Precision Alignment

Precision Alignment
Packing computerized measuring with alignment tools like Chief’s LaserLockAlign can significantly improve accuracy while reducing cycle times. (Photo: Vehicle Service Group)

Accurate measuring is a key part of the modern collision repair process.

As the landscape of collision repair continues to change, shops must keep pace to ensure complete, safe, quality repairs. Mixed-material vehicles require access to information, new tools, equipment, techniques, proper training, and a new skill set.

One of the first steps in the development of any repair plan is to identify the material(s) used by the vehicle maker. This provides the foundation for a solid repair plan.

“The structural alignment of a vehicle is even more critical today with all the sensors on a vehicle. The cameras that have to be placed on the vehicle need to be correctly aligned. And the manufacturers are building vehicles to much tighter tolerances today,” says Richard Perry, OEM Strategist, Account Manager, Chief Automotive Technologies.

Some vehicles require very specific process when it comes to straightening. (Photo: Huw Evans)

Pre-measuring

“Even with minor accidents it’s always best to start with a pre-measure,” says Timothy Morgan, Chief Operations Officer, Spanesi Americas. He notes that on average, six out of ten cars that are pre-measured at customer shops are discovered to have damage that otherwise would not have been found. “There’s not always a lot of misalignment, but it is something that needs to be fixed. The car needs to be measured prior to any repairs, and if they do find damage, that damage needs to be measured during the repair.”

Richard Perry notes that when you start to pull the vehicle to straighten it, today’s technology allows you to monitor the process from multiple points on the vehicle. “With Chief’s Laser Lock system, you can measure up to 30 plus points; not that you would have that many on the vehicle, but it has the capability. You want to ensure no movement goes on beyond the repair area,” explains Perry.

He notes, for example, that if a technician is working on the front they will also need to monitor the rear section to maintain alignment. If there is suspension damage such as the upper frame rails, or strut mounts, you can monitor all those components at the same time during the repair process. “This way you can ensure no damage is overlooked because all these points are measured,” adds Perry.

With the introduction of aluminum materials to vehicle construction, there are a lot of other factors to now consider during the repair process. “If you have an aluminum strut tower, the problem you can run into with aluminum in that situation is micro-cracking, and the impact can cause the strut tower to fail,” says Spanesi’s Timothy Morgan. “There are a lot of things that have to be considered in collision today that weren’t there in the past.”

Bracing techniques

Morgan also notes that shops need to look at structural holding. Pulling today is much different than it used to be. “On a lot of the vehicles today you are no longer connecting to the pinch welds, so you also have to look at how you are going to hold the vehicle. Often, the best way to do that is with a universal system that fits every vehicle,” says Morgan.

On some vehicles, the actual scope of repairs can also be very limited. “It’s to the point where for the specific damage you still have to pull it structurally, but then you are also going to have to cut and replace sections,” notes Chief’s Richard Perry. “You have to identify what that new part is and hold it in place while you are attaching it back to the vehicle either by welding, riveting, or bonding.” One of the toughest considerations today is ensuring a shop has qualified technicians with the capability to use this new equipment.

“The average technician is now around 50 years old and we aren’t seeing a lot of younger people getting into the industry,” says Perry. And the ones that are getting involved are primarily working on inner bodies and cut and replace type work. “For the technicians that have to do some straightening, they really haven’t got the experience yet, so that is an issue for many shops.”

Best of both worlds

In most cases, experience and an understanding of technology are paramount. An effective approach is to have older, more experienced technicians working with younger technicians that are computer savvy. “For touch measuring, the older guys tend to be a little bit intimidated by the new technology, and the younger technicians tend to pick it up fast, but they don’t have the experience in pulling,” says Lorenzo Pelliciotta, Owner, CARSTAR Oakville. “So, when you pair them together, they make a good team, and they can learn from each other.”

He notes that the younger technician gets the experience from the older one in learning how to pull the vehicle. The younger techs are still licensed body men, but they don’t have all the experience they need yet. “You can have a young tech who thinks the puller isn’t strong enough to do the job, then you get the older, more experienced technician, and he can pull it out no problem because of his experience; he knows where to brace and where to pull,” says Pelliciotta.

At CARSTAR Oakville East, there has been a very significant amount of investment in new equipment over the past five years. “For the bigger stuff, you need a bigger rack, and they take up a lot of real estate,” says Pelliciotta. “We not only have to invest in equipment, but we also have to invest in training. Depending on the skill level of the technician, you might have one guy that will take eight hours to straighten the vehicle and another who will take four hours for the same job because he has a lot of training behind him. So, you have to invest in training to keep your shop efficient and profitable.”

“The older guys are used to their ways of doing things, and now things are changing, and they have all this new technology to adapt to. The young technicians catch on to the new technology much faster, but they don’t have the experience, explains Pelliciotta. He notes that it takes time and experience to know where to clamp it and where to pull it. “You get an experienced guy on the job, and the others are asking him how he did it so fast. Inexperienced technicians can make more work for themselves because they are pulling in the wrong place.”

Working on today’s vehicles can be complicated, but with the proper information, training, tools, equipment, and teamwork, shops can ensure they perform complete, safe, quality repairs.

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