Artisanal techniques for paintless dent repair are becoming more popular, with some experts suggesting they might replace more traditional bodywork repair, even in assembly plants.

Paintless dent repair (PDR) – also known as smart or hail repair – is the name given to the processes that a number of specialist companies use to fix new vehicles cheaply and without needing to use a paintshop. These processes – which can take years for a technician to master – are particularly effective following storms that affect plants or distribution yards, when hail, for example, may have dented vehicles. But they are also increasingly being used to repair other parking or manufacturing-related damages. Some specialists expect that this approach will eventually become more ingrained into the production process to facilitate repairs that do not require repainting.

The reasons why these techniques are proving popular with OEMs are evident at Chrysler, which employs an independent PDR company to repair small paint damage-free dents resulting from hail or transport-related incidents. According to Charles Schmidt, in-transit major damage manager at the carmaker, PDR costs are “substantially lower” than conventional body work as the process does not involve any sanding, filling, or painting. “For these same reasons, the time involved in completing a repair is much less as well,” says Schmidt. “Dents are removed by finesse, through the use of specialised rubber-coated tools that do not damage the paint. This process is also a ‘green’ solution as no solvents or paints are used.”

Some specialist providers suggest that the ‘green’ factor in PDR will be further emphasised in coming years, particularly as regulations get stricter and consumer focus on this area intensifies. “The PDR industry has been an unsung hero in an ever-growing ‘green’ industry as the need for chemicals, paint, hazmat materials, and airborne particulates have been dramatically reduced,” says Darin St. Ivany, president of California-based Dent-ology.

Different ways to touch up a body
Carlo Travaglini, key account manager at Italian repair specialists Ballsystem, describes its paintless repair technique as a “massage” to the body of vehicles damaged by hail. By using specially adapted levers, technicians get to the inner-parts of damaged vehicles and physically push out dents. Whenever it is not possible to perform this action from the inside, the repair team instead works from the outside by using special glue and pullers.

“Through this technique, we bring vehicles back to the original shape without repainting them or replacing parts. Where applicable, PDR is faster, cheaper and greener,” saysTr a v aglini. “Together with spot repair, it is also replacing traditional body shop operations.”

St. Ivany also describes Dent-ology’s process for repairing dents as a “massage” – but there is also a glue pulling process for dents or hail damage not accessible from the underside.

“There are a variety of hot glues safe for today’s automotive finishes that can be used in conjunction with plastic PDR glue tabs. When the glue is cooled, the technician will then, with a certain degree of force, pull the tab away from the surface, thereby removing the dent,” he says.

Nationwide Overspray’s c o m p l i a n c e m a n ager, Bryan Lochhead, describes a third way of repairing the dents that involves vibration. “A technician can manipulate the metal by using a speciality hammer and creating a vibration through rapid movement and moving the metal in a desired direction,” says Lochhead. “In some cases the [massage, glue and vibration] processes can be combined to get a better result.”

Apart from hail damage, this Nationwide PDR technique can also be used to repair door dings created by parking lot knocks, as well as certain other categories of dents that fit within the limitations of PDR. According to Lochhead, many facilities use this type of repair, including auction houses, auto railheads and used car dealers.

“Since there [are] normally no major replacement parts needed, it really helps to reduce the cost of a repair versus the conventional part replacement and painting process. This process is also much faster, which also helps to reduce the cost of the overall downtime of the car,” he add s.

‘Push to paint’ and overspray
Rhode Island, US-based Dent Concepts specialises in a technique designed to repair vehicles with hail or ‘overspray’ damage – paint from other sources on the vehicle – without compromising the integrity of the factory finish. In some cases, repairs are also needed prior to reapplying paint, but they can still minimise the cost and time of traditional processes. The company’s president, Anthony Natale, explains that spare parts are often not as easily available in certain countries, so the Dent Concepts uses a variety of methods to save damaged panels and minimise conventional repairs.

“Let’s say we are repairing a roof on a Jeep Liberty with 76-100 dents the size of a quarter [coin] and there is also cracked paint on two of the edges from several hailstones hitting the reinforced areas. We provide a service called ‘push to paint,’ which removes all dents in a few hours and makes the vehicle paint-ready the same day,” he says.

In most instances, Natale says the vehicle is painted the same day, reassembled, and put back in line the following day.

The process was initially developed in Europe and Australia as a result of the need to find a faster, more efficient way to process finished vehicles. Natale highlights that it is now normal for the company to process several thousand vehicles in this way in less than four weeks.

As well as hail damage, Natale points out that vehicles in transit can also be damaged by ‘overspr ay,’ which can occur when commercial painters are working in a nearby area or even up to ten miles away with the right wind conditions. In the event of an overspray loss, he says, although Dent Concepts would dispatch technicians and administrative personnel in the same manner, the repair process would be slightly different.

To b egin with, a thorough inspection is performed with the claimant, with all pre-existing damages such as chips, dents and scratches acknowledged verbally and in writing. A complete hand wash and polish process is then performed on all vehicles. Although he declines to reveal the exact details, Natale explains that Dent Concepts uses numerous “safe techniques” to remove contaminate material from all painted surfaces, glass, chrome and mouldings.

“We implement a specialised process to safely remove contaminates from mouldings and textured surfaces. It is a process very few technicians are familiar with,” he says.

Following this step, the company does exterior detailing that includes hand waxing, followed by cleaning and dressing the wheels and tyres. A final inspection is then carried out to ensure that no smudges or streaks are visible.

Cold facts of repair
Another paintless repair technique, called ‘cold repair,’ is employed by Naples, Italy-based Lever Touch Automotive Solutions. According to Giovanni Liccardo, general manager, the technique is applied without the need to work directly on the area of damage, thus reducing the risk of further scratches in the paint. Instead, a metal sheet is constructed “millimetre by millimetre” and positioned externally over the exact points of damage, helping to identify the exact pressure points necessary for the level reconstruction of the car body.

As a result, levers can be applied in a manner that is specifically tailored to each individual area of damage, to increase the accuracy of access and pressure for the reconstruction.

“At some points, rarely, where it is not possible to access with the levers, we use a suction system, which allows us to bring the damage from ‘negative to positive,’” says Liccardo. “This procedure allows you to have the same consistency as new, with the same quality assurance and result conforming to the original manufacturer specification.”

Liccardo is keen to stress that many of the company’s technicians are currently employed in the production lines of various manufacturers, with the specific objective of reducing the amount of handling necessary during the production process, and lowering the time spent carrying out repairs.

The on-site process for Lever Touch is divided into three main phases: a logistics pre-cleaning and disassembly stage, followed by a repair stage, and then an assembly and quality control stage. Liccardo describes these on-site repairs as a form of “crisis management” that tends not to “traumatise” the production and logistics processes of the manufacturer, but takes into account its quality requirements.

“We are normally able to act at the site of damages within 48 hours and are able to organise logistics specifically dedicated to the problem and the available space,” he explains.

In-house versus third-party repairs
Some vehicle processors or terminal operators will employ in-house or local staff to handle paintless dent repairs. Such a team can be found at Global Auto Processing Services (GAPS), part of the Hyundai-Kia logistics arm, Glovis America. According to Don Asdell, chief operating officer, the company has a small staff, experienced in paintless dent removal, and can accommodate a limited volume of damaged cars when required.

However, in instances when damages have impacted a large number of vehicles, GAPS works closely with the manufacturer and insurance company to select a qualified third-party company. Before executing necessary repairs, GAPS identifies the suspect vehicles and completes a survey. Vehicles are sorted into one of three categories: those that can be repaired using the PDR technique; those that can be repaired using conventional body shop methods; and those that will need to be scrapped.

Asdell says that hail, paintless-dent and smart repair techniques save significant time and cost when compared with conventional body shop methods. His view is that, if used appropriately, they can reduce vehicle dwell time and enable customers to carry out repairs to vehicles at a fraction of the cost.

“The most important factor is maintaining the quality of the vehicle and meeting our customers’ expectations,” says Asdell.

“We have a full body and paint shop at all of our locations where we would carry out any repairs,” he adds. “If the repairs can be completed in the yard then we would set up a mobile station that would consider environmental conditions and appropriate lighting.”

A ‘work of art’ needed around the globe
Car manufacturers echo this appreciation of PDR and smart repair techniques, highlighting the environmental as well as financial and operational advantages. For Chrysler’s Schmidt, the highly skilled techniques of trained PDR technicians amount to nothing less than a “work of art”. Looking ahead, he believes that the only enhancement to the process that comes to mind would be to see “an increase in the number of skilled PDR technicians around the globe”.

While such technicians might not be everywhere at once, they don’t need to be, since many companies in the sector have developed specialist teams that travel the globe following hail or other weather events to repair damaged vehicles. According to Ballsystem’s Travaglini, one of the added values of PDR is that it can be carried out without the need to move vehicles from one place to another, further reducing the risk of damage. Since technicians mainly use tools such as levers and lamps, he says that technicians can easily move equipment all over the world.

“When a hail storm occurs in an OEM or LSP compound, we’ll reach the location within 24 to 48 hours. After a first expertise meeting and having checked the severity of damages, we bring in our repair team that will start the repair process,” Tr a v aglini adds.

Like Ballsystem, hail repair specialist Dent Wizards has set up a team that is ready to move anywhere. According to Todd Yanak, business development manager for the company’s Catastrophe Services, in one example Dent Wizard hail technicians were sent to China to repair cars that had been damaged at their assembly plant in Europe and transported to China before repairs could be performed.

According to Yanak, once a catastrophic event occurs, Dent Wizard evaluates damages, writes estimates on damaged vehicles, and sets up a repair site. All vehicles are repaired on site and then proceed to a quality control station where a quality control manager reviews the car and confirms that all damage has been repaired and the vehicle is ready to be transported.

Nationwide Overspray runs a mobile response team that can respond within 24 hours. Bryan Lochhead says the team’s PDR technicians are dispatched from all over North America. Normally, a lead team is sent to the site as quickly as possible to meet with the client’s management and begin ordering the necessary equipment such as tents, special lighting and any other tools for the specific project, while coordinating with the company’s head quarters for reporting and client contact.

Nationwide’s Lochhead acknowledges that not every job can be completed using PDR techniques. “Like any other type of repair, PDR has its limits. When the repair is being done each dent is approached individually and in the case of hail damage this can be a daunting task,” says Lochhead.

To determine limitations, Lochhead says experts take into consideration the location of the dent, the size or circumference of it, the depth, and also the distance between dents. Then several factors have to be considered such as type of vehicle, steel strength and gauge, and also the type of metal, such as aluminium panels.

Getting closer to body shop territory
Lever Touch’s Liccardo echoes Chrysler’s Schmidt in saying that PDR is not just a business technique, but also “an art with a very specific know-how.” However, he also predicts further developments that will help to better standardise the PDR approach to problems and secure more quality standards to manufacturer specifications and certifications. Moreover, he believes that, in future, the activity of each operator will be assisted by increasingly refined tools, equipment and software that will help to speed up repairs and application methods, while also taking into account the development of new coating techniques and materials.

“This will lead to a greater professionalisation of the sector and also to a natural selection of technicians and companies operating in the market,” says Liccardo.

Meanwhile, Ballsystem’s Travaglini predicts that PDR will play a more and more active role in the repair field. As far as he is concerned, the technique will be increasingly employed within OEMs’ assembly plants to remove manufacturing defects. He even goes as far as to say that these methods will eventually be used to repair all the damage that does not require painting.

“Car rental and leasing companies will soon request their bodyshop networks to adopt this method of repair, allowing them to save money, time and stay in line with their green policies,” Travaglini says.

Other commentators agree that the sector will need to continue to adapt and improve in the face of constant materials and process innovation across the broader automotive industry. “I believe that the methods will need to be adjusted as manufacturers use different materials such as aluminium, carbon fibre, plastic and so on as part of their bill of materials,” argues Asdell of GAPS.

Dent-ology’s S t . Iv a ny explains that the technology associated with repair techniques and tool design continues to advance across the industry. “New tool models are quickly finding their way into the hands of technicians around the world, mostly in the form of lighter, stronger materials and designs or to address a specific type of damage or location on a vehicle,” he says.

For Lochhead at Nationwide, the PDR industry is always “very exciting,” and his view is that, although the repair process is likely to remain the same, there will be great advancements in tool technology. “The better and more advanced the tools are, the better quality repair we can deliver and that greatly benefits the automotive repair and logistical world,” he conclude s.