Quick work: Car painting and body repair go high-tech in Conshohocken

Ready for its 3D closeup: an SUV rolls down the line (note the track system under the wheels) in preparation for the first of two infrared heat treatments.

Uh-oh. How did that nasty dent and ugly scrape get onto the door of the previously immaculate family car? Your spouse or parent is going to kill you!

Or so this sad story used to play out.

Today, maybe not, thanks to auto-body refinishing technology making its East Coast debut at the 3D Auto Body & Collision Center in Conshohocken.

“If it’s just a one-panel repair job, like a door or fender, we can get you in and out in as little as two hours,” David Niestroy, 3D's founder and president, calculated at Thursday's official grand opening of the whistle-clean, tech-filled, 30,000-square-foot repair facility. “Bring it in by 9 a.m., you’ll be out by lunchtime. … This is the future of the business.”

And maybe your little repair secret to keep. To underscore the turn-on-a-dime capabilities, more akin to a speedy muffler/oil/tire-changing operation, this 3D Auto Body location (the seventh in the area) offers private waiting rooms where customers can hide out (to get their business or schoolwork done) until given the all-clear signal from the shop's location leader, Justin Wade, or one of his “teammates.”

Sadly, “Zero Day Job” miracles can’t be accomplished if you’ve really racked up the family ride, if parts need to be ordered, and body panels disassembled and straightened as well as painted. But with the innovative, efficient  “Symach System” technology and “just in time” production model being introduced here, “we can get the job done in maybe four or five days instead of a week or two,”  Wade said. Which can reduce stress load, labor charges, and rental car fees a lot.   

A lifelong car guy who started out repainting “bikes and lawn mowers at age 10 and cars at age 14,” the West Chester-born and -based Niestroy has “always been into pushing the technical boundaries” of his trade. “I had a cellphone and a business fax machine so early, there was nobody else to communicate with,” he joked.

Niestroy also jumped first for such tools of the trade as downdraft paint booths and plastic welders. Then a couple of years ago, on a trip abroad, he literally saw the light in Bologna, Italy — witnessing a robotic technology for speed-drying newly painted cars and trucks.

The system reduces drying times for body filler, primer, base-coat paint, and then double clear coats “to literally seconds,” and curing time to “less than a minute,” said Osvaldo Bergaglio, president of the Bologna-based and now global-reaching tech developer Symach. He also was on hand in Conshohocken on Thursday, along with Symach's USA vice president and sometime translator, Chad Seelye.

“Shops upgrading to the system” — which also includes car-disassembly stations, vacuum-sanding gear, and special lighting — "can double their daily and weekly output with half the number of workers,” Bergaglio said. It's the reason why Symach also is winning favor in “the Middle East, Australia, and Europe, where Mercedes-Benz, Audi, and VW dealers are very big” on the paint-while-you-wait service option at their dedicated “Fix Stations.”

The heart of the Symach system is the Drytronic generator, perfected with physicists from the University of Bologna. In scientific terms, what’s happening here is an “exothermic catalytic chemical reaction” – the result of combining hydrogen (sourced from natural gas) with oxygen (from the air) to “generate different infrared wavelengths covering an extremely broad spectrum,” Seelye explained.

As their UL-approved (for safety) light generators are waved a few inches in front of wet-coated body panels, the highly directed infrared heat (outputting at 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit)  triggers the release “of more than 85 percent of the energy contained inside the paint molecule from the inside out,” said Bergaglio.

By contrast, conventional paint-drying technology heats an entire booth and vehicle to about 140 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit, so “the metal body of the car gets hot first and then that dries” (in theory but not always practice) “the filler, primer and paint.” And that drying job takes about 40 minutes, not just one.

Friendly competitor Brad Pogachefsky, of Admiral Auto Body in Pleasantville and Mays Landing, N.J., was equally impressed with the Symach-developed “just in time” production technology he observed at the 3D shop opening.  This CarMover system rolls the vehicle in question down a rail track from work station to work station, then into a “SprayTron” booth for painting/drying and then into an adjacent  “Flydry” booth  for two clear coats/drying.

Smooth in more ways than one — we pushed a 4,000-pound SUV down the track with just four fingers —this task-sharer eliminates bottlenecks that happen in smaller shops, where cars have to be jockeyed around and work teams handle more than one job on an assigned group of vehicles.  

While just ramping up production in Conshohocken, Niestroy expects his new 26-bay shop will soon add “300 to 400” repair jobs a month to 3D’s business, and help the operation to grow “from our current $20 million to $25 million in gross sales to $30 million to $35 million annually.”