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Special Report: Automotive

Adjusting to aluminum

By Nick Wright

Auto mechanics arm themselves with the tools needed to repair advanced aluminum bodies

May 2015 - Back in January, the automotive news site Edmunds.com published a widely cited report about the results of a cringe-worthy experiment. The editors bought a 2015 Ford F-150, the one with an aluminum body, and took a sledgehammer to its rear quarter panel. Maintaining anonymity, they took the pickup to Santa Monica Ford, a dealer, to find out how much repairs would cost. After seven to 10 business days of work, it cost $2,938.44 with tax.

In the story, the dealership mechanic tells Edmunds the labor rate for working on aluminum is $120 per hour and $60 for steel. The editors found another shop that charges $105 and $50 an hour for aluminum and steel, respectively. Such numbers, as well as other details in the full article, are a necessary insight for F-150 buyers. But what about the mechanics’ perspective? What accounts for such a drastic difference in labor charges?

We decided to look closer at the auto collision repair industry—about what it takes to mend the growing number of aluminum-intensive passenger vehicles. The usage of this material in cars has a long history. The first sports car featuring an aluminum body debuted at the Berlin international motor show in 1899, according to the Aluminum Association. More recently, the Honda NSX (now Acura) in 1992 was that automaker’s first full aluminum-bodied car. Audi, Jaguar, Land Rover and others have included aluminum for years.

But now, vehicles like the F-150 and Tesla’s Model S have aluminum bodies, which present challenges for unprepared auto body repair shops as greater volumes take to the road. Inevitably, they’ll sustain damage. And although advanced- and ultra-high strength steels share similarities to steel grades of decades past, shops are learning that working with thinner, stronger steels has its own set of challenges. Aluminum and high strength steel can’t be heated up, bent or banged out the way steel sheet bodies could be for decades.

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Ante up for aluminum

Barry Dorn, owner of Dorn’s Body & Paint in Mechanicsville, Virginia, says steel still comprises the majority of body repair work at his shop. Aluminum accounts for about 15 percent but the proportion is growing.

“Every aluminum repair job requires more procedures and steps than a conventional steel vehicle does,” says Dorn. “One thing people mistake here is that aluminum is harder to work with.”

Nonetheless, the shop invested in training—one OEM’s training program cost $6,000—and specialized tools to accommodate aluminum repairs. Different carmakers, whether it’s Ford, Jaguar, Land Rover or others, require different setups. For a shop to be certified to work on Company A’s aluminum cars, it might need different welders, riveting guns or curtained-off work areas even if some of those tools achieve the exact same result.

“I’ve got aluminum welders here from different brands that do exactly the same things. But the automakers require certain brands for their repair protocols,” Dorn says. “You might have four different rivet tools that are each for a particular auto manufacturer. Some of those rivet tools are $15,000 or more for just one.”

Dorn declined to disclose each brand of tool mandated by each automaker. However, it’s no secret that Tesla requires all its certified auto repair shops to use Fronius welders because that’s the brand Tesla uses in assembly. Dorn’s Body & Paint is Tesla-certified.

According to Fronius USA, Portage, Indiana, Tesla recommends two packages for repair shops. One is the TransPuls 2700 CMT and the TransPuls 2700 push collision package, which is based on a similar specification by Jaguar Land Rover. Tesla uses the TransPuls 4000 CMT and DeltaSpot resistance spot welder in the assembly operation.

Tesla has worked with the Jaguar collision program, so the company tends to align with shops that are certified for Jaguar because of its experience welding aluminum.

Fronius’ process stability during short circuit and arc phase is ideal for welding aluminum, making it the option of choice for Tesla and Jaguar. They also appreciate Fronius equipment’s low spatter generation due to a low current at the transition of the short circuit to the arc phase. Tesla is said to find features like lower heat input compared with standard short arc GMAW and a seam appearance like TIG, but the welding speed of MIG can also deliver specifications on the manufacturing level. Tesla did not respond to requests to comment on this story.

Back at the repair shop, most of the work involves riveting and adhesive bonding of aluminum, says Dorn. “Aluminum is not as forgiving [as steel] as far as welding goes. It’s one and done. You get it right or you have to cut it out.”

Segregating repair areas for steel and aluminum work prevents contamination of even the smallest particle of metal, which could result in problems like galvanic corrosion. 

Screen shot 2015-05-07 at 1.56.52 PM“Keeping facilities clean and maintained is important whether it’s steel, aluminum or combination of both,” says Jason Bartanen, director of industry technical relations at the Inter-Industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair (I-CAR). I-CAR is the industry standard for collision repair education, knowledge and solutions. “Dozens of new, refreshed and redesigned vehicles are being introduced each year, so collision repair shops need to have up-to-date training and the right equipment.”

But the cost of setting up those areas on top of the tools can seem like a gamble, as some shops invest tens of thousands of dollars, sometimes more, to earn certified repair designations from OEMs. In March 2014, FenderBender magazine published a profile on Criswell Collision Center in Maryland. The story indicated that the shop had invested $300,000 into its Audi certification, as well as thousands more for tools and to send mechanics to Tesla’s Palo Alto, California, training center.

Taking all that into account, the instances of repair shops charging a premium for aluminum work aren’t necessarily the result of replacing aluminum to the damaged vehicle. It’s to recoup the investments auto body shops have made to earn and maintain their certifications to work on what can be a finicky process. Facing proprietary alloys and thicknesses, not to mention aluminum’s inability to be formed and manipulated the same way as steel, the motives among automakers to prescribe such detailed requirements hold water, depending on who you ask.

Does steel stack up?

The advent of advanced high-strength steels (AHSS) poses some challenges, not unlike automotive-grade aluminum. According to I-CAR, there are an estimated 35,000 collision repair shops, of which 33 percent are I-CAR Welding Certified to perform basic steel welds, 11 percent for advanced structural steel welding and 9 percent for aluminum welding. 

But new repair methods have evolved for the new steels, says David Anderson, senior director, automotive technical panel and long products program at the Steel Market Development Institute in Southfield, Michigan. 

“With new AHSS we have seen that you can no longer use heat to straighten [parts], like you would in the past. Maybe on rail systems you could try to add some heat and straighten it as best you can,” but the addition of heat adversely affects the material’s properties, “so you have to do cuts at factory-approved locations and join them and then put them back into service.”

Still, the legacy of mechanics is such that they have more experience working with and joining steel. “It doesn’t take as specialized joining equipment as aluminum,” Anderson adds.

Insurance claims

One of the big elephants in the room regarding aluminum is where auto insurers come in. Because the widespread use of aluminum and other materials is evolving, carriers are playing catch-up regarding what can and cannot be done when making repairs.

“A lot of what we see is an education problem,” says the owner of an East Coast repair shop who requested anonymity. When the new F-150 came out, Ford claimed aluminum is just as easy to repair as steel—meaning insurance claim costs wouldn’t rise—in order to avoid dampening sales. “The carriers are not educated on it. With the bit of info they have, it’s a race to the floor to see how cheap we can make it [repairs]. So at the end of the day, we are about that, too.”

Materials and vehicles will keep evolving, and everyone in the aftermarket will adapt, including claims adjusters. “Insurance personnel, as well as shop estimators, need to understand what can be done on these vehicles, need to understand proper equipment, tools, and material limitations,” says Bartanen at I-CAR.

“Ultimately, it’s about complete, safe, quality repairs and that’s what matters when putting these vehicles back on the road.”

As for Edmunds.com’s sledgehammer experiment, editors concluded it does take more time and money to repair aluminum, which may not surprise many. But your auto body shop’s investments in training will ensure that every car is repaired the right way—no matter the material. FFJ

Sources

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