Spies Hecker

By Andrew Marsh

Once upon a time, more than 40 years ago, vehicle construction had the following characteristics:

Panels for skin as well as structural parts were made from predominantly mild steel.

Multi-material referred to the vinyl on the roof, glued over perfectly good paint and usually in bizarrely luminescent colours – or brown.

Electrical systems frequently had a power supply and earth for every single item – finding a ‘live’ 12V or 24V power supply for aftermarket extras anywhere in the vehicle was very easy.

Data bus communication would be a bunch of people communicating in binary code (usually only to be found in the more elite Universities, ‘LOL’).

Engine management consisted of lots of fuel, occasional splashes of oil and shouting at the engine if didn’t work.

Software existed as holes punched in pieces of card, fed into a reader attached to a computer – which managed to fill a building all by itself.

We can recall films made over many decades that sought to forecast how we would move across the land at some point in the future. Honestly, only time travel eludes us now – and you can bet Elon ‘rocket man’ Musk has an investment vehicle ready for just that any time soon.

At this point I would suggest we don’t know what we are up against. Well, that is true, but only because the automotive aftermarket is downstream of many policies that drive the global automotive industry. Indeed, that just sounds like the type of vague, dimensionless corporate chat that can be found in the banking sector, large accountancy companies or even ‘management consultancy’.

There’s a reason why we feel as if technology and the pace of development now appears like white paint on a white wall. It all merges into nothing. It really is tough to get to the bottom of what is going on, and with so much going on it’s difficult to address everything all the time.

No, not difficult. Make that impossible

Where even 20 years ago mild steel would be used to create more than 80% by weight of a passenger car bodyshell, today that looks more like 30% and falling.

That’s not to say steel has gone – far from it – instead the overall profit margin is now so great vehicle manufacturers can use much tougher – and expensive – steel alloys to save precious weight. Indeed, that additional profit margin has made mass market pressed multi-layer aluminium alloy viable (an outer skin of hard steel alloy with a core of softer aluminium alloy).

The migration from steel body shells made almost at all costs from the same type of mild steel alloy to the right material for the right job is a revolution reflected right across every single aspect of vehicle technology… which now includes how it communicates with you as well as the outside world. Understanding any single aspect is a career in its own right.

So, how on earth can collision repairers keep up?

Step one is to really embrace that vehicle technology from the late 1970s is not really evident today.

Step two is to do what we are all good at – think.

Step three is to get information from all over, to help us think.

Effectively the days of a guess based on what was known 40 years ago is not going to end well, more often than not. The root cause is the creation process used inside vehicle manufacturers and their suppliers, where every single detail in the finest possible resolution is studied to great depth. In the days where such things were difficult, engineers had to keep designs as simple as possible to manage the whole process.

Now that vast computing power is available, along with a huge library of known ‘solutions’, engineers are able to create endless iterations of every single component.

One of the big drivers for automotive engineering sophistication is to meet international law, from impact performance through to tail pipe emissions. Another driver remains to appeal to existing and potential new customers – and in most cases the multiple ‘design demands’ leave cost of repair a solid 11th out of 10.

Yes, we have had the story of global vehicle platforms with unified parts/assemblies. If that were really the case, why does a low powered front drive car have three different driveshaft constructions and two different power steering systems in addition to LHD/RHD?

Quite simply because the discipline to engineer parts as well as systems carefully now needs more than ever to embrace simplicity – and that’s the hardest thing to do. Just consider Lego – apparently simple, but its brilliance lies in the sophistication of its simplicity. The automotive world has never been further from such concepts.

Much as the upstream creation process really needs consolidation to sort out the existing revolution, in the aftermarket we get what we are given. And right now, that’s chaos.

Pre-conceived ideas might include knowing about a system on a model from two generations ago – less than five years – and thinking that applies completely to the current model. The danger is even more profound – now, component and system upgrades that require different repair processes are frequently introduced during the production lifetime of a model. There is no time for guessing.

So how do we get around this challenge?

Information to think. Vehicle manufacturers publish huge bodies of work called workshop manuals, full of repair methods, covering every model they have built over the past few decades. In Europe and the USA this information source is very accessible, in return for a relatively modest fee (typically in Europe this works out at €10 per hour). These manuals need expertise to interpret, but every single version and every single facelift is included. There are gaps, and not all manufacturers offer methods for all parts – but on balance there is more information available than is missing.

What is about to be suggested may seem odd

We need to think about fundamental engineering, based on how we ‘read’ the collision repair about to be undertaken. By not relying on ‘I’ve done that before’ it releases us from the limitations of previous projects – but crucially this does not mean forgetting them. Instead we use that knowledge to hunt for information about… weld data, possible sections, how to remove parts, what screws are ‘single use only’, how to shut down systems, how to restart systems and so on. That allows us to enter into the same thought patterns as the engineers who created the vehicle in the first place, and avoid most if not all potentially expensive pitfalls.

In time the endless variations of parts in a single model range will be streamlined as the frequently duff decisions to carry over existing assemblies or parts into a new model cause additional expense, which is endlessly offset against the often modest one-off cost saving of using such ‘old’ parts.

As the vehicle manufacturer business bottom line turns from black with a hint of red to blood red, watch the rapid progress to keep the sophisticated performance of current vehicles with fewer parts. Rest assured this type of product design does not really exist outside of aerospace right now…

Until then, for vehicle manufacturers the aftermarket is all there between order and oblivion. In that chaos, the vehicle collision repair market has a bright and very profitable future.

Auto Industry Consulting is an independent provider of technical information to the global collision repair industry via EziMethods, our online collision repair methods system. For more information please visit the website: www. ezimethods.com or contact ben.cardy@autoindustryconsulting.com