Training Techs for Advanced Materials

April 30, 2010
Advanced materials are touted as the future of auto manufacturing. But that future is now. Are your techs trained and ready?

When Jeff Peevy, I-CAR director of field operations, visited an Illinois body shop last fall, he watched a technician repair a B-pillar on a damaged vehicle. Or rather, he watched a tech attempt such a repair. But the technician couldn’t grind out welds on the part. In fact, he couldn’t even drill a hole in it, Peevy says.

The part was made of high-strength steel, and drill bits simply won’t penetrate high-strength metals, though no one in the shop realized that. The technicians in the shop assumed their drill bits were dull. But that wasn’t the case. Alternative repair tactics should have been used on that type of material.

“When that happens, untrained technicians just stand there, scratch their heads and wonder what’s going on,” Peevy says.

In response to this lack of knowledge about repairing cars with these new materials, I-CAR created a series of advanced-material training courses, most recently launching the Advanced Material Damage Analysis course in March. Techs learn how advanced materials—high-strength steels, magnesium, compositions of aluminum and carbon fibers—are used in cars, how the materials change the vehicle structure, and repair considerations to account for during the estimating and repair process, Peevy says.

“Five years ago, you couldn’t find the instructions on how to fix these cars [that use advanced materials] to save your life,” says Mitch Becker, technical instructor for Minneapolis-based ABRA Auto Body & Glass. “Now industry professionals have access to all the instructions they need” through courses like I-CAR’s.

“Some of the people who don’t know what they’re doing are the ones making decisions on how to repair the vehicles.”
— Mitch Becker, technical instructor for Minneapolis-based ABRA Auto Body & Glass

Investing in modern training is now more important than ever—and will help shops work smarter by saving time and money, and preventing safety concerns, Becker says. Understanding how advanced materials are used in a vehicle will help build more accurate repair plans, maintain vehicles’ safety and integrity, and allow your customer to drive away happy.

The Nuts and Bolts

The I-CAR course provides an overview of advanced materials from a damage analysis perspective, and the class is intended for technicians, damage appraisers or estimators who don’t have any or much advanced-material technical training.

The class, offered at least 400 times nationwide this year, addresses what estimators need to be aware of as they inspect a vehicle, and what technicians should look for as they begin a repair.

The four-hour classroom training shows examples and repair techniques for modern joining methods, material strengths, material response to collision energy, and the way these materials respond during the repair process.

The visual indicators for diagnosing problems in a vehicle’s structure are not as conclusive as they were in the past, says Jeffrey Poole, I-CAR performance training coordinator. The class drives shops to re-evaluate processes for estimating and repairing vehicles. These days, you can’t be so focused on doing things the way they’ve been done in the past, says Poole. The $108 course helps ensure accuracy, efficiency and a safe repair for your customers.

Game On: Efficiency

When high-strength materials first showed up in vehicles, some technicians had to learn how to work with them the hard way, and that wasted—and continues to waste—a lot of time in the shop.

Poole says technicians are making mistakes on sectioning techniques, fastening techniques, sectioning locations, and welding.
“There are people out there making less than desirable decisions through the repair process,” Poole says. “The end result is a vehicle that will not perform up to expectations in the next crash.”

ABRA’s Becker experienced just that during a repair on a wrecked 2003 Nissan Pathfinder. After surveying the vehicle’s kinked high-strength steel frame and folded-over reinforcement wrapped around the trailer hitch, he knew the frame had to be replaced.
“When high-strength steel gets kinked, it cannot be straightened and still maintain its original strength,” Becker says. The heat required to straighten the frame would have weakened it beyond safe limits.

Unfortunately, Becker wasn’t the only person assessing the damage and weighing in on the repair. The insurance appraiser wanted a second opinion on whether the frame needed to be replaced or could be repaired—a less expensive option. The insurance company got that second opinion from an alignment and frame shop, an ABRA competitor specializing in frame repairs. The frame shop told the insurance company the frame could be repaired. What they failed to realize, Becker says, is that such a repair would significantly compromise the strength and durability of the vehicle. And that could lead to significant safety hazards.
“The weight of a trailer hooked up to that frame may have bent the rear frame rail down, causing cracking and possibly pulling the rail off,” Becker says.

Worse yet, if that vehicle were to be hit in the rear again, the frame could snap, hit the gas tank and cause a fire—or worse.
The insurance appraiser eventually looked at the vehicle and sided with Becker’s analysis. But it felt like a close call. The appraiser was prepared to take the vehicle out of ABRA’s shop and let the frame company make the repair.

Were it not for Becker’s expertise analyzing and working with high-strength steels, the driver of the Pathfinder would have faced extreme risk. And in another shop, that might have been the case.

Trained technicians will be able to diagnose repairs on advanced materials faster—which will reduce your shop’s wasted time—and lead to faster repairs and cycle time, Becker says. That combination could move more work through your door, and mean more money for your shop. Shop owners have to understand that training makes for more efficiency in the shop, better quality control and more satisfied customers, Becker says.

Evolving with Change

Advanced materials have been touted as the future of the automobile for a while; in fact, that future is now.

Car manufacturers have been using advanced materials increasingly in cars, starting with the launch of the Volvo XC90 in 2003, Becker says. Advanced materials became more of the norm than the exception with 2010 model vehicles.

The Honda Insight is a prime example of vehicle evolution, Poole says. The first-generation Insight, produced from 1999 to 2006, had a complete aluminum structure. The second-generation Insights, release_notesd in 2009, incorporate a new steel structure.

With the tremendous presence of high-strength steels in that vehicle, Honda made a stronger, lighter, more fuel-efficient and higher performing vehicle, Poole says. “There is no question these materials are here to stay.”

But Becker says change can be one of the hardest things for collision professionals to adapt to because “they are afraid to admit they don’t know what they’re doing.”

Some people think admitting they don’t have all the answers will hurt their credibility, Becker says. “Some of the people who don’t know what they’re doing are the ones making decisions on how to repair the vehicles.”

The result: technicians use outdated repair procedures—procedures that are unsafe and don’t work on today’s vehicles, Poole says.
When this happens, shops can’t maintain their quality of work, customer satisfaction drops, and shops expose themselves to liability, Becker says.

“Consumers don’t trust what we can do; they don’t trust that we can fix cars correctly,” Becker says. “More and more people are asking to get their cars totaled out because they don’t think technicians can fix it.”

But body shops can squelch that problem by investing in training—and adapting to an evolving industry, Poole says. Repair approaches have to change; repairers have to evolve.

“It’s not the strongest shop that’s going to survive, it’s not the smartest shop that’s going to survive,” Becker says. “It’s the shop that is most adaptive to change.”

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