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Bob Lloyd, owner of Lloyd’s Collision & Paint Center in Santee, Calif., found his shop was spending twice as long on the estimating process as he’d like, and estimates were often incomplete or wrong. Nearly 40 percent of the time, the shop ordered the wrong part, or missed a part that needed to be replaced.

For years, his shop used typical estimating software. But the two-dimensional images the software provided were black-and-white, and sometimes quite small, Lloyd says, which made it tough to identify small parts—like retainers, brackets and clips—on initial vehicle estimates.

“That always caused hours of additional administrative work and paperwork,” says Lloyd. The confusion sometimes added multiple days to the cycle time of those vehicles.

So Lloyd decided to try using three-dimensional estimating technology to see if it would improve his shop’s estimating and parts ordering accuracy. He contracted with Audatex in November 2009 when it release_notesd its new 3D Intelligent Graphics product, an application that can be added to the company’s Web-based estimating software.

The new software technology provides shop estimators with a three-dimensional view of every part in a vehicle, which allows them to see how things go together—and come apart—without actually diving into the vehicle, says Neal Lowell, Audatex’s director of product management. Estimators can color-code, rotate, spin, and zoom in on vehicle parts to identify different materials and to ensure they are putting the correct components on a repair estimate.

With the technology, Lloyd’s estimating errors dropped from 40 percent to 10 percent, and cycle times improved by an entire day per vehicle—from an average of five days to four. “The program has streamlined our business,” Lloyd says.

Errors in the estimating process are not unique to Lloyd’s shop. Jeff Bean, Audatex North America spokesman, says nearly 70 percent of all collision repair supplements contain at least one missed part that should be included in a written estimate.

Almost 12 percent of all parts replaced in a final estimate are missed in the initial estimate, according to Bean.

Audatex is currently the only company that offers a 3-D estimating product.

Mitchell International Inc. recently experimented internally with 3-D graphics, but was concerned that it would cause estimators to spend more time than necessary interpreting the graphics, and slow down the estimating process, says Brian Bragg, Mitchell International senior product manager for appraisal.

Mitchell has upgraded its estimating software, though, and will unveil its UltraMate 7.1 product at NACE 2010. The product uses colors, patterns and shading to help identify vehicle parts and materials.

Oldsmar, Fla.-based Web-Est, Bigfork, Mont.-based Swan River Software and Toms River, N.J.-based Applied Computer Resources said they do not have plans to create 3-D estimating software.

Seeing is Believing

Knowing how every part of a vehicle fits together can be a problem for estimators.

“It’s hard when you’re looking at a bunch of little pieces to know exactly which ones you need,” says Steve Lukas, estimator at Crown Collision Center in St. Petersburg, Fla. “Working in 3-D helps match the parts up because you can see the exact shape, and where the holes are, to ensure you have the right piece.”

Even the seasoned collision repair professional can make mistakes with so many hidden, tiny parts on today’s new vehicles.

“We have had problems differentiating one small part from another,” especially when using older two-dimensional diagrams, says James. “There are constantly times when we’re unsure of what part we’re ordering, and have to call the dealer back and forth to make sure we’re getting the right thing.”

Using 3-D software allows users to spin, turn and rotate parts. Users can look at the reverse side of a part to see if there are any additional pieces—like retainers or brackets—on the back side.

“This program gives you a much better image than two-dimensional programs,” Lloyd says. “Locating and identifying parts on the first try has been the most important aspect for our shop to save time,” and not waste money ordering the wrong part.

The ability to see these parts in three dimensions completely eliminated that problem, he says.

The ability to accurately identify and order parts will only become more important as vehicle designs—such as hybrid vehicles—continue to evolve, says Lowell, who adds that technologies and safety features in those cars are now more complex than ever. And they’re only getting more complex.

“Guys are spending an inordinate amount of time trying to identify parts, and they’re not always doing it successfully,” Lowell says.

The Right Estimate

Preparing an accurate estimate up front can help your shop order the right parts on the first try. Here are a few benefits shops have experienced using 3-D graphics in the estimating process:

• Improved cycle time. “Cycle time is all about getting accuracy up front—every wrong part a shop orders is wasted time and money,” Bean says. “Making sure that up-front estimate is as accurate as possible will allow shops to stay on track, stay on schedule and keep their consistent revenue flow.”

• No guesswork. Lukas recently made a repair on a 2004 Buick LaSabre that needed a lot of work on the inner structure behind the front fender and bumper.

“There are a lot of pieces that make up the inner reinforcement,” Lukas says. “When you look at two-dimensional images for estimating, it can be hard to tell which pieces are inner, outer and middle parts on some of those panels.” The 3-D images lay it out clearly.

Lukas took the Buick apart, and with the help of 3-D images, he knew exactly the six inner pieces that had to be repaired—without guessing. “There definitely would have been some guesswork in the process without those images,” he says.

• Streamlined workflow. Without the 3-D images, Lukas says the initial estimate on the Buick LaSabre likely would have resulted in the shop ordering at least one wrong part.

“We could have been set back an entire week waiting to get the right part if that happened,” Lukas says. The program creates accurate up-front estimates because you know every piece you’re going to need for a repair—and that greatly reduces opportunity for error.

• Faster estimates. Josh James, co-owner of Greenfield Body Works in Bakersfield, Calif., who pays $190 a month for the Audatex 3-D program, says his shop now makes estimates twice as fast as it did prior to using the program. Lloyd, whose shop pays $200 per month, says his estimators have also cut their estimating time in half, from 20 minutes to 10 minutes per vehicle.

Software pricing varies by shop, based on software features selected and duration of the contract.

Customer Service Plus

The more accurate shops can be up front, the happier the customer is in the end, Bean says.

“If we stay within the range of our target completion dates, it makes us look better, and creates more repeat customers and referrals for the future,” Lloyd says.

Audatex reports that the technology also gives vehicle owners more confidence in the quality of your shop. “We’ve seen shops put up displays of the program to show customers exactly what repairs will be completed,” Bean says. “That helps them be involved with and understand the repair process, which really drives customer satisfaction.”

Customer satisfaction means a lot when it comes to your shop’s cycle time—and its bottom line.

“We have to be competitive with our cycle time,” Lloyd says. Using 3-D estimating technology “is going to save you time in the estimating process and improve your cycle time. And anything shops can do to reduce work time is crucial.”

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