Examining the Aluminum Repair Learning Curve

June 18, 2019
Longer repair times suggest there remains a learning curve regarding aluminum repairs for body shops.

The aluminum-bodied Ford F-150 debuted in 2015 and, with it, came an industry prediction that, while the cost of becoming aluminum repair–certified was steep, shops would see an increase in the number of  aluminum repairs performed.

Despite the growth in aluminum materials and an initial increased cost of getting aluminum certified for repair facilities, Ford’s switch to an aluminum body in the F-150 pickup hasn’t resulted in higher repair costs. That information is supported by 2019 analysis conducted by the Highway Data Loss Institute (HLDI).

HLDI analysts compared average loss payment per claim, or claim severity, under collision insurance, which covers damage to an at-fault driver's vehicle, for the aluminum-bodied 2015–2016 F-150 and the high-strength steel–bodied 2014 model.

The aluminum-bodied F-150 experienced a reduction of about 7 percent in terms of collision claim severity, says Matt Moore, senior vice president for the HLDI. This means the direct cost of repairs were lower for the aluminum-bodied truck compared to older steel versions.

“At the same time, we’re seeing an increase in collision claim frequency,” he says. “Taken together there is no difference in overall losses when comparing the 2015–2016 model years and the 2014 model year and other large pickups.”

For the 2016 aluminum-bodied F-150, severity rose 4 percent over the 2014 model, while other automakers’ 2016 models had claim severities 12–21 percent above their 2014 model year results.

FenderBender dived into the history behind the aluminum-bodied Ford F-150 and what its aluminum materials mean for the collision repair industry today.

A Deeper Look at Severity

In 2015, the total aluminum consumption for light vehicles in North America that year rose by 28 percent compared to 2012, according to the 2015 North American Light Vehicle Aluminum Content Study, conducted by Ducker Worldwide.

The 2017 North American Light Vehicle Aluminum Content Study predicted the average aluminum pounds per vehicle will increase to 466 by 2020. Meanwhile, the average passenger car figures to contain 362 pounds of aluminum by next year, and the average light truck will contain 523 pounds of aluminum.

IIHS conducted a crash test of the aluminum-bodied car when it first came out. The test revealed that damage to an aluminum-bodied F-150 from a low-speed crash turned out to be more expensive to fix than damage to an older, steel F-150 put through the crash.

But, in the four years since the aluminum-bodied F-150 was introduced, insurance costs have not increased and that’s likely due to Ford holding down the price of aluminum replacement parts and simplifying repairs, according to IIHS. Meanwhile, Ford has raised the prices of steel parts for older models.

The Repair Factor

Matt Burkley, collision center director for the Bob Tomes Auto Group near Dallas, says that while he has seen aluminum-bodied F-150 vehicles remain rather expensive to repair, repairing the vehicles doesn’t take significantly longer than repairing steel models.

Back in 2016, the Tomes Auto Group, based in McKinney, Texas, was the first in its area to become aluminum repair–certified. Today, Burkley says roughly 30 percent of his shop’s business comes from aluminum-bodied trucks.

For such a truck that sustains hail damage, for example, Burkley says the repair—including paints, labor, materials—is $16,000. Conversely, with a truck made of high-strength steel, similar repairs cost around $11,500.

Burkley’s repair facility charges a higher rate to repair and replace panels. Then, regardless of aluminum or steel materials, there’s an additional charge for consumable products like panel bonds and seam sealers. He says their facility receives an aluminum rate on those products, while most nearby competitors aren’t.

Aluminum vehicles typically sustain a greater amount of damage, Burkley says. The Texas shop’s technicians see frequent frame-sectioning that occurs when aluminum-bodied trucks are rear-ended. As a result, what came in looking like a $1,000 bumper job turns into a rear frame-section repair that’s nearly $7,000, he says.

On steel trucks, because they’re more rigid, Burkley says they don’t see as much hidden or secondary damage.

“The aluminum trucks get damaged more,” he says, “but it’s not as easy to see, because the material lets the damage travel.”

Easing Repair Difficulty

In 2015, Ford anticipated a potential for increased repair costs related to aluminum and took several steps to mitigate that issue.

For example, the automaker designed its aluminum trucks using a modular design to help ease repairs. And, Ford allowed shops to purchase aluminum tools at reduced costs.

There’s no guarantee that another manufacturer would achieve the same results when introducing an aluminum-body model, Moore says.

“The longer repair times suggest there’s a learning curve for aluminum repairs that could be a concern for a repair shop operator,” he says.

Loss information on the aluminum-bodied truck is accumulating slowly, which indicates that repairs are taking longer. This could lead to higher costs not directly related to the cost of repairs, like the cost of car rentals. Additionally, owners might be without their vehicles for longer periods of time.

Burkley says he doesn’t notice a longer repair time for his aluminum vehicles, but his body shop is equipped with four aluminum vehicle bays and the dealership is never short on aluminum parts.

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