How Collision Repairers Can Address Current Challenges While Preparing for the Future

New technology and evolving repair procedures will keep the industry on its toes.

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As the rise of emerging technologies collide with the collision repair industry's talent shortage, two experts from I-CAR -- Bud Center, director of technical products and curriculum, and Scott Kaboos, principal OEM technical lead and subject matter expert -- visited The Collision Vision podcast, driven by Autobody News and hosted by Cole Strandberg, to discuss where the industry is today, the requirements and ROI for shops looking to invest for the future and what that future looks like.

The Evolving Landscape of Auto Body Repair Technology

Center said the increasing relevance of Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS), electric vehicles (EVs) and the use of mixed materials in vehicle construction are top of mind for collision repairers.

"We've got EVs and all the electrical side that one of your traditional collision repair techs would run from and say, 'Send it over to the mechanic,' or 'Send it to the dealer,' when it's electrical," Center said. "But now with all these EVs, we don't have any choice. We have to develop that skill set on the collision side and really start jumping into it."

EVs also use mixed materials to reduce weight, which comes with unique joining methods that also require new training, Center said.

"There's more and more new technology coming out," Center said. "So yeah, the challenges, they're not going away. They're going to continue to grow."

Groundbreaking Tools and Materials

Kaboos talked about the innovative tools and materials that have recently entered the market.

"First thing came to my mind was glue pulling," Kaboos said. "We're seeing some phenomenal glue pulling equipment that's actually being used for structural repairs, things that we hadn't even had in our arsenal years ago."

Kaboos said ADAS calibration equipment is also making strides, as more and more OEMs endorse or allow the use of some aftermarket equipment. He said there are now more fixture jig attachments and specialized jigs for pulling, straightening and structural attachments..

"We're just seeing all kinds of new, exciting equipment, just based on how the vehicles are built and how they're designed and the new technology that's going into them," Kaboos said.

The Impact of Innovation on Shops and Technicians

Center said I-CAR is exploring 3D printing at its Chicago Technical Center, as some parts manufacturers are considering enabling the ability for shops to print some of their own parts, like brackets and clips.

"We're starting to look at what does it take to get into that space? Is it really a viable option in the collision repair space or not? What type of materials do you need to use for that type of printing?" Center said. "What are the things you need to be aware of? You know, the pitfalls, so that you don't start printing parts that fail."

Kaboos said I-CAR purchased a laser welder for its Appleton Technical Center in Wisconsin to see if that technology -- which automakers already use to build cars -- could also be viable for collision repairers.

"This isn't something you're going to need to go buy next week or probably even next year, but it's definitely something that I-CAR has got their eye on," Kaboos said.

The ROI of New Technology

Kaboos said shops need to consider if they will do ADAS calibrations or EV repairs in-house, and if so, which manufacturers they're equipped and trained to handle. Many shops don't have the space and conditions to perform static ADAS calibrations in-house, Kaboos said, and a lot of dealerships don't either, which has led to a rise in independent calibration centers.

Strandberg asked how business owners should look at a cost-benefit analysis when considering investing in new repair technologies.

"It's a huge decision," Kaboos said. "I mean, to me, the days of body shops being all things to all vehicles and all people are dwindling quickly."

Kaboos said shops should first consider their car count, and what type of cars they're working on -- is there a higher volume of any particular OEM's vehicles?

Then shops should consider how much space they have available to possibly do ADAS calibrations in-house.

"[Doing calibrations in-house] is not a requirement. It's not a mandate," Kaboos said. "It's an opportunity where you need to make a smart business decision. You need to weigh the cost. Do I do I have the facility? Do I have the manpower? Do I need to hire somebody to do this? And if so, how many of those vehicles have I touched in the last six months or year? And what do I expect that to look like going forward in the next year or two or three?"

Kaboos said it could be a good idea for a shop to invest in being able to calibrate the top two or three OEMs' vehicles it works on, and, if it makes sense down the road, consider investing in the tools and training to expand to other OEMs.

"I think a good idea is to specialize," Kaboos said. "I think we're going to see more of that anyway, where not everybody's going to fix every car that comes in the door. And I think that's a good thing. So building a good network of referral business around you that, hey, I don't want to work on these vehicles. I'll send them to you. But I really specialize in these two or three. If you could send them to me, we could have a great win-win relationship."

New Skills Needed

Center said technicians need to learn how to work on EVs safely. Batteries in a collision-damaged EV need to be checked periodically throughout the repair process, as they can suffer a "concussion."

"In sports, you bang your head, you get a concussion; the battery reacts the same way," Center said. "So something that is fine today may not be OK tomorrow. You need to continue to monitor the battery health and the temperature and look for off gassing and all those things that could potentially happen."

Kaboos said technicians also need to be aware of how many seemingly simple repair procedures can require recalibrations. If those aren't complete, ADAS features may not work properly, which could cause a crash.

He said he also sees a skills gap in welding and other joining techniques, which can also lead to safety issues in a repaired car.

"We're seeing that in MIG welding, MIG brazing, squeeze type resistance, spot welding, all of those disciplines," Kaboos said. "And it's compounded by the fact that the vehicle manufacturers are building the car with high strength steel, ultra high strength steel and then mixed materials. Now we're seeing multiple attachment methods being used on just one simple part."

Kaboos said technicians need to understand why they need to look up OEM repair procedures every time.

"People have been doing it this way for years, and they just did it the way they did the last car, and we end up taking the car off the road because it was no longer safe," Kaboos said. "That's that's a big problem. I see that almost everywhere I go."

I-CAR's Role in Bridging Knowledge and Skills Gaps

Center said I-CAR offers a lot of training -- both online and in-person -- for ADAS calibrations, EV repair and mixed joining methods.

He also touched on I-CAR's Repairability Technical Support portal, which has an app that allows users to search by make and model for any repair information I-CAR has available, and the Collision Careers program, which I-CAR established to promote collision repair as a career option and attract new technicians.

Looking Into the Future

Strandberg asked Center and Kaboos what future technologies they foresee becoming an integral part of the collision repair business.

Kaboos said repairers are already seeing new OEM procedures, including ones to refinish bumper cover areas where ADAS sensors and cameras are located.

He said rivet bonding, including self piercing rivets and low form rivets, will become more common.

"We're seeing more manufacturers going to the gigacasting or mega casting method of assembly," Kaboos said. "It's a lot more cost effective for them to build a vehicle that way. So I think that's going to be our future 10 years down the road, where we're going to see a lot more of that."

Kaboos said that will also possibly lead to more total losses, as the castings cannot be repaired. If they can, it will be a much more intrusive repair.

Strandberg asked what advice Center and Kaboos would give a collision repair shop owner.

Center said his first suggestion would be to implement a learning culture, if a shop doesn't already have one, and to take advantage of resources like I-CAR's Repairability Technical Support portal

He also suggested engaging with local vocational programs and career fairs to meet young people interested in a career in the industry, and to get involved with trade associations like the Collision Industry Conference.

Kaboos said the evolving repair methods are "the cool thing about this industry."

"I was fixing my first car back in the '80s, and I look back at how I fix that car and it's almost embarrassing," Kaboos said. "We would never think of doing that anymore. But it was the norm back then and it was acceptable.

"If you stop learning, you're going backwards, because the cars are moving forward. The technology is moving forward, the manufacturers are moving forward," he added. "If you don't keep moving forward and keep learning and keep growing, you'll end up backwards. And as a business owner, as a technician, I never wanted to be that guy that was behind the ball. I always wanted to be looking where it was going and get there. It's going to be a challenge because it is growing faster than ever now and it is very hard to keep up. I get it, it's it's challenge, but if you're not actively engaged in actively participating, you're going to fall behind.

"There's just no way tribal knowledge is going to keep up. It just doesn't work anymore."

Key Takeaways

Both guests summed up their three main takeaways from the conversation.

Center:

1. Create and foster a learning culture.
2. Stay on top of your market. And by that we're talking about understanding what is happening both inside and outside of your business to be prepared for the future.
3. Take advantage of the numerous resources out there to help you offered by the industry.

Kaboos:

1. Always be learning.
2. Don't be afraid to specialize. We're not going to be all things to all people for too long.
3. Do what you're best at and let someone else handle the rest.

Abby Andrews

Editor
Abby Andrews is the editor and regular columnist of Autobody News.

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