By Greg Neuman, Senior Manager, CEI Quality Control
With its introduction of the (nearly) all-aluminum 2015 F-150 pickup truck – one of the most popular fleet vehicles in America – Ford Motor Company may well be pointing to the preferred automotive material of the future. Why? Because aluminum is lighter than steel and auto makers are scrambling to shed vehicle weight to reach the daunting federal fuel efficiency standard of 54.5 MPG by 2025, which is less than 10 years away.
Meeting that challenge with aluminum, though, creates another challenge: it’s estimated that as few as 10% of America’s approximately 34,000 collision repair shops are qualified to do aluminum repairs. What’s more, the cost to add that capability is large — $50,000 to $100,000 according to some industry observers – and not every shop is going to choose or be able to make that kind of investment.
As a fleet manager, more aluminum parts are in your future – if not already in your present – so, knowing which shops are and aren’t qualified is critical. In the first place, we’re talking about post-repair vehicle safety, but it goes further than that. If your repairs a done at a shop that is capable of aluminum repairs but isn’t certified by the maker, you risk voiding your warranty.
In fact, at CEI, we’ve seen that happen. An executive for one of our fleet clients had an Audi with aluminum parts and took his damaged vehicle to an out-of-network shop for an estimate. When CEI discovered the shop wasn’t certified by Audi, rather than risk voiding the customer’s warranty, we sent the car to an Audi-approved shop. Its estimate was more than twice the first shop’s, but the warranty remained in effect.
Vehicle maker certification aside, here’s what a body shop needs to be qualified to do aluminum repairs correctly:
1. A designated aluminum clean room. A quarantined portion of the shop exclusively dedicated to aluminum repairs. The reason: aluminum corrodes when in contact with steel, and even small particles of steel left on tools or in the air can result in long-term damage to aluminum that can make the vehicle unsafe. Some auto makers allow clean rooms to be curtained off instead of separated by permanent walls.
2. An explosion-proof vacuum. At the right concentration, aluminum dust can explode if it comes into contact with a spark of electricity. What’s needed is a special spark-less vacuum that pulls aluminum dust out of workshop air and puts it into a water bath to prevent explosions.
3. Aluminum-only tools. Duplicate sets of tools and tool boxes used exclusively for work on aluminum, to guarantee that no steel flakes or dust come into contact with aluminum parts.
4. A dedicated frame bench for measuring and jigging structural aluminum components. (For F-150 repairs, however, Ford, offers aluminum-only adapters that can be fitted to most existing shop frame benches).
5. MIG welders, which use “Metal Inert Gas,” usually argon, specially required for welding aluminum.
6. High-tech rivet guns, the kind used in the aircraft industry.
7. Aluminum-specific bonding glues and guns, again like the kind used in the aircraft industry. The two-part glues required vary by vehicle maker, and large repairs require a pneumatically driven gun.
8. Training. The final element. Aluminum repairs are different from repairs on steel, and technicians must be thoroughly trained in the aluminum-specific repair techniques and the appropriate welding temperature ranges.
If you’re on your own when it comes to selecting a body shop, you can use the points above as a checklist – or you can rely on a manufacturer’s network of certified shops. Better yet, work with an accident management provider who makes it their business to know where it’s safe to send your aluminum-parts vehicle to be repaired.