Body repairs: Adapting to change

One current trend is to repair plastic body parts instead of replacing them.

One current trend is to repair plastic body parts instead of replacing them.

Understanding new materials and new techniques are part and parcel of delivering superior body repairs in the modern collision industry environment. 

Although that vehicle sitting in your shop might feature four wheels and an internal combustion engine, any similarity to your father’s Oldsmobile really ends there. The same applies to collision repairs. The fundamentals might appear the same but modern vehicle construction techniques and the expectations of today’s insurance providers and customers, mean that right now the repair process is evolving significantly.

An obvious change is the growing use of lightweight materials. Aluminum is hardly new in vehicle construction, but the debut of Ford’s 2015 model year F-150 pickup, which features an all-aluminum body, means the sheer volume of aluminum repairs will increase as more of these trucks hit the streets (and each other).

On the body repair side, it means shops need to be ready to handle that demand.

Beyond requiring extreme cleanliness and segregated tools and welders, aluminum is quite different to work with. While steel has ‘memory’ aluminum does not, so precise jigs are required. Panels and beams require bonding and riveting as well as specialized welding. Plus, the latest vehicle body/chassis structures require exact precision in terms of alignment.

The introduction of new materials is changing the way shops handle body repairs.

The introduction of new materials is changing the way shops handle body repairs.

Evolving Steel

Paulo Santos, longtime I-CAR instructor and Auto Body Professor and Program Coordinator, Automotive and Motorcycle Programs at Centennial College in Scarborough, Ontario, points out that while aluminum requires different techniques for body repairs, so do high-strength, low-alloy (HSLA) steels used in the construction of many late-model cars and trucks.

The ‘high strength’ aspect of these steels results from incorporating small alloy additions and thermo-mechanical treatment. According to UK-based research and technology firm TWI, HSLA steels can be used to save weight by reducing sheet thickness without compromising component strength They can be welded but require slightly higher electrode forces than compared with welding mild steel. Even higher strength steels are being considered, requiring further adaptation of welding techniques.

Santos notes that different tools, such as high-strength drill bits, are required for working with materials such as boron steel, as are different working techniques. For example, drilling boron steel requires slower speeds than drilling mild steel. “It’s the same, but not the same,” says Santos.

He also points out that different techniques are required for repairing sandwiched steel panels, used by some OEMs for floorpans and firewalls. Because these panels use outer skins of laminated steel and a balsa core to achieve greater stiffness and strength with less weight, they cannot be welded and instead require, special riveting repair techniques.

Different Functions

Also a comparatively new development is in the use of adhesives for structural integrity, corrosion protection, noise, vibration and harshness (NVH)) control and as sealers. Not only are adhesives being used differently and for different functions, they are also being substituted for welding some vehicle sections and not just for aluminum body parts. Another change is the increasing trend of repairing rather than replacing plastic vehicle body parts. At Centennial College, students are given instruction on bonding and welding materials such as thermoplastic olefin.

Additionally, heat welding and laser welding are relatively new collision industry skills that are also required in performing effective body repairs today.

As the number and types of composites used in vehicle body construction continues to increase, learning centres, like Centennial College, strive to ensure students are provided with the tools and training to repair dinged, dented and damaged vehicles.

In some cases (think headlight assemblies) it can be more cost effective to repair rather than replace, depending on the extent of the damage. Stainless steel screens can be used to reinforce the assembly and repair it, since complete replacements can cost upwards of $1,000.

Electric and Hybrid Repairs

As the number of hybrid and battery electric vehicles in use continues to grow, new issues regarding vehicle body repair emerge. The challenge is to ensure technicians are trained to handle working on such vehicles. These include using insulated gloves and test equipment, applying specific processes during disassembly and repair to avoid potential injuries and/or damage from issues such as high voltage electric shocks and even fires.

The increase in the number of pre-painted or pre-wrapped panels is also changing the way in which technicians and painters conduct body repairs. This requires that shops and their staff need to stay current when it comes to tools and techniques.

Schools are working hard to ensure their programs provide students with the necessary tools and expertise, while both OEMs and organizations like I-CAR continue to provide ongoing education and training. Ultimately it comes down to collision repair shops and individual technicians having a firm grasp of what is needed to ensure efficient and high quality dismantling, repair and preparation work – all performed amid a fast changing and ever more competitive collision industry landscape.

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