Most of the damage resulting from everyday vehicle collisions can be repaired, and vehicles can be refinished to look and drive like new. This damage may be relatively minor, such as scraped paint or a dented panel, or major, requiring the complex replacement of parts. Such repair services are performed by trained workers.
Automotive body and related repairers, often called collision repair technicians, straighten bent bodies, remove dents, and replace crumpled parts that cannot be fixed. They repair all types of vehicles, and although some work on large trucks, buses, or tractor-trailers, most work on cars and small trucks. They can work alone, with only general direction from supervisors, or as specialists on a repair team. In some shops, helpers or apprentices assist experienced repairers.
Each damaged vehicle presents different challenges for repairers. Using their broad knowledge of automotive construction and repair techniques, automotive body repairers must decide how to handle each job based on what the vehicle is made of and what needs to be fixed. They must first determine the extent of the damage and decide which parts can be repaired or need to be replaced.
If the car is heavily damaged, an automotive body repairer might start by measuring the frame to determine if there has been structural damage. Repairers would then attach or clamp frames and sections to structural machines that use hydraulic pressure to align damaged components. “Unibody” vehicles—designs built without frames—must be restored to precise factory specifications for the vehicle to operate correctly. For these vehicles, repairers use bench systems to accurately measure how much each section is out of alignment, and hydraulic machinery to return the vehicle to its original shape.
Only once the frame is aligned properly can repairers begin to fix or replace other damaged body parts. If the vehicle or part is made of metal, body repairers will use a pneumatic metal-cutting gun or a plasma cutter to remove badly damaged sections of body panels and then weld or otherwise attach replacement sections. Less serious dents are pulled out with a hydraulic jack or hand prying bar or knocked out with hand tools or pneumatic hammers. Small dents and creases in the metal are smoothed by holding a small anvil against one side of the damaged area while hammering the opposite side. Repairers may also remove very small pits and dimples with pick hammers and punches in a process called metal finishing. Body repairers then use plastic or solder to fill small dents that cannot be worked out of plastic or metal panels. On metal panels, they sculpt the hardened filler to the original shape by filing, grinding and sanding the repair back to the shape that is desired.
Body repairers may also repair or replace the plastic body parts that are increasingly used on new vehicles. They remove damaged panels and identify the type and properties of the plastic used. Some types of plastic allow repairers to apply heat from a hot-air welding gun or immerse the panel in hot water and press the softened section back into shape by hand. In most cases, it is more cost effective for the plastic parts to be replaced rather than to be repaired. A few body repairers specialize in fixing fiberglass car bodies.
Some body repairers specialize in installing and repairing glass in automobiles and other vehicles. Automotive glass installers and repairers remove broken, cracked, or pitted windshields and window glass. Glass installers apply a moisture-proofing compound along the edges of the glass, place the glass in the vehicle, and install rubber strips around the sides of the windshield or window to make it secure and weatherproof.
Many large shops make repairs using an assembly-line approach where vehicles are fixed by a team of repairers who each specialize in several types of repair. One worker might straighten frames while another repairs doors and fenders, for example. In most shops, automotive painters do the priming and refinishing, but in small shops, workers often do both body repairing and painting.
Repairers work indoors in body shops where noise from the clatter of hammers against metal and the whine of power tools is prevalent. Most shops are well ventilated to disperse dust and paint fumes. Body repairers may also be required to work in awkward or cramped positions, and much of their work can be physically challenging. Hazards include cuts from sharp metal edges, burns from torches and heated metal, and injuries from power tools. However, serious accidents usually are avoided when the shop is kept clean and orderly and safety practices are observed.
Most automotive body repairers work a standard 40-hour week. More than 40 hours a week may be required when there is a backlog of repair work to be completed. This may include working on weekends.
Education & Training Required
A high school diploma or GED is often all that is required to enter this occupation, but more specific education and training is needed to learn how to repair newer automobiles. Collision repair programs may be offered in high school or in postsecondary vocational schools and community colleges. Courses in electronics, physics, chemistry, English, computers, and mathematics provide a good background for a career as an automotive body repairer. Training programs combine classroom instruction and hands-on practice.
Trade and technical school programs typically award certificates to graduates after 6 months to a year of collision repair study. Some community colleges offer 2-year programs in collision repair. Many of these schools also offer certificates for individual courses, so that students are able to take classes incrementally or as needed.
New repairers begin by assisting experienced body repairers in tasks such as removing damaged parts and sanding body panels. Novices learn to remove small dents and make other minor repairs. They then progress to more difficult tasks, such as straightening body parts and installing either repaired or replaced bolt-on parts. Generally, it takes 3 to 4 years of hands-on training to become skilled in all aspects of body repair, some of which may be completed as part of a formal education program. Basic automotive glass installation and repair can be learned in as little as 6 months, but becoming fully qualified can take several years.
Continuing education and training are needed throughout a career in automotive body repair. Automotive parts composition, body materials, electronics, and airbags and other new safety components continue to change and to become more complex. To keep up with these technological advances, repairers must continue to gain new skills by reading technical manuals and furthering their education with classes and seminars. Many companies within the automotive body repair industry send employees to advanced training programs to brush up on old skills or to learn new techniques.
Other Skills Required (Other qualifications)
Fully skilled automotive body repairers must have good reading ability and basic mathematics, including geometry, physics, and computer skills. Restoring unibody automobiles to their original specification requires repairers to follow instructions and diagrams in print and digital technical manuals and to make precise three-dimensional measurements of the position of one body section relative to another. In addition, repairers should enjoy working with their hands and be able to pay attention to detail while they work.
Automotive Body and Related Repairers - What They Do - Page 2