Friday, 23 January 2015 00:00

Collision Repair Shops Brace for Challenges of Aluminum Bodywork

With Ford’s 2015 F-150 pickups’ high-strength, military grade, aluminum alloy body and bed saving up to 700 lbs. over the previous model while increasing mileage and towing-hauling capacity, body shops are preparing for new challenges that aluminum body repair work will entail.  At the top of the list: the proper handling of messy and potentially explosive airborne dust caused by grinding or sanding.

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The aluminum body revolution is an industry game changer, and its impact will only increase in the years ahead.  General Motors has already signaled that updates of its Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups will feature weight-saving aluminum bodies in the fall of 2018.  

By 2025, “Seven out of 10 new pickup trucks produced in North America will be aluminum-bodied” and “every leading automaker will have several aluminum body and closure panel programs,” according to a 2015 North American Light Vehicle Aluminum Content Study by Ducker Worldwide, a premier consulting and research firm.

To meet the coming demand, body shops will need to adapt to the challenges of working with aluminum with dedicated tools, equipment, and training.  Failing to do so may mean missing out on one of the fastest growing markets in the next decade.

“All aluminum bodies from Ford’s F-series to Chevy and GMC are going to have a major impact on the collision auto body industry in the next few years, and it’s going to grow from there,” says Gary Gardella Jr., co-owner and production manager at County Line Auto Body in Howell, N.J., a high-production, Ford certified, collision repair shop, that repairs about 50-70 vehicles per week, generating about $5 million in annual revenue.  “We’re preparing now because we want to be ready for the opportunity.”

Ford, for its part, is at the forefront of setting the guidelines and requirements for working with aluminum bodied vehicles for both Ford dealership and independent body shops.

Through Ford’s National Body Shop Program and its 2015 F-150 Collision Repair program, the company addresses the full range of aluminum issues: from isolating aluminum vehicles from traditional steel repairs with a separate room or curtain system to dealing with aluminum dust to dedicated aluminum welding, riveting, and dent extraction systems.  Ford’s National Body Shop Program enables dealerships and sponsored independent body shops to become officially certified or recognized by Ford and Lincoln.

Among the 2014 requirements for Ford’s National Body Shop Program, administered by Assured Performance, for instance, is a “dedicated aluminum dust extraction system with wet mix technology.”  

Ford’s 2015 F-150 Collision Repair program, created by Ford to assist dealers and independents, further stipulates a dedicated aluminum wet mix air filtration system, which can be portable or a central installed system.

While collision repair body shops have always performed sanding, grinding, welding, and cutting to produce dust, fumes, spatter, and sparks, this was just a nuisance when the industry revolved around steel vehicles.  But the recent introduction of mass-produced aluminum bodied vehicles like the Ford F-150 has brought this dust into the spotlight.  
The dust has created problems and hazards ranging from cross-contamination of metals to combustible dust fires and even explosions.

“Aluminum dust must be safely captured at its source to prevent quality issues like peeling paint or adhesion problems,” says Gardella, who has several auto body technicians participating in Ford’s F-150 Collision Repair program.

Cross-contamination occurs when aluminum dust in the air settles on steel panels or iron oxide dust settles on aluminum panels, prior to primer or paint.  This contamination will result in poor adhesion and quality problems months and years after painting a panel.  This can pose a real business risk to a collision repair shop that is forced to deal with warranty issues and customer come-backs.

Isolating aluminum repairs with curtains or dividers can help prevent cross contamination, but it does nothing to prevent the risk of fire or explosion.  In shops doing aluminum body work, aluminum dust can settle on overhead pipes, rafters, walls, and shop equipment, creating an environment ripe for disaster.

 Aluminum dust poses a combustion hazard in high concentrations, and is particularly combustible, even explosive when airborne and finely separated.  If a typical vacuum containing dry aluminum dust were to draw in a grinding spark or even experience the spark from static electricity, it could ignite and cause a fire or explosion.

“When dealing with aluminum dust, a high, safe capture rate is important to prevent potential fires or even explosions,” says Gardella.  

The collision repair industry has long been viewed as a dirty business, bringing to mind the image of a technician hunched over a vehicle, with a plume of sanding dust being launched into the air as he finesses a body panel back into shape.  In recent years, however, shop owners have sought to reach out to customers with a cleaner, dust-free environment.

“Younger techs and the public don’t want to breathe a plume of dust, aluminum or otherwise, in auto body shops,” says Gardella.  “They want a cleaner environment, and that requires better equipment.”

To eliminate the concern of aluminum cross-contamination, dust combustibility, and to present a clean, “dealership feel” to their body shops, more owners are looking to vacuum extraction.  They are finding inspiration in other industries that have successfully used the technology.  

Vacuum extraction of aluminum dust, in fact, has been standard in aerospace for decades, as lightweight aluminum has long been used as a primary manufacturing material.  Now similar technology is being used in the automotive industry to control aluminum dust.

A dedicated aluminum wet mix air filtration system, such as that stipulated by the Ford F-150 Collision Repair program, for instance, safely captures aluminum dust within the body shop at its source while using water to ensure potentially explosive aluminum dust particles do not become airborne within the unit.

A wet mix air filtration system, also known as an immersion separator, essentially brings in the aluminum dust-laden air stream through water contained in the vacuum.  

One such system, for instance, by Clayton Associates, a Lakewood, N.J.-based leader in source capture tools and vacuum sanding equipment, directs the air stream and aluminum dust through a series of air filtration baffles that bursts the air bubbles and thoroughly wets the dust before the air exits the vacuum.  

The company also manufactures vacuums for aluminum dust ranging from air-powered portable dry units, up to single and multi-user immersion separators that use water to “wet” the dust out of the air stream.  While Ford’s specific requirements call for an immersion separator, dry collection vacuum systems have been used in aerospace to capture aluminum dust at its source for over a decade.

“The transfer of safe, high efficiency, aluminum dust capture technology like Clayton’s from aerospace to auto body collision repair is going to make our industry safer, cleaner, and more efficient,” says Gardella, who is testing several of the vacuum and air-powered units around his shop.

In wet mix technology, one challenge is that a wet aluminum sludge remains at the bottom of the vacuum.  This needs to be emptied on a daily basis as part of proper maintenance to ensure safe operation.  While some units require the user to drain the fluid, then extract the remaining sludge with a squeegee, this method fails to fully remove the sludge caked on the sides of the unit.  This allows a potentially dangerous build up of aluminum to accumulate.

Other units like Clayton’s immersion separator involve a gravity feed drain with a funnel-shaped bottom and water spray-down system inside.  This enables a safer, full-system, flush out of aluminum sludge and facilitates daily maintenance.

The aluminum sludge, in turn, must be properly filtered to satisfy regulation before the discharge can be emptied into the public sewer system.  Aluminum dust vacuum units like Clayton’s immersion separator are designed to filter out such aluminum residue as it exits the unit, so it can be safely discharged into public sewers.

As collision repair shops prepare for the lucrative new business that aluminum bodywork such as Ford’s F-150 will bring, outfitting their shops with the necessary equipment will position them for a profitable ride.

For more info, call 732-363-2100; 800-248-8650 toll free; Fax 732-364-6084; email sales@JClayton.com; visit www.jclayton.com; or write to Clayton Associates, Inc., 1650 Oak St., Lakewood, NJ  08701, USA

Del Williams is a technical writer based in Torrance, California.

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