Nov 23 2011

Changes in the automotive industry mean shop changes too

Vancouver, BC, November 23, 2011 – There was a time when shaking the hand of the people at the car repair shop was like playing with fire, but don’t expect to see grime or grease covering many in the business today.

“Plenty of our guys in some areas wearing white coveralls, not blue coveralls, and at the end of the day they’re not dirty and their hands aren’t dirty,” says Leonard Lassak, vice president of operations for Kirmac Collision.

“They’re more like physicians than they are automotive mechanics.”

That’s just one of the changes that increased use of computers and new materials has brought to the automotive repair industry, he says, as automotive repair crews adapt to new hybrids, new composite materials and fewer cars crashing at all.

It’s a trend that’s only increasing, and means that places like Kirmac need to hire much more specialized employees skilled in computer work, body work as well as electronics.

“There used to be a time in the ’60s, ’70s, one guy could fix everything with a collision,” he said. Not so much anymore.

“That further stratifies our workforce with more specialized technicians for certain elements of the car, and then we have to have specialized equipment in the shops.”

Some examples include new cars with accident avoidance systems such as sonar at the front and back, so the car will sense objects and automatically brake if it feels you’re speeding towards a collision. Rear video monitors are also often in need of repair.

As well, better fuel standards are driving a change in vehicles, especially hybrids. Technicians have to constantly be aware of where the battery inside a hybrid car is at all times, as a mistake with such a large power source can be lethal.

“That’s the part that’s different about those vehicles, just handling, certain gloves you can use,” explained Lassak.

The last big change is coming in the structure of the car itself, as companies move away from plain old steel to composite materials. These materials are lighter and stronger, but in many cases can’t be repaired and instead have to be completely replaced.

“Now you’re replacing a whole section of a vehicle,” he said, and that can also increase the price of a repair, but comes with better fuel efficiency and safety ratings.

One area Lassak might lose business, though, is smart materials – newer cars are experimenting with fenders that have “memory,” and can put themselves back in place to repair a small dent.

Still, while Lassak said they are seeing a slow decline in the number of collisions with better accident avoidance systems, the complex nature of repairs mean the costs of each fix is going up.

In the future, Lassak sees more of the same: more computers, more accident avoidance technology, more automation and more electric components replacing gas, but he expects it to be an evolutionary rather than revolutionary process.

In his business, it might mean fewer shops that are more specialized with extra equipment, but it also means there’s more of a career in automotive repair than there used to be, as many technology grads enter the field, he says – and technicians with cleaner hands, too.

Originally published on North Shore News & Vancouver Sun – November 23rd, 2011