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THE CUTTING EDGE

The Science of Auto Body Repair

Today's Shops Use Computers, Sonar to Become More Efficient

September 02, 1996|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Don Long owns a high-tech business full of computers and electric eyes and sonar pulses and advanced filtration and high-temperature finishing and sophisticated tracking and badly dented cars.

Long owns Walnut Valley Auto Body & Towing in Walnut, one of the largest and most technologically advanced auto body repair shops in the nation.

Yes, even the auto body repair business, built with blowtorches and funny-looking hammers, has joined the technology age. Auto body repair shops can even be found advertising on the Internet.

"Twenty years ago, who would have thunk it?" quipped Charlie Barone, technical editor of Automotive Body Repair News in Radnor, Pa.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 4, 1996 Home Edition Business Part D Page 2 Financial Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Trackside Auto--The World Wide Web home page of Trackside Auto Center in Burbank was listed incorrectly in Monday's paper. The correct address is http://www.tracksideauto.com/

"Customers used to be afraid to sit down because you were afraid of sticking to something," said Barone, who once ran his own auto body repair shop. "Now auto body shops have attractive waiting rooms with plants. They've got guys in ties who are customer service representatives. . . . The shops all have to have computer-literate people working there."

Computers and other technoid innovations have shortened the average time needed to repair a crunched car.

But the expense of technology combined with the cost of complying with environmental and other regulations have also hoisted the price of making a car look as good as new. This price is borne first by car insurers, who presumably could pass it on to consumers if allowed to by the regulators who control insurance rates on a state-by-state basis.

The business of fixing car bodies has become more advanced because cars have become more advanced. Unibody construction, impact-resistant metals, increased use of plastics and special paints have all created the demand for more sophisticated tools and measuring devices.

" 'Computer' is the key word. It's the buzzword now for everyone," said Long, whose 50,000-square-foot operation on three acres in a business park in the east San Gabriel Valley has attracted visitors from six countries in the last year curious to see how his operation works.

Trackside Auto Center in Burbank is much smaller than Walnut Valley Auto Body, but it has a similar technological bent. Only Trackside has gone online.

The Burbank company recently launched a home page on the World Wide Web that features a tour, with pictures, of the 10,000-square-foot facility. The site (http://www.trackside.com) also sports pictures of a restoration-in-progress of a 1957 Austin Healey 3000, a newsletter and a form to request an online estimate.

Trackside Manager Eugene Dold, who built the home page, said the company has gotten 12 jobs from the Internet since the site was introduced nearly two months ago.

"Over the past 15 years, the industry has gone through a serious technological revolution," said Bill Conway, executive director of the California Autobody Assn., a Sacramento-based trade group. "Now it's very high-tech."

"It used to be very easy to get into the business," Conway said. "Now I've heard it takes half a million dollars just to begin in business."

Walnut Valley Auto Body is unusually large in an industry where most shops still have only five or six employees. The shop, which employs 130 people and expects revenue of $12 million this year, fixes more than 300 cars a month.

When Long opened a 1,500-square-foot shop in 1978, all he had were his hand tools, an air compressor, a frame machine, a 16-year-old helper and $20,000 in debt.

A car back then was a shell attached to a frame. As long as everything looked OK and the doors, windows, hood and trunk opened and closed all right, then the repairer had probably gotten close enough.

But car bodies are different now, manufactured more in one piece with the frame. The fit is tighter, and the cars are made of impact-resistant metals that must be handled correctly if they are to retain their special properties. Many pieces are plastic.

Close enough doesn't cut it anymore, Long said as he fiddled with a machine called the Shark, which uses sonar to determine if a car is out of alignment by as little as a millimeter, the thickness of a dime. Out of trim more than that and a door won't close or a hood won't lie flat.

"We're trying to stay on the cutting edge of new technology," Long said. "We're the test site for a lot of new stuff."

The Shark also serves to document what shape a car was in when it arrived and what shape it was in when it left, a key issue in the image-conscious industry. In 1994, a report by the state Bureau of Automotive Repair found widespread fraud and incompetence in the California auto body repair industry.

The industry contended that the report's criticisms were too broad, creating the impression of a general problem that did not exist.

"The insurance companies ride tight control on auto body shops," Long said. "We're audited on a weekly basis. That causes us to be especially cognizant of what we say we're going to do and to make sure that we do it."

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