Get Ready for Aluminum – Is your shop repair-ready?

With Ford’s introduction of the aluminum-bodied 2015 F-150, aluminum has become this year’s collision repair industry buzzword. Not just for high-end imports anymore, aluminum is going mainstream, and a growing number of shops are gearing up so that they are repair-ready. Repairing collision-damaged aluminum vehicles requires different procedures, techniques and equipment than are necessary to fix traditional steel vehicles. It is crucial that technicians receive training on the OEM repair procedures for these vehicles and that they have the equipment necessary to properly complete the repairs. Many vehicle and equipment manufacturers offer aluminum collision repair training, as does I-CAR (see related sidebar).

Properly welding aluminum sheet metal requires a MIG inverter welder with a 220 to 240 volt power supply and synergic-pulsed technology.

Properly welding aluminum sheet metal requires a MIG inverter welder with a 220 to 240 volt power supply and synergic-pulsed technology.

Ferrous materials, even the tiniest airborne steel dust particles, can contaminate bare aluminum, causing contact corrosion and corrupting weld integrity. Therefore, tools and equipment used on aluminum vehicles should not be shared with those used to repair other vehicles. These tools also should be stored separately, to prevent contamination.

It can cost upward of $50,000 to adequately equip a new aluminum repair bay in an existing shop. Following is an overview of some of the equipment needed.
Dedicated workspace

While it’s not necessary to build a medical-grade clean room, you will need a system to create an aluminum-repair zone as needed. Some OEMs require their dealers and approved shops to devote a room solely to repairing their aluminum vehicles. Others are fine with shops using a curtain system to isolate a bay when aluminum repairs are being performed. These bays will also need dust extraction and ventilation systems.

MIG welder

Welding aluminum requires a more powerful welder than many shops currently have. You’ll want a pulse MIG inverter welder with a 220 to 240 volt power supply. Many OEMs recommend MIG welders with synergic-pulsed technology that enables the welder to adjust automatically to technician input. Those that come programmed with synergic curves to preset welding parameters minimize setup time.

An important differentiator among MIG welders is the location of the motor and drive rolls that feed the welding wire. “Push” feeders have their motor and feed rolls at the back of the feeder to push the wire from the feed roll to the welding gun. Because aluminum wire is soft, push feeders can suffer from wire tangling within the system and forming “bird nests” that technicians need to cut out. “Pull” systems place the motor in the welding gun itself to pull the wire through from the feed roll. This type of system can be vulnerable to wire snapping. As a result, the Aluminum Association’s Practices for the Repair of Aluminum Sheet Metal recommends the “push-pull” style of torch. This system uses two motors and sets of drive rolls – one in the feeder and one in the gun – to maintain constant, uniform tension on the wire, reducing chances of both tangling and breakage.

Aluminum dent repair system

A dedicated aluminum repair workstation provides the perfect place to store all the tools and equipment necessary to repair dents in aluminum body panels, hoods and other sheet metal. Many of these systems are mobile, so they can be wheeled to the work area as necessary, and put away when not needed. At minimum, the system should be equipped with an aluminum stud welder, dent-pulling systems and aluminum hammers.

Unlike steel, aluminum does not change color when heated to its melting point. So in addition to a heat gun, the aluminum dent repair system should also include a thermometer to enable the technician to monitor the heated area, as well as heat shield gel to create a barrier to protect undamaged portions of the aluminum panel.

A dent-pulling system and hammer with aluminum head are used to remove a dent from an aluminum vehicle hood. The pulling system and hammer set are often purchased together with a stud welder as part of an aluminum repair workstation.

Dent-pulling system and hammer with aluminum head are used to remove a dent from an aluminum vehicle hood. The pulling system and hammer set are often purchased together with a stud welder as part of an aluminum repair workstation.

Mobile aluminum dent repair systems can be an economical investment for shops that want to get into aluminum repair but aren’t ready to make the full jump yet. Because there are already millions of aluminum hoods and body panels on vehicles currently on North American roads, there can be a clear return on investment for these systems.

Frame measuring system

Whether it’s made of aluminum, steel or an “exotic” metal, the only way to ensure that a collision-
damaged vehicle is returned to pre-accident condition is to measure it and compare the results to the vehicle’s original specifications. Look for a measuring system that maps the entire vehicle in real time, measuring multiple points of the vehicle simultaneously so your technicians can tell instantly what changes with every pull, section or part removed. If you will be using the same measuring system for aluminum and steel vehicles, investigate whether you will need any new accessories. For example, Chief Automotive Technologies offers a set of aluminum collet attachments to connect its LaserLock™ Live Mapping™ System targets to aluminum vehicles without fear of contact corrosion. And be sure your spec data is up-to-date so your team is prepared when the newest vehicles come in for repair.

Holding system

OEM repair procedures for aluminum vehicles tend to call for more sectioning and parts replacement than is commonly required. When technicians are removing a part or sectioning a portion of a vehicle, it is critical that the rest of the vehicle be held in place throughout the entire process. This prevents the addition of new damage into the vehicle and ensures that the new part can be returned to the correct location. It is most cost-effective if the holding system works with your shop’s existing frame rack. (Regardless of body construction, you still need a frame rack to pull the steel frame of many of these vehicles. Make sure it’s big enough to handle the trucks!)

Additional equipment

Many OEMs are suggesting the use of specialized equipment to repair their aluminum vehicles, including rivet guns, spot welders for weld bonding, parts storage racks, glue guns, dedicated hand/power tools and more. Shops interested in pursuing certification from specific OEMs should consult those manufacturers’ requirements regarding training and equipment.

Check Out I-CAR’s Specialized Aluminum Training

I-CAR has the training and weld testing available to prepare the industry for repairing the increasing volume of aluminum structures and exterior panels on the vehicles of today and into the future. The I-CAR Professional Development Program has four roles with aluminum training requirements. They are:

  • Structural Aluminum Technician
  • Non-Structural Technician
  • Auto Physical Damage Appraiser
  • Estimator

The structural aluminum repair technician role training contains many of the same programs as the steel structural technician role with the addition of the Aluminum Intensive Vehicle Repairs (ALI01) program, and the Aluminum GMA (MIG) Welding Training & Certification Test (WCA03).

The non-structural technician role training includes the Cosmetic Straightening Aluminum (STA01) program, and the Replacing Exterior Aluminum Panels (PRA01) program.

The roles of auto physical damage appraiser and estimator includes the Aluminum Panels and Structures Damage Analysis (DAM05) program, and the Aluminum Intensive Vehicle Repairs (ALI01) course as an option for satisfying the ongoing training requirement for both roles.

All of the I-CAR aluminum training courses offered include the “need to know” information relevant to the key roles in the industry, and will prepare industry professionals for the surge of aluminum panels and structures the industry will experience for many years. For more information, please visit