The Road to Refinement
How to recognize and implement process efficiencies in your auto body shop that promote profitability.
What’s the fastest way to make more money in the collision industry? Enable your labor pool to become more efficient. Cost cutting can yield some improvement to your bottom line, but increasing your facility output (assuming sufficient volume is available) represents the fastest way to improve your profitability – by far.
That’s why this article will explore ways to increase overall facility efficiency. Interestingly, achieving this objective is significantly more associated with refining office processes to increase technician time utilization and moving closer to linear flow than it is to a technician’s efficiency. So to better understand the challenge repairers face in trying to improve their overall efficiency, we need to understand a few production terms that they often misunderstand:
Utilization = Hours Working on Vehicles/Actual Hours Worked
Productivity = Bid Hours Completed/Actual Hours Worked
Efficiency = Bid Hours Completed/Hours Working on Vehicles
Therefore, utilization measures the time technicians actually spend working on a vehicle as a percentage of the hours spent clocked (flat rate or hourly). When we survey technicians who don’t report 100 percent utilization of their time, they point to a list of common reasons, including lack of a vehicle to work on in their stall, lack of insurance or customer approval to continue, lack of available parts to put a vehicle back together, waiting for equipment and waiting for a vehicle to finish being painted or buffed.
Ways to Improve “Utilization”
• The goal of the initial estimate is to identify all the painted parts so they can be preordered and received prior to the vehicle arriving. This way, new parts can be painted immediately on the vehicle’s arrival and then assemblies such as doors can be “transferred” rather than disassembled and storing the parts on a cart until three to five days later. Technicians claim achieving a 15 to 20 percent reduction in disassembly/reassembly time by doing it this way.
• Use of a lift to fully assess front and back side of damage, is one of the best tools to improve repair-plan accuracy.
• Functions such as fully disassembling, pre-pulling dents to see if panels can be saved (my brother, a body technician, actually starts pulling dents and letting filler dry at this phase), pre-pulling the frame and completing most sublets prior to finalizing the supplement can mean no time spent waiting for parts.
• During disassembly, pulling clips and fasteners that are broken and placing them in Beal trays in the order of disassembly, can speed reassembly.
• Since 88 percent of repairs include bumper repair, establishing a bumper-repair procedure (dip bumpers in heated tank to reshape) and attempt to make a rip and tear repair, to help decide whether repair is possible. We’ve heard of insurers requesting up to 70 percent bumper repair, but there is no way to do this without focused processes.
• Considering the paint requirements as the last part of the process, many repairers have relocated their color-matching tools to match the color during disassembly, so that there is no waiting while the vehicle is in the booth.
Audit and Approval
• Use an OEM scan tool such as an ASTech Collision Diagnostic Services’ (CDS) product to remotely diagnose vehicle systems thoroughly and accurately before and after repairs.
• Use an estimating cart with dual monitors to record all the lines accurately and to properly source parts.
• If you employ disassembly technicians, consult the body technician to justify body repair times and consult the painter to justify the appropriate paint procedures and disassembly required.
• Then stop and quality inspect the damage analysis for accuracy before submitting to the insurers.
Any supplements you have after completing this process are errors, and you should log in why and initiate process changes to prevent errors in the future.
• Perform an active parts-receiving process by counting parts, mirror-matching parts, pulling stripes and adhesives and verifying that all repair parts have been received to ensure the parts cart is kitted for quick reassembly. If a return is needed, return it immediately and get the invoice reissued.
Dispatching or Flow
• Implement a balanced scheduling system with the same load being scheduled-in and delivered each day, per department.
• Establish a visual in-process production board to minimize the number of vehicles on-site.
• Limit the number of vehicles in the parking lot, as well as stalls per body technician to either one or one and a half to avoid working on multiple vehicles. We’ve found there is a direct correlation between the number of vehicles on-site and reduced cycle time.
The term productivity (Bid/Actual Hours Worked) is often misquoted as efficiency, where efficiency compares only to hours actually working on a vehicle. When we’ve surveyed the technicians about why they don’t meet their targeted efficiency, they point to this list of common reasons:
1. Lack of experience with that model of vehicle.
2. Lack of mirror-matched parts disassembled and ready for reassembly.
3. Lack of proper tool or limited use of proper tooling or materials.
Improve Function Efficiency
Nothing improves efficiency for technicians better than training (from I-CAR, from a welding company or frame manufacturer, from 3M, Norton, Axalta Coating Systems or other paint company), or from vehicle awareness/experience or proper equipment. Let’s review a few other specific ideas.
Body Weld-on or Bolt-on
• Having the frame properly squared during repair planning makes this process easier, so pull the frame with a computerized measuring system and use the before and after dimensions to justify repair times.
• Ensuring proper panel fit prior to painting can prevent chipping later, and speeds reassembly.
• Use a resistant spot welder and/or solid, weld-bonding techniques to save time over traditional metal inert gas (MIG) welding when OE approved.
• Make this process more efficient by removing the dent, using the latest dent pullers where the Y-shaped wafers are welded on (with no or little burn through) to pull out the dent in less time.
• Most filler manufacturers changed their technical recommendations to discourage sanding off the galvanized eCoat versus sanding to bare metal.
• Apply filler in limited layers (like drywall finishing) to properly abraded paint or primer.
The latest transition standard for body repair is to deliver it to prep ready for primer, so that the prep team won’t need to feather the edges, which can cause the shaping to change.
• Minimize the coats of primer allowing no hard tape edges, and featheredge the surrounding areas so that paint adheres properly.
• Use a “Hot-cup” when priming and clearing to enable you to mix and apply for multiple jobs.
• Consider using UV primer on small- to medium-size spots to allow continuous flow.
Staging (goal is to reduce or eliminate buffing)
• Use dedicated paint racks and proper cleaning techniques, and clean the booth while fan is running.
• Install great lighting so that you can see “shiny spots” or paint imperfections prior to entering the booth.
• Speed booth loading (where to place vehicle and loose parts) by applying visual lines on the staging area floor in the shape of the booth’s “air pocket” to stage parts outside the booth.
• If you start by ensuring the paint booth is clean, you optimize airflow and lighting and keep the fan running when moving vehicles in to keep positive pressure to avoid dust entering the booth.
• Pre-mix the paint prior to vehicle entry into booth. Focus on solid painter and vehicle cleanliness to minimize buffing. To reduce material cost and reduce buffing, ensure painters are using good application/blending techniques and following your paint manufacturer’s gun settings and spray-distance recommendations.
• Using Axalta’s Spies Hecker or Standox paint brands, there’s no required scuffing for OE panels, no sealing in booth, 1.5-coat coverage, no waiting for flash times, fast clearing and the fastest end-to-end paint process (72 minutes per booth cycle on a three-panel repair).
• For faster drying, invest in gas, catalytic drying arches to reduce time by 30 minutes and natural gas use by 70 percent.
• When building up vehicles in repair planning, clips should be stored in trays and internal parts transferred after being painted on both sides. This should make final assembly much quicker.
• Assuming that buffing has been minimized to 15 percent or less of the vehicle and the only sanding is with 1-inch orbital sanders, buffing should be quick.
• Also, if you’ve prewashed vehicles prior to repair planning, the final “bath” to remove dust should be fairly quick.
The good news is that as you improve both your utilization and efficiency, your repair-center capacity grows in direct proportion. And, so does your profit.
Assuming you can replicate the 15 percent utilization and 25 percent efficiency improvement from our example, the annual technician wage growth of $19,968 or growth of $74,360 in company profit per technician (all working the same 40 hours), demonstrates it is definitely worth the effort to implement these process changes!
If you were to ask us where to start, assuming you can market and get additional volume, we suggest you start by improving implementing processes that enable well-trained technicians to repair a vehicle without stopping. Good luck on your continuous improvement journey!