The impact of technology and new substrate materials on collision repairs

Aug. 7, 2023
The integration of advanced technologies means specialized tools, equipment, and knowledge are required to ensure accurate diagnosis and repair.

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The collision repair industry is facing unprecedented complexity, driven by the rapid advancement of technology and the emergence of new substrate materials. To prepare for this wave of change, it is critical to explore the significant changes in vehicle construction and their implications for repairs, while highlighting the need to adhere to OEM repair procedures and continuous learning in the industry.

Technological enhancements and repair complexity

Today's vehicles are equipped with advanced technologies, such as ADAS features and electric drivetrains, which impact the repair process. The integration of these technologies requires specialized tools, equipment, and knowledge to ensure accurate diagnosis and repair.

The rise of new substrate materials

The material landscape in the automotive industry has evolved dramatically over the past few decades. In the past, most vehicles in the U.S. were made of mild steel with consistent strength properties. However, the introduction of imported cars in the 1970s and the demand for improved safety and fuel efficiency led to the adoption of a variety of substrate materials.

  • High-strength steels: The use of high-strength steels, including ultra-high-strength steel, has become more prevalent. While some high-strength steel parts can be repaired through pulling or straightening, many cannot be repaired or sectioned and must be replaced entirely. Repair methods such as squeeze-type resistance spot welding or MIG brazing are often required due to the lower heat affected zone temperature.
  • Aluminum: The lightweight nature of aluminum makes it an attractive material for vehicle manufacturers aiming to improve fuel economy. Repair options for aluminum components vary across manufacturers, with different alloys and thicknesses requiring specific repair techniques. Damaged structural components made of aluminum castings may not be repairable and usually require replacement.
  • Carbon fiber: Carbon fiber and composite materials offer high strength-to-weight ratios, making them desirable for certain vehicle components. However, repair options for carbon fiber depend on the manufacturer and whether the weave is exposed. Some repairs may be limited due to the complexity of working with these materials, location, and function of the part.
  • Magnesium: Magnesium, a lightweight and strong compound, is gaining popularity in certain vehicle parts. However, the viability of cold straightening for magnesium repairs is limited, and replacement is often the preferred option.
  • Plastic: Plastics have been used in vehicle construction for many years, and advancements in repair techniques have improved their repairability. Different types of plastics may require specific repair materials and procedures. It is crucial to consult the vehicle manufacturer's service information to determine if certain plastic components can be repaired or refinished, especially considering the impact of ADAS and radar technology on repairability.

    Repair considerations and attachment methods

    The increasing complexity of substrate materials poses challenges for collision repair technicians. Adhering to OEM repair procedures is paramount, as these guidelines provide specific instructions for each vehicle model. Additionally, continuous learning and training are essential for technicians to keep up with evolving repair techniques and emerging technologies.

    Attachment methods have also evolved to accommodate different substrate materials. Often, we are now replacing structural components using attachment methods dissimilar from the ones employed by the OEM during the assembly process. Rivet bonding, adhesive bonding and mechanically fastening parts welded or laser-brazed by the factory are becoming commonplace on many vehicles. Technicians choosing not to review and follow OEM service information prior to installing structural components are repairing vehicles incorrectly resulting in unsafe repairs. Technicians must follow the prescribed attachment methods to ensure the structural integrity of repaired vehicles.

    Damage assessment challenges

    The changes in substrate materials present unique challenges in damage assessment. Damage appraisers need to adapt their inspection methods to accurately identify damage and determine the appropriate repair approach. Continuous learning and researching vehicle manufacturers information, as well as accessing resources like I-CAR's Repairability Technical Support (RTS) portal, can provide guidance and clarification on repair procedures.

    In summary, the collision repair industry is navigating a complex landscape driven by technological advancements and the introduction of diverse substrate materials. Adhering to OEM repair procedures, continuous learning, and seeking clarification when needed are essential for technicians to perform complete, safe, and high-quality repairs. As the industry continues to evolve, it is crucial for professionals to stay updated and embrace the challenges with a commitment to continuous education and improvement. 

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