Collision Repair, Refurbishment, and Remanufacturing: Know Before You Go

Last month BUSRide Maintenance convened a remote meeting to discuss the intricacies of bus collision work, the benefits of refurbishment and remanufacturing, and the dangers of miscalculating major repairs. These are the results of that discussion.

Our panelists:

Ed Harmon – National Director of Operations, Southwest Region – ABC Companies

Steve Walther – Collision Manager – CoachCrafters, Inc.

Brad Carson – Director of Sales and Marketing – Complete Coach Works

Daniel Morrill – President – Midwest Bus Corporation

Brian Kaminskey – President / CEO – NEBR Fleet Management

When and why should collision repair, remanufacturing or refurbishment be outsourced?

Ed Harmon: For the majority of operators, outsourcing should be considered when a repair requires more than just replacing a part. Such as if the repair requires replacing a piece of the equipment’s tube frame or if it requires finish painting and matching to be performed. And the owner’s shop equipment and staff capabilities must be very specific depending on the work to be performed. A full gamut of experience and training is required in many areas including collision specialists, body and paint technicians, along with enough on-site work to support investing in all the welders, paint booth and pulling equipment. Owners can begin assessing whether to take on tasks by asking a few simple questions like: Have they performed major body repairs before? What is the estimated time for repairs and how that will impact fleet downtime? Revenue-loss should also be taken into the equation.

Steve Walther: Different variables should be explored when outsourcing services like collision repair, remanufacturing or refurbishment. However, the two major variables, operators should consider are the severity of the repair work and their resources availability. Large collisions or refurbishments can take months to complete. This runs a high risk of creating congestion in your mechanic shop and eventually cause major delays in repairs.

If operators are interested in conducting these services in-house, they must have resources availability. Ideally, they will need a team of technicians that can focus only on collision repairs and/or refurbishments to keep the different projects going. Operators will also need the necessary shop space to allocate each vehicle. Finally, they must also have dedicated and specialized repair equipment.

Brad Carson: Any work done on a bus outside of standard routine maintenance and inspection should be considered for outsourcing, as in-house repairs are disruptive to an agency’s core business. Time and resources spent on repairs, remanufactures or refurbishments may cause a reduction of manpower by taking staff away from their daily operations, resulting in a loss of revenue. In addition, agencies may not have the proper equipment or parts inventory to handle the work required which could further delay returning the vehicles to service. Due to the extensive amount of work involved, an agency should find an experienced company specializing in remanufacturers, rehabilitations, and re-powers. With a certified manufacturer, agencies can trust that their bus repairs or refurbishments will be handled with proper equipment and the buses returned in a timely manner.

Daniel Morrill: Larger accidents that cause the vehicles to be out of service for more than a month are better suited for outside contractors as the repairs can take valuable resources away from operations and maintenance.

Capital projects on fleets, such as: overhauls; refurbishments; remanufacturing and engine removal and replacements can often be completed much more efficiently by a contractor that is capitalized and staffed for these projects. Many agencies choose not to divert scarce space and human resources from keeping well maintained buses looking cosmetically sharp in order to take on repairs that can take months to finish. 

Minor, routine damage is typically conducted in-house in order to keep out of service time to a minimum. Most unanticipated mechanical failures are also repaired in-house, whereas predictable fleetwide replacements can be completed more efficiently through outsourcing. 

Brian Kaminskey: The outsourcing of collision repair, remanufacturing or refurbishment would depend on the capabilities of the facility and the extent of the damage. Operators need to be mindful and avoid undertaking a repair that might exceed their area of expertise and not attempt to perform the repair without the proper training and tooling. Repairs requiring paint work should be performed by a certified paint technician in a facility that meets required safety and cleanliness standards. It is also recommended that all structural work be performed in a manufacturer certified shop as this will guarantee that all repairs will meet or exceed OEM standards. This will ensure that the standard manufacturer warranty of 12 years will not be impacted by the repair and will remain intact. Too often we see warranties voided by in house repairs made by operators that are not up to standards.

What can go wrong if these larger repairs are conducted in-house?

Kaminskey: Performing in house repairs requires manpower and dedicated space for the repairs to be performed as the repair process is much more involved than the day to day maintenance of the equipment. Depending of severity of the repairs, equipment can sometimes be out of service for several months, occupying valuable shop space and tying up experienced technicians, taking them away from their day to day activity. Quality assurance/safety is also a concern with heavy collision repair as multiple systems can be compromised requiring technicians with specific skill sets to address repairs in these areas. By utilizing technicians certified in their respective skill we can ensure that all repairs will be made to OEM standards and will guarantee that the warranty of the bus not be affected.

Harmon: Not being properly outfitted with the right industrial-grade tooling and lack of familiarity with the skills and techniques required by and associated with the collision repair trade can lead to all kinds of issues. From improper sealing of critical components or panels leading to corrosion, wind noise and leaks. Not installing drain holes in frame sections to avoid bursting in winter months when a piece of tube steel fills with water and then freezes. Not making proper welds. All the way to ordering parts that may not be right, causing delays in getting the bus back out on the road in revenue service. Sometimes they are special order or “make” components that cannot be returned. The added cost of the multiple and incorrect or damaged parts is the repairing shop’s responsibility. Outsourcing to a qualified facility is most important! Addressing a collision repair with qualified and experienced technicians, in facilities with the infrastructure and parts inventory to completely, quickly and correctly perform the repairs should be the first priority.

Walther: In-house repairs of this magnitude take a large amount of time, space and manpower. Transit agencies need their bays and technicians available to perform running repairs or quick parts exchanges to get the buses back in revenue service. Operators may invest their time and manpower into a major repair and realize that they will not be able to successfully complete the repair due to the required skillset or equipment. Consequentially, increasing the time the bus is down and the cost of the repair.

Carson: In-house repairs drive up costs as staff are pulled away from their standard maintenance work. Extensive work requires highly experienced and specialized technicians. A lack of expertise and improper equipment can cause damage to the buses. A loss of valuable bay space will also drive up costs depending upon the amount of time the repair takes. Parts investment and procurement that are not normally housed in inventory, take a lot of administrative resources, which result in extended downtime. Outsourcing can help agencies achieve significant cost savings and reduce downtime. With streamlined processes, parts inventory immediately available, and physical capacity, manufacturers can accommodate multiple repairs in an efficient and timely fashion.

Morrill: Much of the larger scale remanufacturing and collision repair projects involve materials and expertise that are outside the scope of normal maintenance operations. The need to procure less common transit components and diagnose unusual issues can cause delays and increased costs at every stage of the project. The larger the project, the more is unknown and much of the damage is often only discovered after disassembly. 

As a certain degree of disassembly and testing is often required to determine the extent of the repairs, best practices encourage the involvement of experts from early in the process. 

Are there hidden factors which drive up collision repair costs?

Morrill: Structural and electronic issues are not always easy to detect from the exterior inspection and can be very costly to correct later in the process. It is important to understand the common areas of structural failure related to the type of incident. It is also important to understand the full interaction between components impacted by the collision so that all systems properly interface when the repairs are completed.

Harmon: Damage that is literally hidden from view upon inspection can really impact time and costs. Things that are not visible during inspection can include cracked transmission housing, snapped fuel tank straps, passenger seat damage, cracked motor mounts, etc. Also, once repairs are underway and a side panel is pulled off, sometimes we find corrosion on the frame. Of course, that all needs to be cut out, replaced and straightened all while keeping the vehicle in alignment during the repair.

Unfortunately, if you cannot see these damages, then you can’t properly estimate the repair. Obviously, this can drive up costs since they have not been budgeted for and lead-time for parts and the in-service date to repatriation takes much longer than expected.

Walther: The most common “hidden” factors are structural components. It requires the affected area to be disassembled to see the complete extent of the damage.

Other examples of critical hidden factors are frame damage and internal engine damage. Most of the time these types of damages will considerably increase the repair costs. Hidden factors in major collision repair work can be tricky. The good thing is that most of the time, we can give our customers a heads up of potential hidden damage due to ours experience and expertise.

Carson: Different factors affect the collision repair final cost estimate such as labor, parts, and hidden factors. “Hidden” factors are those that cannot be seen during the initial evaluation of the bus. These factors include structural or frame damage that might not be visually apparent as they are concealed beneath the obvious damage. These factors may increase the repair costs and cannot be calculated until after the vehicle is disassembled.

Kaminskey: Buses of today are designed with passenger safety in mind. With the integration of crumple zones to collapse and absorb impact the necessity for a comprehensive inspection of electrical components, interior components, and the chassis following an accident is paramount. When a vehicle in an accident a visual inspection does not reflect the full scope of the damage. As the bus is dismantled the true extent of the damage is then revealed. 

In many instances accident damage will extend to electrical control modules and harnesses that are deemed unrepairable thus driving up the cost of the repair. If chassis damage is found this can often require the removal of additional interior and exterior components beyond the damaged area in order to properly perform the repair to OEM standards. Chassis components can be costly and come with lengthy lead times potentially downing a vehicle for an extended period. The chassis is the foundation on which the vehicle is built, and repairs need to be precise to ensure proper alignment of all subcomponents. Repairs of this nature should only be undertaken by shops with extensive experience and expertise in this area to mitigate missteps that can drive up the cost considerably.

What technological advancements are advancing this area of maintenance?

Carson: In a technologically driven society, innovation is of the utmost importance to maximize our company’s efficiency. Our skillset and equipment being utilized effects our goal to minimize downtime. An example of our high-quality equipment includes our certified frame puller which straightens the frame to its original shape. We also utilize precision guided leveling tools which help us measure efficiently and accurately. In addition to our technologies, our skilled craftsmen and ASE certified technicians are highly qualified to ensure the success of our repairs.

Harmon: Although there are a number of individual developments that are moving collision repair, refurbishment and remanufacturing forward, there are two often overlooked tools that are continually being improved to help customers and shops find what they are looking for with a high degree of accuracy and in my mind are instrumental to decreasing the overall time a vehicle spends off the road and in a shop being repaired or refurbished. VIN-specific part identification and electronic access through manufacturer-hosted portals to access the exact part/s that are needed plus the ability to order on-line. This saves all kinds of time and effort when the parts you order are right the first time.

Another tool we found recently and added is a software called Trello. It helps us to organize the production environment in such a way as to keep the work moving through our shops with the fewest pauses. All jobs became instantly visible, showing us in real-time its status. We have been using this software for a little over a year now and have seen improved performance in every aspect of the production environment especially our ability to get vehicles through the shop with the least amount of wasted time and the most possible amount of up time for the vehicle/s being repaired.

Walther: Laser-measuring techniques, computer diagnostics and frame equipment are all moving the ball forward. High advanced machinery has increased precision and decreased errors in repairs. Other advancements also improving repairs are paint technology for an improved finish. There is also new day to day materials that increase the quality and durability of the repairs.

Morrill: Normally, any technological advancements adopted by OEMs in new bus design are well established and with reliable and easily adaptable modifications available by the time refurbishment or remanufacturing is desirable. As such, refurbishment and remanufacturing provide an opportunity to upfit components like electric cooling or ADA upgrades. 

Certain components are also appropriately incorporated into refurbishment or remanufacturing projects as an appropriate testing ground. Technological advancements that are first incorporated into the aftermarket are normally cost saving or lower maintenance improvements that are not safety sensitive. 

Kaminskey: As an Authorized BAE Dealer we have seen first-hand the advancement and improvement of hybrid, electric, and battery technology and the benefits experienced by operators that incorporate these advancements into their refurbishment programs.

With innovations in technology achieved by BAE, component reliability continues to improve minimizing any downtime due to failure.

Why should operators opt to refurbish or remanufacture rather than buying a new bus?

Harmon: Many operators have coaches in a replacement cycle keeping the average age of their fleet in line with customer expectations, so refurbishment offers a way to keep an older coach in a fleet as newer models are added. This then allows operators to align their fleets replacement schedule as older coaches eventually turn into trades for new coaches.

With increasing advancements in technology, new body designs, electronics and other amenities inside the coach, ABC has developed “Upgrade Kits”. These kits can renew the look and feel of your fleet with many of the amenities and features of a new coach. We have developed a new look to the front clip and, in some cases, rear caps for most major brands. These kits are designed to update the look and curb appeal of the coaches. Upgrades, from 360-degree camera systems, LED lighting, and USB outlets, to tire pressure monitoring systems and a host of other upgrades can be incorporated into your fleet of existing coaches. With the competitiveness of the end-user markets, having new, updated, clean coaches, with the latest tech features is often required to stay competitive. In the wake of the COVID pandemic, a relevant area that may impact coach refurbishment and retrofit will be new CDC-recommended guidelines to help owners conform to the needs of their customers. Customers will dictate how they want the buses configured in order to feel comfortable getting back on board.

ABC’s new CLEANS (Contact Limitation & Eradication of Airborne Noxious Systems) program is currently available to help operators quickly adapt to the new clean standard passengers and drivers will expect. Our program offers a “layered approach” that uses a variety of industry-proven disinfection and sanitization tools, technologies and systems focused on fleet deep cleaning specifically designed to enhance air quality, sanitize surfaces, and create barriers to separate drivers and passengers. With options including electrostatic fogging and HVAC purification to UV lighting and passenger and driver partitions, owners can create a customized package based on their needs in conjunction with their own policies and procedures. 

Walther: Midlife overhauls are an excellent alternative over purchasing new vehicles. Primarily, they extend the life of a transit vehicle, allowing customers to maximize on their investments. Another advantage is that they will keep buses out of the shop by reducing service issues and improving reliability. And of course, it will provide customers with cost savings! The cost of a bus refurbishment is a fraction of the cost of a new bus purchase. Operators should definitely take advantage of the federal grants offered for refurbishments.

Carson: A bus refurbishment provides value beyond just extending the life of a bus. Monetary savings are substantial as refurbishing a bus costs a fraction of purchasing a new one. Bus purchases often require training to understand and operate new bus configurations. By refurbishing a bus that is currently operating in an agency’s fleet, maintenance costs are reduced as drivers will not require extensive training due to their familiarity of the vehicle.

Additionally, refurbished bus platforms do not change, therefore an agency’s parts department is already stocked with parts used for routine maintenance. The time needed for a remanufacture varies, depending on the scope of work involved; however, remanufacturers can begin work on refurbished buses immediately after the contract agreement is finalized. This prompt start enables remanufacturers to deliver the bus back to the customer in a matter of months rather than years, as opposed to the purchase of a new bus because the order may not be fulfilled until inventory is available.

Morrill: Here is a list of reasons to consider:

1. Fit for Circumstances – The 12-year minimum useful life model does not fit all circumstances that operators face. Some operators minimize their annualized cost of ownership by remanufacturing their vehicles at mid-life. Some operators are looking to extend the useful life of their vehicles.

2. Cost – Fully remanufactured vehicles cost approximately half the cost of new vehicles with a comparable useful life. Smaller refurbishing projects cost less than full remanufacturing projects and can be modified to fit the needs of the individual transit provider. 

3. Availability – A new bus order can take many months to years from placing the order to delivery. These delays can be costly to operators in many ways from increased maintenance costs on existing fleets, increased fleet disruptions and other unexpected costs. 

4. Component Selection – Refurbishing and remanufacturing allow transit operators to keep familiar component models consistent with maintenance training and surplus availability. Outdated components and parts subject to higher failure rates can also be replaced with newer and better technologies. 

Kaminskey: Completing a half-life overhaul at the six-year mark allows operators to take advantage of extended warranties in order for them to set appropriate maintenance budgets and minimize future downtime. Beyond the advantage of cost savings, operators can extend the life of their vehicles by more than 50% leveraging their asset for upwards of 12 years.

In the case of complex electrical systems, when should operators know to replace rather than repair?

Harmon: My best advice here is to get advice. When troubleshooting complex electrical systems, always refer to wiring diagrams and instructional information showing the proper troubleshooting steps to take. If you don’t have the information readily available, call and get it. Our company, as do many manufacturers and suppliers, offers on-line support to ensure that proper steps are taken during troubleshooting to avoid wasted time and causing damage to another component during the process. If not sure. Stop, ask, then follow directions. Many times, the part that has failed is not the root of the problem, but the result of a problem elsewhere. Experience and product knowledge can save you from damaging the new replacement part. Experienced Customer Care teams are there to help you many times are the most effective way to resolve your complex electrical problem in the least amount of time.

Walther: It’s usually best to replace rather than repair when dealing with electrical systems that have been damaged. This is due to their intricate organization and layout. For example, if the casing or housing is damaged, then this is a strong indicator that it allowed elements to access internal circuits. When the interior wiring is impacted, it will cause the electrical component to malfunction. It is only best to repair when the damage is minor.

Carson: Electrical components on a bus are vital to the vehicle’s operation and are becoming more complex with today’s advanced technology. Damage to an electrical component can cause a vehicle’s system to experience intermittent power failures and can become inoperative. Conducting repairs is not ideal as lingering issues can arise. To avoid these issues altogether, we recommend operators to replace the damaged components in order to have the vehicle functioning again quickly.

Morrill: This is a difficult question to answer as the cause of electrical failures vary. As a general rule, when the reliability of the unit is affected by continual electrical failures, it is more effective to replace versus repair. If there are only intermittent failures, repair to the system is advisable. 

Kaminskey: When determining to replace or repair complex electrical systems an operator should ensure that whomever is evaluating the system has the knowledge and training to make this decision. There are instances where the cost of the repair will exceed the replacement amount or where some items are simply beyond repair. This would need to be determined by a technician that possesses a thorough understanding of the electrical system. Training in this area is extensive and can be costly with many operators electing to outsource these issues to NEBR as the most cost effective solution.

Please share a real-world example of a particularly difficult or complex structural repair you completed for a client?

Walther: One of the most memorable complex structural repairs we have encountered was a frame cracking issue. It actually caused many buses to be disabled from service, it was a major problem! We provided our client a repair solution by working closely with the OEM and performed our own engineering research. The solution we recommended was an engineered and reinforced structural-repair kit. However, it proved to be complex because of the required access to the rear framing, a critical area. The client was happy because it provided them a high-quality and solid reinforcement, while offering them cost savings as well. CoachCrafters proved in this case that complete parts replacement is now always better than repair! Based on our research, the reinforcement kit was more secure and durable.

Harmon: A couple years ago, we were awarded the opportunity to rebuild an articulated transit bus that was struck in the side of the tail section by a train. While the front of the vehicle was not damaged, the rear section, which housed the engine and transmission, was damaged badly. Upon receiving the bus at our shop, we learned that the bus body and stainless-steel frame were twisted and would not straighten without a significant number of relief cuts being made. Relief cuts were made to allow for “over-straightening.” When a pull is made, you must pull past the target measurement so that on the rebound the frame structure relaxes at the target in perfect alignment. Once alignment is achieved, a shoring structure was welded inside of the bus to maintain the critical dimensions and alignment while we re-welded and replaced all of the damaged sections. It was very fulfilling to have rebuilt such a badly damaged articulated bus and have it come out where all the exterior and interior panels lined up as if the bus were never damaged.

Carson: Over the years, we have had a countless number of complex structural repairs. One bus collision, in particular, arrived at our facility with its front and substructures severely damaged. At first glance, we were able to tell that this repair would require an extensive amount of work.

Our certified technicians carefully assessed each component. Our craftsmen then removed the damaged front structure. They cut, fabricated, and welded the front chassis. With our certified frame puller, they were able to straighten the rest of the damaged frame. In addition to the frame repair, they prepped and undercoated the undercarriage.

After the frame was brought to OEM standards, they reinstalled the front cap assembly, repainted the interior and exterior of the bus, and re-certified the CNG fuel system. The restoration also included realignment of the vehicle’s front end, as well as replacement of the wiper system, front dash/driver controls, defroster assembly, steering column assembly, wheelchair ramp, windshields, the front headlight assemblies, and floor coverings.

We’ve shared this story with the intent of helping those who may need to assess collision damage as it relates to the extent of repair work needed. We hope readers choose CCW as their preferred partner for all collision and fire repairs. We assure you that your bus will return to you properly repaired and ready for revenue service.

Morrill: Midwest completes some level of structural inspection on most projects it completes. These inspections range from a determination that no further action is warranted to very comprehensive inspection and repairs. One of the more complex structural repairs Midwest completed was a fleet of 33 New Flyer buses for the Mass Transportation Authority (MTA) in Flint, Michigan.

As a result of our inspection, MTA and Midwest determined that it was necessary to remove all of the lower skins and replace the lower side structure. All of the related, lower, corroded structure was cut out of the bus and replaced with new. In order to assure accuracy and quality, numerous installation fixtures were fabricated for the structural replacement and outer panel installation.