Well known for its lightness and recyclability, aluminum is a mainstay in the automotive industry. Although the lightweight metal is used in a wide variety of modern automotive applications, it’s only in recent times that aluminum has been extensively used in a mass-production vehicle. German automaker Audi used it extensively for its flagship A8 sedan, and Ford currently uses it for its aluminum-bodied F-150 pickup truck.
With aluminum’s use on the rise throughout the automotive industry, auto body shops throughout the United States are rising to meet the unique challenges that aluminum body and frame repair pose. So just how hard is it to repair cars that use aluminum extensively? The following explains some of the challenges involved in repairing aluminum body panels and frames.
Differences in Aluminum and Steel
The fundamental differences between aluminum and steel pose a number of challenges for auto body specialists. For instance, aluminum lacks the “metal memory” that’s present in most varieties of steel. Metal memory describes steel’s ability to be worked back into its original shape when damaged. A typical dent repair usually includes some carefully applied pressure and a variety of metal-shaping tools to push, pull, and massage the dented panel back to form.
Although aluminum is typically more elastic and malleable than steel, it lacks the latter’s ability to “remember” its original shape. As a result, dent repairs involving aluminum often take longer and involve more labor than those involving steel body panels. In many cases, moderately damaged aluminum panels may be nearly impossible to repair properly, resulting in the need for a complete panel replacement.
Aluminum also responds to heat differently than steel, making any repair involving welds or other sources of heat challenging for experts. Unlike steel, aluminum conducts and absorbs heat at a faster rate. Aluminum is often more malleable when worked with heat, but too much heat can cause welds to fail and welded components to become damaged beyond repair. This fact explains why aluminum panels are typically bonded and riveted into place instead of being welded.
Galvanic corrosion is also an issue when dealing with aluminum body repairs, especially when attempts are made to join aluminum body panels to steel components. Joining the two dissimilar metals together can put the aluminum panel at risk of galvanic corrosion.
Differences in Repair Methods
Conventional steel body panels can be worked back into shape using a number of traditional tools and techniques. But convention tends to fly out the window when it comes to repairing aluminum body panels. Many of the tools that auto body shops rely on to successfully complete steel repairs can’t be used on aluminum without causing significant damage. For instance, taking a sheet metal shrinking hammer to an aluminum body panel could result in more damage being done to the panel.
There’s also the issue of straightening aluminum frames versus those made from steel and other alloys. Whereas a conventional steel frame can be straightened and adjusted using traditional methods, aluminum frames often require state-of-the-art repair equipment. Some of this equipment may be specific to a particular make and model, which could make repairs more expensive and harder to schedule due to availability issues.
Even the environment in which aluminum body repairs take place may be drastically different from steel. A typical auto body shop may have a completely separate area devoted towards aluminum repairs to cut down on the possibility of cross-contamination. Cross-contamination can occur when iron oxide dust from previous steel repairs settle on aluminum body panels, putting the panel at risk of galvanic corrosion.
The possibility of cross-contamination also makes it more important for auto body shops to use tools specifically devoted to aluminum repair. Using a tool that was previously used to repair a steel component could introduce iron oxide fragments to the unfinished aluminum, resulting in galvanic corrosion.
In addition to cross-contamination, there’s also the risk of combustion due to aluminum dust buildup. High concentrations of aluminum dust can put surrounding areas at risk of an explosion, especially when there are sources of heat or electrical spark nearby. It’s crucial for auto body shops to have an effective means of capturing and removing aluminum dust from work areas.
The Final Verdict
All of the issues mentioned above can add significant time and expense to an aluminum body or frame repair. As auto body shops become more familiar with aluminum repairs and as more automakers use aluminum in their mainstream cars and trucks, such repairs are likely to be less difficult in the near future. In time, an ordinary aluminum body repair may be indistinguishable from a conventional steel repair in terms of cost and labor.
The experts at Central Body Company, Inc. can handle just about any type of auto body or collision repair. If you’re in the Omaha area and need help getting your vehicle back into shape, call us or schedule your appointment online.