What collision repairers need to know about today’s vehicle frames and the new machines that meet OEMs’ exacting specifications.
The more advanced our vehicles become, the more exact each system within them needs to be, especially with developments made in the past 15 years. It’s not just because cars have more computers, sensors and safety systems than in previous years (although that is part of it). In order to make vehicles that are stronger, more advanced, safer and smarter, the materials with which every part of our vehicles, even the skeleton, is made has changed. In turn, the tools needed to repair them have to be more exact, stronger and able to meet the more exact specifications that original equipment manufacturers require.
More complications arise in the repair of newer vehicles, especially following an accident that damages the frame. When old tools are made to suit the specifications required of older vehicles, repair shops aren’t equipped to handle modern vehicles. That’s why companies such as Celette and Car-O-Liner are working to develop technologies that allow repair centers to fix modern vehicles so that even after an accident, they’re as safe and reliable as the OEMs have designed and built them to be.
According to Dave Scribner, technical director of Product Management at Car-O-Liner, “With the rapid rise of OEMs moving to build lighter-yet-stronger vehicles, advanced materials, such as ultra-high-strength steel, aluminum alloys and carbon fiber are now used in the same manner that aircraft manufacturers have used for many years. High-technology manufacturing components and precise robotic assembly techniques demand advanced repair methodologies to quickly keep up and maintain OEM quality.
Why you need more accurate tools
Newer vehicles are built to more exact measurements to meet the requirements of today’s OEM specifications for safety and quality, but this hasn’t always been the case.
Scribner says, “Older vehicles use primarily under-body measurements, and measurements were acceptable within one-eighth inch (more than 3 millimeter) increments. Midpoint and upper body tolerances could be high, as many attachment points for fenders, doors, etc. used shim packs for alignment. Panel clearances were also higher and usually checked with simple items like a pencil eraser tip.”
Today, repair technicians could never get away with using a pencil eraser tip to measure an auto body repair. Similarly, the tools required to repair vehicles with these relatively loose specifications didn’t, and still don’t, allow for the more-exact measuring that today’s vehicles demand.
“Old-school frame machines designed in the ’70s and ’80s were set on large, wide benches [and it was] difficult access to the underside of the vehicle,” Scribner says. “The systems [were] designed for steel work and utilized full-frame, heavy pulling through tons of brute strength force. Measurements were mostly done by eyes.”
Today’s vehicles, however, “are robotically assembled, and tolerances are within 1 millimeter and non-adjustable,” Scribner continues. “There is no room for error when correcting a body-mounting position. Doors and panels will not line up and panel clearances are much tighter.”
These exact specifications are necessary because of the new materials and systems cars are built with, but it also means that repair technicians need more accurate tools that are able to accommodate the precise measurements that modern vehicles demand.
That’s why, according to Scribner, Car-O-Liner is working on “three-axis computerized measurement. It can be used with many different types and makes of bench racks, and available in portable, computerized measurement systems. These three-axis systems pave the way for a more complete estimation, save time in repair and allow post-measurement validation and computer logging of data, compared to specifications within 1 millimeter accuracy.”
Car-O-Liner’s new system is designed to help measure faster and more accurately, and it allows users to find the exact measurements they’re looking for online. The integrated system brings a three-dimensional image of the vehicle up on the screen, allowing for improved visibility.
“Today the structure of the vehicle is designed to diffuse the energy of the accident along all the structure and keep the passengers safe,” says Stephane Jourdan, global technical manager at Celette Inc. “A few millimeters away from the original dimension will badly affect the behavior of the structure, let too much energy reach the passenger cells … So the accuracy of the repair is crucial.
“Celette is working today on a new diagnostic measuring system. When a [damaged car] arrives in a body shop, a measuring system is recommended to detect eventual structure damages, which can have a big impact on the repair cost.”
According to Chief, although new frame measuring technology has a lot more work to do and much more precise standards, integrating the measuring and reporting into one tool can save shops time and cut repair costs. Like Car-O-Liner, their technology includes “live, multipoint mapping,” which “allows estimators and technicians to accurately identify visible and hidden secondary damage before repairs begin,” says Lee Daugherty, director of collision sales, the Americas, for Chief parent company Vehicle Service Group (VSG). “The technology enables technicians to measure and monitor dimensional changes as they occur during pulling, so there’s no need to recalibrate after every pull, and there is less risk of accidentally putting more damage into a vehicle.”
Modern vehicles are also laced with sensors that send commands to the various safety devices such as airbags, brakes and backup sensors. “Again,” Jourdan says, “a few millimeters away from the OE’s dimensions will badly affect the behavior of these safety devices. A few milliseconds of error can badly injure passengers.”
How to make quality and safe repairs
Not only do newer vehicles require tighter and more exact measurements, also the materials they’re made with are often more difficult to work with, at least with traditional tools. This can make returning to the precise measurements required to meet safety and quality standards more difficult without compromising the integrity of the material and frame.
Steel has traditionally been the frame material of choice: It’s known for being strong and sturdy. Newer vehicles, however, are increasingly made with aluminum, carbon fiber or high-strength steel, either in addition to, or in place of, traditional steel.
According to Jourdan, “The main characteristic of the new high-strength steel is a higher elastic modulus and higher rigidity. It helps the car manufacturer have a safer vehicle.”
In the past, when a damaged vehicle was placed on the bench for measurement and repair, the frame was held to the bench by “four points or four anchoring clamps … [which allows] a lot of flexibility due to motor weight or suspension weight,” Jourdan says.
Today, Scribner adds, this technology is obsolete – not capable of repairing modern vehicles in a safe way. “Universal anchoring and fixturing on a moveable bench rack, when combined with computerized measurement of the vehicle in under body, midpoint and upper body measurement into position, is by far the most cost-effective process to repair today’s vehicles most efficiently.”
Although repairs were made to the old measuring standards, by today’s standards it’s difficult to even access parts of the vehicle, let alone make sure they’re measured correctly on these outdated benches.
When it comes to repairing vehicles made with newer materials, the biggest challenge is the strength needed to pull the pieces back into place. In response, Celette has created a bench with numerous dedicated brackets. “The weight is distributed on many jigs, giving no stress to the structure, which is … essential to have a good repair,” says Jourdan, “Aluminum parts need to be glued, riveted and bonded. Celette-dedicated fixtures give all the benefits to properly repair aluminum structures, giving numerous brackets to hold the vehicle in place.”
Car-O-Liner also is developing a range of repair tools, from a hydraulic riveter to a Duo Pulse MIG/MAG Welder.
Repairing aluminum-made frames is another challenge. According to Celette, “More difficult to repair than high-strength steel, aluminum is now well-introduced into the car’s structure. Some structures are now mainly in aluminum [like the] Jaguar XE, Audi A8 and Tesla Model S … The biggest challenge in aluminum structure is to take care about the structure flexibility. Aluminum is three times more flexible than steel.”
From basic benches meant to support a vehicle and stretch it back into place with brute force to computerized measuring systems, accurate to 1 millimeter, frame-measuring technology has come a long way in a very short period of time, as it’s been forced to by the rapid development of automotive technology. The automotive industry relies on innovations and technology to keep consumers safe, and it’s up to the collision repair industry to keep up with OEM requirements to maintain vehicle safety and integrity.