Aluminum-specific training is critical for distributors, counter people

Feb. 9, 2016
While parts such as aluminum radiators have been marketed for years by distributors, retailers and repairers without serious incident, the ongoing influx of vehicular aluminum necessitates that sales personnel be proficient in discussing the product lines and characteristics with DIFM providers and DIYers alike.

More than an elemental knowledge of aluminum is becoming necessary for aftermarket businesses as increasing amounts of the metal is being applied to vehicle construction with more aluminum content to come.

“It’s always wise to be educated on what your customers are dealing with. It’s very important because you should be able to speak intelligently to your customers,” said Darrell Amberson, immediate past-chairman of the Automotive Service Association (ASA).

“There’s every indication that there’s going to be more,” says Amberson, operations director at LaMettry’s Collision in Minneapolis. “All indications are that we have a lot more aluminum components coming. Prepare for it.”

“It’s very different than what you do with steel,” advises Doug Richman, technical committee chairman for the Aluminum Association’s Aluminum Transportation Group and Kaiser’s vice president of engineering and technology.

Just as repair technicians and other industry professionals are obligated to learn the proper procedures for working with steel, “there’s a different set of skills for aluminum; when you heat up steel it will turn red – if you heat up aluminum you’ll have a puddle of it,” he says, stressing the need for specialized training.

“It’s not really complex,” Richman tells Aftermarket Business World, “it’s just different. If you’re not trained in aluminum don’t jump in and make repairs like you do with steel.”

Obtaining OEM certification is the only way to go, he urges. Automakers with aluminum content offer certification programs, and some of these are coordinated through expert instructors at I-CAR, the Inter-Industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair. Training is also available via sessions conducted at industry trade shows.

“If the shop’s not certified, that technician may or may not have the proper training,” says Richman. “If they haven’t had the proper training they should not touch an aluminum body part – period! Word-of-mouth can be devastating” for your business if a repair is bungled. “I’d rather see them say, ‘Gee, I’m not certified in aluminum.’ It’s not fair to you and it’s not fair to the customer. With that certificate on the wall they will have the expectation that it will be done right.”

OEMs often refuse to even sell aluminum structural components to non-certified installers. And while parts such as aluminum radiators have been marketed for years by distributors, retailers and repairers without serious incident, the ongoing influx of vehicular aluminum necessitates that sales personnel be proficient in discussing the product lines and characteristics with DIFM providers and DIYers alike.

Given the wrinkles of working with aluminum versus steel, spirited yet unknowledgeable shade tree mechanics are especially susceptible for running into unforeseen difficulties. Says Richman, “I’d like to see counter people say, ‘Gee, are you sure that you know how to deal with aluminum?’”

Although many suppliers provide complete – and highly engineered for crash crush point safety protection – aluminum parts kits containing instructions, fasteners and adhesives, etc., some do not, which in-turn generates sales opportunities for up-to-speed marketing representatives. “Make sure you sell the whole package to somebody,” says Richman. “If it’s not serviced as a kit, get them all the parts to get the job done properly.”

Specialized adhesives are needed, for example, and non-coated or previously used fasteners can create corrosion.

Preparation costs

The work area, dust vacuums and tools utilized for aluminum repairs must be segregated from the equipment applied to steel repairs. Tending to proper dust extraction can be a safety issue due to inhalation hazards and the risk of an explosion or fire, as aluminum dust is used as an ingredient in fireworks for white sparkles and overall flash ignition.

“It’s easy to spend $50,000 to $100,000 to prepare a collision shop for aluminum,” says the ASA’s Amberson. The cost can rise with OEM certification requirements that include separate benches, offsite training and other aspects.

The techniques for pulling dents and dings from aluminum panels can be problematic as well. Responding to questions raised by the National Alliance of Paintless Dent Repair Technicians (NAPDRT), the ASA is currently preparing a set of procedures for this industry segment.

“Our goal is to provide an impartial review of the aluminum repair process as it relates to hail damage to dispel any misconceptions that may still exist,” explains collision division director Scott Benavidez.

“ASA has a role to play in being the voice of the collision repair industry,” says Vice President Tony Molla, “and helping to keep our members and the industry at large abreast of the latest changes in technology and materials that impact the collision repair process. This study will add to the body of knowledge ASA makes available free to the industry to advance our common knowledge for all stakeholders.”

Molla points out that the project will compile research information from existing industry sources to clearly define all the necessary procedures to repair aluminum panels and provide a quick reference for use in writing a complete estimate. Input from collision repair professionals, industry organizations, manufacturers and training providers will establish “an impartial baseline” and address any questions or misconceptions that may exist regarding aluminum repairs.

Gaining market share

Although some may see widespread vehicle aluminum content as a relatively new development, the metal has been a key element for automakers ever since the first sports car featuring an aluminum body was unveiled at the Berlin International Motor Show in 1899. Two years later, the first engine with aluminum parts was developed by Carl Benz.

Following World War II, aluminum had become inexpensive enough to be considered for use in mass-produced vehicles, according to the Aluminum Association. A breakthrough occurred in 1961 when British Land Rover produced V-8 engine blocks made with aluminum cylinders.

“From there, aluminum automobile parts gained a foothold in wheels and transmission casings and then moved into cylinder heads and suspension joints,” the association reports. “This infinitely recyclable metal is now the leading material for use in powertrain and wheel applications, and it continues to gain market share in hoods, trunks, doors and bumpers – and complete vehicle structures.”

By 2025, more than 75 percent of all new pickup trucks produced in North America will have aluminum bodies, according to a survey of automakers conducted by Ducker Worldwide. The study, which confirms a major breakthrough for automotive aluminum into high-volume vehicles, surveyed all major automakers, noting that Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler will become the biggest users of aluminum sheet in the next decade.

It forecasts that the number of vehicles with complete aluminum body structures will reach 18 percent of North American production, up from less than 1 percent in 2014. Vehicle segments revealed as emerging aluminum content leaders are pickup trucks, SUVs, and both mid-sized and full-size sedans.

The study also finds that every leading automaker will have numerous aluminum body and closure programs by 2025. As the material mix for body and closure parts continues to change dramatically in the years to come, use of aluminum sheet for vehicle bodies will increase to 4 billion pounds by 2025, up from 200 million pounds in 2012.

“The numbers tell a powerful story of aluminum’s explosive growth across the automotive sector,” says Tom Boney, chairman of the Aluminum Association’s Aluminum Transportation Group and vice president and general manager of automotive for Novelis in North America. “Within the next 10 years, seven out of 10 new pickups produced in North America will be aluminum-bodied, and so too will be more than 20 percent of SUVs and full–sized sedans.”

Additional revelations from the “2015 North American Light Vehicle Aluminum Content Study” include:

  • In 2015, pickup trucks contained the most aluminum at 548.9 pounds per vehicle, followed closely by E segment sedans at 546.9 pounds, SUVs at 410.3 pounds and minivans at 396.5 pounds.
  • The average aluminum content in 2015 rose 44 pounds per vehicle, or 13 percent over 2012.
  • Total North American light vehicle aluminum consumption increased 28 percent in 2015 over 2012.
  • Tesla, Mercedes, BMW and Ford all exceeded the average aluminum content and the average aluminum share of curb weight for 2015.
  • By 2025, 26.6 percent of all the body and closure parts for light vehicles in North America will be made of aluminum.
  • Total North American aluminum content in 2025 will be 10 billion pounds.
  • Aluminum hood penetration will reach 85 percent, and doors will reach 46 percent; complete bodies will reach 18 percent, a sizable increase over the current 1 percent.
  • Globally, light vehicle aluminum content will approach 35 billion pounds by 2025 making light vehicles the most important global market for aluminum.

“Aluminum-bodied cars and trucks are coming in a big way – and soon,” says Boney. “Consumers won’t visibly notice a different metal under the paint, but they’ll see greater savings at the gas pump and experience better performance and handling at the wheel.”

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