Hands-On Innovators

Jan. 1, 2013
Eddie and Carol Lupinek’s quest for better throughput, combined with their ingenuity and craftsmanship, resulted in big improvements in the paint department.

Eddie Lupinek is a skeptic. It’s in his nature to question, analyze and think through everything. Especially when it comes to equipment for Eddie’s Auto Body, his shop in the small town of East Haddam, Conn.

“I don’t necessarily take everything as it’s presented,” says Lupinek, the second-generation owner of the family business, founded by his father in 1956. “I think about things a lot and I’m always jotting down ideas. I have all of these sketches everywhere.”

Lupinek and his wife, Carol Lupinek, who together run the 3,300-square-foot shop, are firm believers in the ability of ingenuity and old-fashioned hard work to drive success—it has at their facility, especially in the paint department. When they were unable to find a paint booth that met their needs, they built their own, one that is turning heads in their market, drastically reducing energy costs and helping the shop complete vehicles faster.

It’s a reflection of the progressive thinking that has helped the little repair center breach $1 million in annual sales without a single direct repair relationship.

Building a Better Booth

In recent years, Eddie’s Auto Body had grown to the point where it could no longer handle the volume of traffic coming through its doors. About a year ago, the shop was repairing 50–60 vehicles a month, but it had the potential to repair closer to 70.

The shop’s biggest bottleneck was its paint booth, Eddie Lupinek says.

“We had an old cross-flow booth, which 30 years ago was fine,” Lupinek says. “But it was getting outdated.”

He had known for years that the booth should be updated, but until Carol Lupinek joined the shop as office manager about five years ago, he hadn’t been able to free up enough time to solve the problem. Knowing he wanted a downdraft booth, he researched his options, but none of them quite matched the vision he had spent years developing in his head.

“I looked at everything that has come out, and what I wanted, certain things that I was looking for—economical to use and creating a safe work environment and all of this kind of stuff—I was not seeing them come in the same package,” Eddie Lupinek says. “So when I couldn’t get what I wanted, I decided to make it.”

But before the booth was built, Eddie Lupinek discovered what he called the “missing ingredient.”

At a trade show last year, he came across a Canadian-built infrared catalytic drying unit from a company called Sun-Spot. Though he was highly skeptical as always, he decided to purchase a couple of units and test them in the shop. What he found was that the product, similar to those used to reduce dry times in the U.K., was able to dry primer in a few minutes, waterborne paint in as little as 6 minutes—and it could cure clearcoats in 10 minutes. The new booth would be built around this technology, he decided.  

The Lupineks close their shop for a two-week period every year for a “vacation,” that for the last three years has been spent making improvements to the shop. Their vacation last year was dedicated to building the new paint booth.

“From my perspective, we always want to make things better,” Carol Lupinek says of the couple’s drive to constantly improve. “How can we make things better or more efficient? How can we do things that are more efficient and save money? And we feed off of each other in that we both are not afraid to pick up a shovel.”

For two weeks in late June and early July, the Lupineks and a few other employees worked around the clock replacing their cross-flow booth with a custom-made downdraft booth that would incorporate the Sun-Spot units. The result is a booth that has allowed them to repair an additional three cars per week, bringing monthly sales from around $70,000 to upwards of $90,000. The booth uses a mere five gallons of propane each month running five cycles a day, resulting in a cost of just 30 cents a cycle. That produces a monthly expense that is thousands of dollars less than conventional downdraft booths.

Some of the booth’s most notable features:

• Two adjustable HT-200 Sun-Spot infrared drying units that each have a drying footprint of 4 feet by 8 feet.

• Three portable Sun-Spot infrared units with a drying footprint of 22 inches.

• A clean room above the booth filters room-temperature shop air three times. First, air passes through a 20-foot-wide by 8-foot-high row of household furnace filters positioned at a 30-degree angle to prevent dust accumulation. Then the air moves through two sets of booth filters. Eddie Lupinek says the air toward the ceiling is several degrees warmer than the air at ground level (he figures a degree of temperature is gained for each foot of elevation), so the booth is naturally being fed a steady flow of warm air. Fresh air is still fed to the shop floor through mechanical dampers in a compressor room, so the booth is creating negative pressure, acting as a big filter of shop air. The Lupineks believe it’s a health benefit for employees.

• The booth has no burners. An air makeup unit is unnecessary because the Sun-Spot units, which dry paint from the inside out, do the curing.

“We do spot repair. We’re often not painting an entire car,” Carol Lupinek says. “So to heat the whole booth to 160 [degrees] and exhaust out 160 [degrees] doesn’t make sense to us.”

The Lupineks invested $70,000 in the new booth, including the Sun-Spot units, and expect to recoup the cost in less than two years. They were so enthusiastic about the differences the booth and the Sun-Spot technology made that they hosted an open house last year to share it with other shop owners.

The Lupineks say their techs no longer have to work on several cars at once because down time is all but eliminated. When drying primer, for instance, a car will be done by the time a technician gets his sandpaper.

“It’s increased our turnover time considerably,” says the shop’s painter, Rob Cromeenes. “The jobs are cleaner and the fumes in the booth are sucked out twice as fast as they used to be.”

Aiming to Improve

Eddie Lupinek is always looking forward. Other recent innovations include a bumper rack attached to a garage door lift that hoists bumper covers to the ceiling to clear valuable shop space, and a bright, portable light that utilizes paint booth bulbs to improve technician views of vehicle damage.

Next up for the Lupineks is a shop expansion, planned for their next summer vacation. It will include an expanded customer waiting area, a wash bay, an estimating bay with a lift and a parts room. The goal, the Lupineks say, is not to get bigger, but to work smarter and be better at what they do.

“I love the industry and I love what I do,” Eddie Lupinek says. “If I can do everything I can to build an environment that is safe for the employees and it’s something I can grow old doing, that’d be the goal.”