Preparing to Work on High-Strength Materials

Oct. 1, 2011

I-CAR reported in July, during the Collision Industry Conference (CIC) meeting, that 69 percent of collision repair shops do not train their technicians. But the high-strength metals used in vehicles today have made it critical for shop technicians to understand new repair methods and processes. A lack of training could cause some major liability issues for shops, says Bob Keith, senior director of education and training for CARSTAR.

FenderBender talked to Keith about the different repair methods, equipment and training needed to repair modern high-strength vehicle designs.

Steel industry chemists are constantly working to create lighter, thinner alloys that have high-strength ratings. The steel industry has developed many alloys such as bake-hardened, duel-phase, twining-induced plasticity and boron. These materials are basically found in every new vehicle. That’s the only way manufacturers can design cars to meet new fuel economy standards and crash rating requirements.

These materials require very specific repair methods; some cannot be repaired at all. Everybody hears that boron is the only material that is completely non-repairable. That’s not true. Even some duel-phase metals are non-repairable. The tensile strength of a material is the key element in determining whether or not it can be straightened and repaired. The higher the tensile strength, the less repairable the material is. Any material with a tensile strength of more than 750 to 850 megapaxels is a completely non-repairable item.

Those parts harden and crack when you try to straighten them. Unfortunately, those parts micro-crack and the mistake is not visible to the naked eye. You will have no idea that crack is even there unless you have an electronic microscope to look at cars. That part will fail catastrophically in the event of another crash; it will literally snap into two pieces. And that can negatively affect airbag timing. The steel won’t hold long enough for the airbags to deploy, which causes obvious problems for vehicle passengers—and liability for your shop.

Heat is the enemy for all of these high-strength alloys. That will cause a move from MIG plug welding to resistance spot welding to be an absolute requirement. Inverter-type spot welders, which many shops do not have, might become mandatory not only from auto manufacturers, but also through some direct repair programs. Insurers may start requiring shops to have that equipment in order to participate in their programs.

Spot welders can cost anywhere from $15,000 to $40,000 depending on the kind of equipment you want to buy. There are also infrastructure costs that go along with that. Most shops don’t have the three-phase power that’s required to run these welders. The welders are sensitive to amperage, too; some of them won’t even work without the proper amperage. It might cost a shop $10,000 to $15,000 just to get the electricity in a facility set up to deliver enough power to run the piece of equipment.

Frame pulling equipment will become less critical because shops will increasingly have to replace parts rather than repair them when it comes to rail and structural damage. Jigging and the ability to hold parts will become more important down the road. Shops will need good platforms to hold vehicles square, level and straight in order to jig parts to weld them in.

The industry needs to change some habits when it comes to the repair of these vehicles. Shops need to think about whether or not vehicles are repairable as the first step in the repair process, rather than focusing on what it will cost to repair. You don’t want to assume you’re able to repair something that’s actually nonrepairable.

OE information is critical to obtain at the very beginning of the repair process. The research of repair procedures needs to be done in the appraisal phase of the repair. That not only allows the appraiser to know how the vehicle must be repaired, but also ensures that technicians have all the information and OE specifications they need to start working immediately. Having that information up front will prevent technicians from trying to repair parts that can’t be repaired.

Training has been a big deal for a long time, but it’s becoming even more critical today. Technicians need to have continuous education in order to stay on top of their game. Without it, these technology changes will drive even more small shops out of business because they won’t be able to keep up.

I-CAR is probably the best training opportunity for the masses. I-CAR has done a good job of creating more specific training for technicians. OEM training is something to capitalize on as well—if you have access to it. Not everybody has that opportunity, however, because you have to be an OEM-certified shop. Make sure to take advantage of training that some of your product vendors offer, too. For example, 3M, paint companies, and other manufacturers of adhesives and chemical products all provide training that everybody should take advantage of.  

Your technicians will become more efficient as they learn new information. That’s because they won’t be stumbling around the shop trying to figure out how to do a new process on the fly. You will see an improvement in your shop’s touch time and cycle time. The shops that stay on top of technology and training will survive.

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