Every collision repair shop needs an ACE tech

April 2, 2018
ACE has a keen interest in new technologies, perhaps even a great passion. ACE has an appetite for learning. He or she may spend hours online studying, not necessarily because it’s required, but instead because of fascination.

Does it feel like our industry is going through a great awakening in terms of embracing new vehicle technologies? There are Advanced Driver Assist Systems (ADAS), safety systems and controls performing functions we never dreamed of. Most trade publications and industry events contain content on vehicle scans, calibrations and autonomous cars. There are semi-autonomous cars driven by consumers on the road today and fully autonomous cars being tested. We are seeing repair issues that would have been completely irrational in the past, such as heated steering wheels not functioning after simple door trim R&I procedures; sun roofs that don’t function after modest collisions; and electronic steering systems that don’t function after headliner removal. The complexities of the modern vehicle are growing exponentially, and we are really experiencing it in our collision repair businesses. 

More and more shops are performing at least some pre- and post-repair scans. Where I work, we perform both on all collision vehicles, including hail jobs. The headliner issue referred to in the previous paragraph happened on a Ford F-150 hail job, to us enforcing the wisdom in performing the scans. 

Performing scans and clearing diagnostic trouble codes (DTCs, often referred to as fault codes) only represent the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the technology tsunami we are experiencing. Calibrating right front seat sensors on many models has become commonplace in recent years. We are calibrating many cameras in increasingly different locations on vehicles. We are calibrating radar units. We are programming more modules. Front-end alignments on some vehicles such as some Audis have become far more complex and expensive due to the many sensors that require static or dynamic calibrations. (I’ve seen sublet invoices for some exceeding $800.) We are more thoroughly researching and adhering to factory repair procedures, especially since the well-publicized John Eagle Collision court case. Some of these procedures have new and unique procedures for wire repair and connector replacement. 

As a result, a new breed of technician is emerging. I am referring to an Automated and Computerized Electronic systems technician, working in an auto collision repair environment. For simplification let’s refer to this person as ACE. I understand that they are people and thus have their own unique traits and attributes. However, I will speak in some generalities to create an understanding and to paint a picture of what I describe. 

To begin, I will describe what ACE is not. ACE is NOT the stereotypical high school low performer who was sent to automotive training because they couldn’t succeed elsewhere. ACE is NOT a typical body tech or painter, whose roles and attributes to restore auto body appearance and function are familiar to most of us in the industry. ACE is NOT a typical independent service (mechanical) shop technician who performs typical service work — including diagnostics — that primarily revolve around vehicle maintenance and drivability issues. ACE is NOT a typical dealership technician, including those who specialize in diagnostics. Scans for collision issues and calibrations of collision avoidance and other cameras and sensors are not among their typical tasks. Nor are deployed airbag systems. 

ACE typically has a higher-than-average IQ and an even higher EQ (Emotional Intelligence Quotient, which includes measurement of self awareness, self management, social awareness, and relationship management. It includes common sense. It is not just dependent upon the mental aptitude we are born with, but instead it can be increased through learning.)  

ACE has a keen interest in new technologies, perhaps even a great passion. ACE has an appetite for learning. He or she may spend hours online studying, not necessarily because it’s required, but instead because of fascination. It could also be to not be beaten by a difficult issue, but instead to gain understanding to be used to overcome the obstacle. This is the person who may take a scan tool home to "play with it" on their own vehicle. ACE can often tell you about new technologies and vehicle features that are coming. They are not intimidated, but instead look forward to the opportunity to experience it firsthand and to work on it. 

Like other mechanics, ACEs can work with his or her hands. They have the ability to understand and perform most types of mechanical repair, but gravitate to those involving technologies found in dashes, airbag systems, accident avoidance and other safety systems. They are more inclined to master those mechanical systems controlled by computer modules than other mechanics. 

Every shop needs an ACE 
Today’s shops are finding their way on how they handle the ever-increasing new technologies in collision repair. Shops may perform the work in house with their own staff, sublet to a dealership, sublet to an independent who specializes in such work or use a scan tool that connects to an offsite entity that uses their scanning equipment (typically factory scan tools) and provides direction, or some combination of these solutions. No matter which methodology is used, there is (or at least there should be) typically some form of our ACE performing the operation. As we continue to deal with the increasing amount of new technology operations including scans, calibrations, programming and diagnostics, the need for ACE will increase and the opportunity to use someone of lesser skills will diminish. In other words, we repairers will have to have at least one ACE at our disposal, in house or through sublet. 

I personally believe it will make increasing sense that shops employ their own ACEs in the future to deal with the increasing technologies. The alternative may be subletting an increasingly large percentage of each collision repair. 

Delegation of tasks 
We live in a world of specialization. The collision repair industry is embracing it as well. Many shops have tear down and/or assembly people. Some have separate aluminum techs and work areas. Some shops have hard-hit and/or light-hit techs, and this may include separate processes and/or separate shop areas. "Fast tracks" would be one example. It can make sense for shop flow and can provide a higher level of competence for the specific work tasks. It allows a shop to place people in areas that best match their work performance capabilities and attributes. 

Not only is talent a consideration in determining who in the shop shall perform what task, but cost can be as well. Many shops utilize the most advanced, and thus highest paid, techs for only the most demanding of tasks. And of course, they use less expensive techs for simpler tasks. As we consider what tasks we want our ACE to perform, I pose to you that there is an additional consideration as well: safety. Because so many of the new technology systems involve safety, it only makes sense. Consider the immense negative consequences of an airbag restraint system operating improperly or a malfunctioning accident avoidance system. When dealing with these systems, it makes sense that labor cost considerations should be secondary to safety. 

Therefore, it makes sense to have ACE perform all of the obvious high-tech work, but also some that you may not have considered. One example would be the trim R&I as well as trim replacement when servicing deployed airbag systems. Assuming an ACE’s labor is charged at a mechanical rate (more on this later), an insurer may argue that it is more cost effective to use a body tech to perform the trim work. As one considers the sequence of component repair or replacement, I would argue that there needs to be an end to what the body tech does and a start to where ACE takes over the job for the airbag system work. I am suggesting having ACE perform the airbag restraint system trim work because it is so tied into the system function. Factory repair procedures deal with trim work in the air bag section. There are often specific trim requirements. Here are a few common examples taken from the procedures: 

2015 Ford Explorer — “If a side seat air bag deployment took place, install a new seat backrest foam pad, backrest cover, deployment chute and side air bag module and nuts. Replace the seat backrest frame if necessary. 

New driver safety belt systems (including retractors, buckles, anchors and height adjusters) must be installed if the vehicle is involved in a collision that results in deployment of the driver safety belt pretensioners. 

Any time the Safety Canopy or side air curtain has deployed, a new headliner and new roof pillar upper trim panels with attaching hardware must be installed.”

2015 Honda CR-V — “After a collision where a side curtain airbag has deployed, replace the items for the side(s) that deployed: 

  • Front pillar trim 
  • Center pillar upper trim 
  • Quarter pillar trim 
  • Front grab handle 
  • Rear grab handle 
  • All related trim clips 
  • Sunvisor”

2016 Chevrolet Malibu/Malibu Limited — “After a collision involving side air bag deployment, perform additional inspections on the following components: 

  • Mounting points or mounting hardware for the side impact sensors, and driver/passenger side seat airbags on the side of impact — Inspect for any damage and repair or replace each component as needed. 
  • Mounting points, mounting hardware, headliner and trim pieces for the left/right roof rail airbag on the side of impact — Inspect for any damage and repair or replace each component as needed. 
  • Mounting points or mounting hardware for the Inflatable Restraint Sensing and Diagnostic Module and seat belt anchor and/or retractor pretensioners — Inspect for any damage and repair or replace each component as needed. 
  • The seat cushion frame 
  • The seat recliner and cover, if equipped 
  • The seat adjuster 
  • The seat back frame 
  • Door trim assembly 
  • Impacted seat cushion side covers and switches 
  • The rear side bolster, attachments, brackets and wiring 
  • The rear seat back frame, cushion and cover 
  • The rear seat cushion frame, cushion and cover"

As you can see from these examples, there are many parts that are normally considered part of the vehicle’s trim which require special attention, often replacement. While a body tech may be able to replace some of the trim after reviewing the factory repair information, they would typically not be able to do so with the expertise of ACE. These airbag restraint systems have become incredibly complex and there is specific engineering and logic in this trim work that is not typical to repair processes in the past. As you can see from the examples, the information for replacing the trim components is located with the airbag system factory repair procedures, not necessarily in the body panel replacement information. There is good reason that it is so as the trim and its fasteners are designed to accommodate airbag deployment while maintaining occupant safety. (Think in terms of being a vehicle occupant when a side or front airbag explodes into deployment with incredible force, potentially sending trim and fasteners your way. I think you’ll agree to the importance of having it occur as designed.) Note that there is specific information on replacing certain fasteners. There are some component inspection requirements. These steps are best suited for someone with the expertise of an ACE. It makes the most sense for safety and efficiency reasons that an ACE handles all the steps in these specific procedures. As we learned from the John Eagle Collision case, sacrificing quality for cost may not be cost effective at all.

A new labor category and rate

I pose to the information providers (of automated estimating systems) that there be a new labor category created to accommodate the work performed by ACE. I think all of us as repairers and insurers who use these estimating systems should ask for it to provide better clarity of who is, or more importantly who SHOULD be, performing these operations. An ACE is a highly skilled technician who is currently of high demand, and that demand is increasing. I am aware of ACEs who are compensated at a similar level to highly skilled and specialized dealership diagnosticians. An ACE needs a lot of very expensive equipment, as well as frequent and extensive training. In other words, it is expensive to employ an ACE, and the labor rate should be reflective. I suspect that a labor rate similar to retail mechanical rates in your area would make sense in many cases, yet that could vary by market, shop and prevailing compensation rates in any given area. Typically mechanical operations and trim operations do not offer the opportunity to exceed 100 percent labor proficiency as do body panel repair and replacement operations and thus should not have similar "artificially lower" labor rates.

In recent years, it has been discussed that there is an irony that hair dressers and barbers are required to be licensed in most areas, yet the people who are straightening and welding the key structures of vehicles are not. I suspect the threat of injury or death is minimal from hair maintenance. yet it is a very real concern for structural integrity in vehicles traveling at highway speeds carrying passengers. Similarly, there is great risk of injury or death from malfunctioning new technology systems such as ADAS or airbag restraint systems. The skill level of techs who successfully and consistently service these systems should be acknowledged. One could argue that they should be certified at some point.  

To be brutally frank, in my frequent experiences interacting with insurers, if I could hear concerns over safety expressed even half as often as I hear concerns over price considerations our industry and the motoring public would be far better for it. (Even if they brought up safety concerns 10 percent of the time, it would be an improvement.) Yet, I know our industry is evolving thanks to new technologies and cases like John Eagle Collision. I believe recognizing the new and different requirements of talent and expertise that is required to effectively perform repair on these new systems is a necessity.

About the Author

Darrell Amberson | Director, MSO relations

Darrell Amberson is the president of operations for LaMettry's Collision, a 10-location multi-shop operator in the Minneapolis area. Amberson has more than 40 years of collision industry experience, and served as chairman of the Collision Industry Conference for the 2021-2022 term as well as interim chairman for the first two CIC meetings of 2024.

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