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Friday, 13 December 2013 01:02

Group 1 Body Shops Gear Up for Aluminum

In the battle for dealership profitability, Group 1 Automotive is betting on a metal, and it's not gold. Group 1, the nation's fifth-largest dealership group, wants all of its 28 body shops to be certified to do aluminum repairs by Jan. 6, according to an article in Automotive News.

Carmakers are using more aluminum to lower vehicle weight and raise fuel economy. Because aluminum's metallurgical characteristics differ from steel's, dealership collision departments will need to invest in more training for technicians and in new welding, riveting and metal bending equipment.

Until now, aluminum body panels have been used mainly on expensive low-volume luxury cars such as the Audi A8 and Jaguar XJ. But according to a number of industry reports, the redesigned Ford F-150 pickup, due next summer in showrooms, will have more aluminum body panels and other parts. Ford declines to confirm these reports.

As carmakers use more aluminum, dealership collision shops need to be ready.

 

"You know the first day an aluminum vehicle is available, it will get in a collision somewhere. If [dealers] are not equipped, they won't be able to repair the vehicle," says Jason Bartanen, director of industry technical relations for I-CAR.

Competitive advantage

Aluminum collision capability is part of the I-CAR gold standard certification level that Group 1 wants its body shops to attain by Jan. 6.

Mike Jones, vice president of collision operations at Group 1, believes the dealership body shops that get certified to make aluminum repairs will have a leg up on competitors.

"I don't ever want to be the shop that says, 'I can't work on your car because it's got aluminum,'" he says. "Aluminum is not harder to repair. It's different to repair."

For instance, some dent removal procedures used for steel don't work with aluminum. "The steel panel has a memory and remembers the shape it has," Jones says. "Aluminum is not like that. When it's bent at the factory it becomes work hardened, which makes it difficult to work with.

"In some cases we can warm the metal and work some dents out. Any time the aluminum gets hardened through bending, you run a risk of it cracking. So if the bend is bad, we'll always replace it following manufacturer recommendations."

Also, aluminum parts often are joined with rivets instead of welds.

Aluminum requires special tools for removing and installing rivets, Jones says. "If you don't have a tool, you just about can't do it properly."
Expensive equipment

Lloyd Schiller, a collision repair consultant in Jupiter, Fla., says aluminum repair equipment can be pricey. Doing repairs frequently requires buying expensive tools specifically mandated by manufacturers, he says.

"Welding equipment is $15,000 to $20,000 for a really good piece of equipment. It doesn't make sense to go cheap. You don't want to skimp on equipment from a quality or safety standpoint," Schiller says.

Working with aluminum also can require changing a shop floor setup. If microscopic aluminum filings get mixed in with steel, bad things happen to repaired parts.

Says Group 1's Jones: "You have to segregate the work area. We pick one or two stalls and curtain the area off. That keeps the aluminum filings out of the shop that works on steel. The tools are all segregated. We don't even want the filings to mix together. One shop even has a separate vacuum system so the aluminum and steel particles don't mix.

"If you cross-contaminate the filings, you get the potential of bimetal corrosion when you have aluminum sitting on top of steel. The corrosion doesn't happen immediately. It could take three to four years, but we guarantee work for life. I don't want to be re-repairing a car five years from now that we didn't do right in the first place."

Ford declines to confirm reports that its next F-150 will have aluminum body panels.

Fighting the independents

If the forecasts are correct and Ford goes with an aluminum-bodied F-150, dealerships that invest in the aluminum-handling equipment also will have a jump on independent body shops, Schiller says.

"Boy, will their body shops be exclusive for a while! There'll be a two-year window before Service King, Caliber and Sterling get after that business as well," he says, referring to three of the largest independent collision repair groups.

Mitchell Dale, owner of McRee Ford in Dickinson, Texas, says Ford has not said anything about the aluminum content of the next-generation F-150. But he wants to be prepared because more than half of his sales are pickups.

"There's a strong rumor that's what we're going to need to do," he says. "If you're actively in the body shop business, it will be something you want to do."

Working with aluminum is part of Houston-based Group 1's strategy to offer more comprehensive collision service than competitors.

"Ultimately we'll see insurers move to bigger, more well-equipped shops for more production," Group 1's Jones says.

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