finished. To do that effectively, he says he will either prime the car in the morning, put a heat lamp on it and fit the job into his afternoon schedule to get it out by the end of the day, or prime the car at the end of the day and let it air dry overnight, so it’s ready to go immediately in the morning.

Bottleneck #4: Improper grouping of jobs

In keeping with his focus on preparation, Sotak says he speeds up efficiency by thinking strategically and grouping jobs together. Rather than focusing on one job, he says he thinks about how he could paint, seal or clear as many vehicles together at once.

“If I’m clearing, I try to clear everything all at one time,” he says. “That way I’m not mixing up a bunch of different clear for now and then an hour later, doing it all again.”

He also groups cars with like colors, so he’s able to use a certain sealer for numerous jobs.

“I don’t have to mix up three different color sealers, like a white, medium gray and a dark gray,” he says. “That speeds up my process trying to get the jobs out faster because I spend less time mixing sealers.”

He does the same when painting cars, as well. Sotak says he tries to paint three or four jobs at once in the morning, and thinks strategically about which jobs those will be. If he knows two of the same type of cars are coming in, he says he will try to paint those at the same time.

“Instead of spending more time mixing colors, I’m painting the same color and I can paint them at once.”

“If I know it’s a common color that I’ve used or it’s a troublesome color in the past, I make sure to write down exactly what I used, what color was the best match and I have the actual color chip there waiting.”
—Rob Sotak, painter, Tom and Ed’s Auto Body

Bottleneck #5: Poor color matching

Sotak says that although manufacturers have improved their systems and processes, color matching is still a problem for most painters.

“For the most part, about 90 percent of the time they do match,” he says. “If they don’t, you’ll have to go into making test panels and spray out cards to find the better color match. That requires a lot more time.”

Sotak estimates he has to add at least another 30 minutes to an hour when that occurs, and says he’s spent up to four hours just mixing colors for color chips for a tri-coat.

“That creates a huge bottleneck,” he says.

To solve potential color-matching problems, Sotak has created a catalog of all the colors and color samples he has created.

“I try to jot down and hold onto all of the color samples I make,” he says. “If I know it’s a common color that I’ve used or it’s a troublesome color in the past, I make sure I write down exactly what I used, what color was the best match and I have the actual color chip there waiting. That way, a year later, I don’t have to start the whole process again of trying to find a match.”

Bottleneck #6: Focusing only on today

Sotak says that the worst thing a painter can do is think only about the current day. 

“If someone stops at 5 o’clock after they’re done clearing, you’re basically ending your day when something else could be done to speed up your next day,” he says.

Sotak starts every morning by setting goals, but rather than focus on what needs to be done by the end of the day, he considers what he needs to do to make the next day easier or ahead of schedule.

“Today I’m thinking tomorrow,” he says. “I’m not only doing today, but I’m looking to see what I could do to make tomorrow’s jobs easier to flow out so I don’t spend a lot of time working on one car tomorrow when I could do numerous jobs.”

Sotak says that doing so helps create a more productive flow and he’s better able to prepare and plan. He also says he tries to end each day so that there are cars immediately ready to go in the morning, rather than quitting and then needing to start over or in the middle of a job the next day. 

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