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A whole new world

Ford’s use of aluminum changes game for auto repair industry

Professionals Auto Body's Sean McKotch uses an electric stud puller on the aluminum body parts of a Tesla. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

Aluminum has been part of motor vehicles since the invention of the Model-T, but in 2015, when it was announced that the Ford F-150 would be aluminum, that changed the game.

Now, aluminum can be found in almost every new car, said Jason Stahl, editor of Body Shop Business magazine, a Babcox Media publication and a leading source of information for the collision repair industry.

“It’s not new, just different,” Stahl said.

Adding more aluminum has changed how vehicles are repaired, local body shops report.

Ron Perretta, owner of Professionals Auto Body, Duncansville, cites many differences in repairing steel versus aluminum.

Stuckey Automotive Collision Center technician Harold Bradley demonstrates Pro Spot aluminum self piercing rivet gun. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

“We need separate tools to work on aluminum. We have to have a separate area. The ventilation has to be right,” he said. “Aluminum dust deteriorates the other metals and contaminates aluminum if we use metal tools. You need to have proper lighting at 750 luminas.”

It also requires heating the aluminum up over 400 degrees, before work on the piece can begin, he said.

“If you don’t do that, any welding you do will crack,” Perretta said.

Aluminum is lighter and provides a better fuel efficiency over steel, said Mike Schnarrs, manager at Stuckey Collision Center, Duncansville, and it doesn’t corrode.

“I have not seen an aluminum F-150 corrode,” he said.

The downside, though, is “you need separate tools. Aluminum and steel don’t like each other,” he said.

“Steel has more memory; aluminum has more tendency to rip. Aluminum is harder to weld than steel because of the composition of the material,” Schnarrs said.

Stahl agreed, noting that when steel is dented, crushed or otherwise altered, it wants to go back to its original shape.

“Aluminum has no ‘memory,’ thus it’s harder to work with. Also, aluminum has a lower melting point than steel. In general, the exotic or advanced metals in vehicles today are more sensitive to heat and, if you don’t heed the automaker’s repair guidelines, you can compromise the structural integrity of these metals,” Stahl said.

Getting the equipment can be a major investment by body shops.

Perretta has invested more than $250,000 in equipment to handle aluminum repairs.

And, he said, it’s very expensive to get certified.

Perretta’s staff has undergone hours of training and received numerous certifications.

Aluminum required a lot of new learning on how to make repairs.

“The level of education that was thrown at the industry was immense compared to previous years,” wrote Mitch Becker, a collision industry trainer for 30 years and an I-CAR instructor for more than 25 years in Body Shop Business magazine.

Finding people is always a challenge.

“It is hard to find the talent. I’ve been fortunate with that, we are fully staffed,” Perretta said. “It is more difficult (to make aluminum repairs) because of how much training is required on how to use the equipment and you need to understand the metals you are working on.”

Stuckey Collision Center has a co-op program with the Greater Altoona Career and Technology Center.

“We have had it for years for repairs and technicians. We encourage young people to pursue an interest in auto repairs. … They are one of our longest standing relationships in the community,” said Karen Beauchamp, Stuckey’s marketing director.

Aluminum is likely to play a more prominent role in vehicles.

“I see more companies going with aluminum. With Ford’s success, that speaks volumes of the value aluminum brings to their vehicles. Aluminum will be a bigger factor in the future,” Schnarrs said.

“Now they are talking about magnesium. Some vehicles can have three different metals in them, and you need three different welders,” Perretta said.

“Not all shops do aluminum repairs because of the investment in the tools and the need to have the space to do it properly,” Schnarrs said.

“The F-150 did what Ford had said it would: It revolutionized our industry and the manufacturers. As stubborn as this industry is to change, the F-150 forced us all to look to the future and change. To survive or thrive, you need to embrace all change. This includes aluminum. Learning and moving forward isn’t just needed; it’s absolutely imperative to survival,” Becker wrote.

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 814-946-7467.

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