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May 18, 2015

by Bryce Evans

CARSTAR’s Aluminum Push

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“Remember when unibody came out?” Dean Fisher asks rhetorically. “Or how about downdraft paint booths or frame machines?”

All of these were industry-changing innovations that, at the time of their respective releases, threw collision repairers into scramble mode.

“These were things that were really a big deal,” recalls Fisher, who before becoming the vice president of operations for CARSTAR Auto Body Repair Expects, owned his own shop for more than 20 years. “Everyone wondered if they were trends or fads, or if it was worth the investment. I think we all know how each of those turned out.”

Well, Fisher says, structural aluminum repair is the next unibody; the tools, equipment and investment needed to perform those repairs are the next downdraft paint booth.

Aluminum has long been a fixture in vehicle design, but because of its expense, it remained a luxury vehicle concept for years. CAFE standards for fuel economy and technological advances in aluminum manufacturing have changed that. Aluminum components started creeping into vehicles—hoods, liftgates, etc.

Then came the Ford announcement in 2012 that it would begin manufacturing an aluminum-bodied F-150 for 2015, taking aluminum from the novelty, specialty and exotic segment to Main Street America.

More aluminum-bodied vehicles are in the works from additional automakers, and Fisher says that 30–40 percent of vehicles will require an aluminum repair process within the next several years.

And CARSTAR is quickly adapting to make sure it is on the cutting edge of this new manufacturing shift.

Fisher helped launch and design CARSTAR’s aluminum certification protocol last year—the first of its kind for a large-scale MSO network—and the company expects to have 70–80 of its 250 or so U.S. locations aluminum-ready in the coming two years; of the company’s roughly 400 facilities in North America, nearly half are working toward achieving aluminum qualifications.

“The vehicles this year, there’s a lot of aluminum frame and ancillary aspects that require the aluminum [repair] process,” Fisher says. “This stuff has been here for a while, but unless you were a BMW or Jaguar Land Rover shop or along those lines, you weren’t paying attention.

“Well, now it’s time to pay attention.”

Fisher broke down the CARSTAR program for FenderBender.

Immediate Concerns

Well, let’s start with some good news: Between the sophistication of modern repair procedures and the expense of equipment, training and certifications, the push for aluminum repair clearly favors MSOs, Fisher says.

The cost of the average repair facility (based on numbers for the CARSTAR shops he oversees) to jump into an aluminum certification program ranges from $150,000–$200,000. To become aluminum “recognized” for programs such as Ford’s, the cost is a little more forgiving, but still tops $50,000.

MSOs have more ability to level out the costs across stores, Fisher says.

Still, even for the richest of businesses, that’s still the concern: cost.

The other two biggest issues Fisher sees are ensuring that shops have the correct equipment and training, and that they have the proper protocols in place to handle the repairs.

These concerns spawned the CARSTAR aluminum process.

The CARSTAR Program

For all shops in the CARSTAR network, they are put through a shop-training program called the Edge Performance Platform, a five-tiered system that includes coaching on overall operational improvements and team training in areas such as lean manufacturing; fast-tracked, express work; and company culture.

This program used to be just four tiers. In mid-2014, CARSTAR added aluminum repair as the fifth.

“You don’t really come and say you want to be a ‘tier-five shop,’” Fisher explains. “That’s not really the way it works. It’s about continuous improvement and looking at areas a business needs to improve on. Aluminum readiness is now a part of that.”

In its most basic sense, the aluminum program works in four steps:

1. Determine a Protocol. CARSTAR works with the shops individually in determining what the protocol for each shop should be if an aluminum-bodied vehicle comes in with structural damage. This is determined by two questions: 1) If you are not capable of performing the repairs, where will you send the vehicle? 2) Will you be the one who becomes aluminum equipped to handle those repairs—and at what level?

2. Choose Options. If a facility chooses to become equipped, trained and approved for structural aluminum repair, CARSTAR guides the shop through which aluminum program(s) to choose. Mostly, this is done through market research as to the types of vehicles in the area and the ones the shop currently works on and markets to. Overall, though, shops have to decide between two main types of programs: certified or recognized.

The simplest way to look at the difference, Fisher says is that a “recognized” shop can perform work in a segmented part of the shop—one that can be curtained off when doing aluminum work, but still used for traditional jobs the rest of the time. Certification programs require an aluminum-specific room.

There are also differences in equipment and tool requirements. Certification programs tend to be more strict about specific brands and companies; recognized programs often give options.

The majority of automakers—particularly high-end ones like Mercedes-Benz, Audi and BMW—require certifications. Ford has a recognition program.

3. Become Aluminum-Ready. CARSTAR does not certify any shops themselves. Once the proper avenues for the shop have been selected, CARSTAR’s team helps walk the shops through the process, either through the automaker themselves or through an organization like Assured Performance Network, which handles a large number of programs (including Fords).

4. Determine Market Saturation. One element CARSTAR is constantly looking at is the amount of shops in each market it needs to handle aluminum repair. Not all shops need to be equipped, Fisher says, just the right amount to handle the jobs for that market. In a market like Chicago, where CARSTAR has roughly 20 shops, he says, they might look to have five certified facilities and three more that are recognized. The rest would load level. It comes down to the amount of shops versus the amount of potential aluminum work in the area.
Realizing the ROI

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, Fisher says, that as the collision repair industry has fought to innovate, dissect and rebuild the traditional repair process in an effort to reduce cycle time, touch time has remained
stubbornly stagnant.

In his position, he’s seen it across the country—within his own company and within others.

“We’re seeing people drive down driveables to 5.5 [days] or something, and you’re not seeing any huge movements in touch time,” he says. “The whole world is like 2.2–2.4 [hours per day] as an industry; if you’re really good, maybe you get between 3.4 and 5, but most shops are in that range of the low threes, high twos.

“That complexity requires more time of study and planning. You might not be touching the vehicle, but for a vehicle there could be an hour or an hour-and-a-half that you’re still working on it. No one recognizes that right now. That’s labor time.”

This is your biggest issue with reimbursement, he says, and with shops realizing their return on investment when entering the aluminum space.

Fisher and CARSTAR’s insurance relations team have been in constant contact with insurance carriers, working to develop methods of reimbursement.

“The biggest issue is that setup and prep and researching time,” he says. “That’s labor time we’ll need to get.

“There are solutions, specialization being one, that can help shops speed up these issues. You can’t fake it anymore, all shops will have to be able to do it 100 percent correctly. This isn’t something that’s going away. Shops will need to learn to do this and need to learn to get the return on it to make it viable.”

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