A Stronger Weld

Jan. 1, 2013
Advanced welding training is critical for repairing the high-strength metals in today’s vehicles.

An Arizona shop recently repaired and welded a quarter panel on a new Honda Accord. Upon completion, the vehicle owner immediately noticed misalignment and gaps in the repair. So the customer took the car to a new shop, Raintree Auto Body in Scottsdale, Ariz., for another look.

Raintree owner Paul Val says technicians uncovered more severe problems after assessing the repair. The welds around the wheelhouse could be pulled right off and completely fell apart upon inspection.

“That’s obviously an unsafe vehicle to drive,” Val says. “That whole area would have collapsed in another collision.”

It’s an alarming situation to say the least, but one that Val sees regularly on today—especially on high-end foreign models with advanced materials.

“We see a lot of problems like that,” Val says. “We’re seeing a lot of redo work.”

Such problems pose major liability concerns. In Arizona, shop owners, managers and technicians can be held liable for manslaughter if someone is killed because of an improper weld, he says. “The business implications for improperly trained technicians are severe.”

The Training Need

Vehicle materials have changed and will continue to be upgraded in the foreseeable future. Materials such as high-strength steel, ultra-high-strength steel and aluminum are being used more among several auto manufacturers to meet mandated fuel efficiency standards. But those materials are driving numerous repair issues that technicians can’t afford to overlook.
Gary Wano, executive vice president of G.W. and Son Autobody Inc. in Oklahoma City, says many technicians aren’t up to date on repairing the new materials—most notably, proper welding processes. Many don’t know new repair information or how to use the equipment required to do the job.

“That significant amount of practice creates good habits.”
—Jamie Boettcher, instructional designer and trainer, I-CAR

“There are a lot of technicians who believe they know how to weld just because they can strike an arc on a MIG welder,” Wano says. “But some don’t understand there are guidelines and procedures that must be followed for different materials. Instead, they continue to apply the same types of techniques on all cars.”

Wano says that’s counterproductive to the repair process; it can actually cause more damage. And that leads to poor quality welds—ones that will ultimately fail in a crash.

Jamie Boettcher, instructional designer and trainer for I-CAR, says technicians tend to experience those problems due to a lack of repetitious training. Most commonly, they don’t know the proper welding machine adjustments to make for various welding scenarios. With today’s exotic materials, it’s imperative for technicians to understand material identification, and the welding processes and equipment unique to each one, he says.

Necessary Knowledge

“If you think you’ll be able to stay in business by working today the same way you did yesterday, think again,” Wano says. “Repairers should get ready. They need to think about what it will take to get the knowledge they need in order to continue repairing cars.”

Boettcher offers the main factors that technicians must be thoroughly informed on in order to develop accurate welding repair plans and avoid using outdated, ineffective methods.

• Collision repair theory: Each type of material behaves differently during collisions. Technicians must know the behavior of each material to predict the type and location of all damage that exists.

• Material identification: Each vehicle material has different sensitivities and metallurgy compared to one another. Each material’s alloy, thickness and heat sensitivity drive different repair methods and considerations.

• Welding types and equipment: Shops must use resistance spot welding, MIG welding and brazing processes much more frequently on high-strength materials. As certain auto manufacturers require the use of various brands of welding equipment, technicians must understand how to use the different manufacturer-recommended welders for each make of vehicle you work on.

• Welding processes: High-strength vehicle materials have various recommended joint configurations, riveting methods, transfer methods, heat applications, filler materials, wire speeds and voltage settings that are much different from methods used on mild steels of the past.

Becoming Proficient

You might not think your shop has any problems when it comes to welding. Technicians could be performing the work efficiently and moving jobs out the door without issue. While that may be true, the reality is that shops simply don’t know the quality and strength of their work until their customers are in another crash.

Boettcher says even trained technicians are experiencing struggles. I-CAR offers a tremendous amount of welding training for technicians, and many shops have utilized it. But even I-CAR-certified welding technicians make mistakes after passing the necessary tests.

That’s because the new materials have created so much information to absorb that I-CAR’s one-day trainings often don’t allow enough time to ingrain it into technicians’ memories. They don’t have opportunities to the get the repetitious practice needed to become proficient at each step: machine adjustments, material sensitivities, heat applications, wire speeds and voltages, Boettcher says. They’re left guessing about proper methods, or wasting time in the shop researching information—two factors that affect a shop’s repair quality and cycle time.

“Learning new welding skills, and keeping them sharp, requires a significant amount of practice,” Boettcher says. That’s where technicians run into problems when their training experience stops with I-CAR. The organization’s welding qualification tests, for example, are only four-hour sessions. Technicians who pass the test may not weld again for weeks and don’t always remember what they learned when it comes time to pick up the welder again, Boettcher says.

That means that I-CAR’s welding certifications alone aren’t sufficient to obtain a fully trained and efficient staff of technicians. Additional intensive training efforts are required so repairs on modern vehicle materials become second nature.

Where to Look

Above and beyond I-CAR, repairers have two options to get repetitious training on all of the welding processes and techniques for new materials.

Several auto manufacturers have specialized welding programs for aluminum repair. OEMs such as Audi, Jaguar and General Motors have welding programs offered in Appleton, Wis. If your shop isn’t able to get in on an OEM program, Boettcher says the best resource available to everyone is the Lincoln Electric Welding School based in Cleveland, Ohio.

• The Program: The Lincoln school offers instruction to professional welders across all industries, and is tailored to the specific needs of each student. The training, which ranges from one week to 16 weeks in duration, offers advanced welding instruction for eight hours a day—70 percent hands-on and 30 percent classroom-based.

• What is Learned: Boettcher, who has gone through two weeklong Lincoln courses, says there are several options offered at the school that cover the same material within I-CAR and OEM programs. The material is more comprehensive and intensive because it’s taught over the course of several days or weeks.

Boettcher says technicians learn everything they need to know about modern welding practices on various vehicle materials: basic welds, brazing, MIG welding and TIG welding. They learn best practices for welding machine setup, collision repair theory, joint configurations, material identification, metallurgy, sensitivities, transfer methods, alloys, material thicknesses and wire speeds. They also learn how each of those processes differs between materials.

“Technicians learn what to do in every welding scenario,” Boettcher says.

Lincoln also exposes technicians to several consecutive days of hands-on practice. Technicians have time to ask intricate questions, absorb information, make notes and work through challenges. They’re also able to make mistakes so they can visually see the implications of a poor weld.

“That significant amount of practice creates good habits. It creates change in technicians’ mentalities, and ingrains a standard of how to perform certain processes efficiently and effectively back on the job,” Boettcher says.

• The Tech Perspective: Donald Hughes, a collision repair technician at Wagonwork Collision Center in Alexandria, Va., says the Lincoln training gave him several days of intense repetition on every type of welder imaginable. The practice allowed him to better understand the reasoning behind modern repair techniques and how to execute them effectively—especially on aluminum components.

Hughes says the downfall of one-day training programs is that it takes a full day just to learn how to operate a welding machine. There is no time available to practice in order to become proficient. But the Lincoln program offered the time he needed to make mistakes and experiment with different machine adjustments.

Hughes says the deeper insight he gained regarding the behavior of aluminum has helped him develop better repair plans, which has improved his efficiency and profitability on jobs.

Always Learning

Jeff Hollenbeck, a technician at Raintree Auto Body, says he’s not always able to travel away from the shop to attend multiple-day training programs. Still, he knows how critical constant education is to succeed at his job, so he registered for a welding class at a local community college.

“I took it upon myself to acquire more education and information,” Hollenbeck says. “I did gain excellent additional knowledge and experience.”

The yearlong, $500 welding class offered classroom and hands-on instruction on basic welding processes, as well as more advanced procedures for ARC, MIG and TIG welding. Hollenbeck says it allowed him to associate classroom theory with past work experience to have a better understanding of processes, such as necessary amperage, voltage and filler materials.

“Training isn’t always about certifications,” Hollenbeck says. “The bottom line is about doing whatever it takes to acquire the right knowledge needed to work effectively.”